Two books to his name, and suddenly, young author Sam J. Miller has proven himself a force to be reckoned with. Last year he released his debut novel for young adults, The Art of Starving, to much acclaim (and a nomination for the Andre Norton and Crawford awards, among others). Now, he’s back with something for adult readers—a science fantasy that is truly remarkable in scope. Blackfish City takes place in a near-future dystopian world that is what might result if you crossed Waterworld and Blade Runner with a touch of Philip Pullman. It follows the story of a larger-than-life Orcamancer (one who communes with whales, naturally) through the lens of the witnesses to her strange appearance in the water-bound city of Qaanaaq.
Only two generations after climate wars have led to the catastrophic destruction of the world’s most powerful cities, Qaanaaq is a new haven built to protect the rich from future disasters. The promise of safe haven there has also attracted refugees from around the world, transforming “Blackfish City” into a waterlogged melting pot. Initially, we view the city from the points of view of characters who span the socioeconomic spectrum: Fill is the grandson of one of the city’s wealthy founders; Ankit is a skilled politician; Kaev is an aging arena fighter and flunky of one of the city’s most powerful crime syndicate bosses; Soq is a genderless young daredevil skirting the edge of polite society as a messenger. Then there’s a figure of some mystery, known only as The Author, who writes and transmits the history of the city via a podcast called City Without a Map.
At first, this is a book more about a place than the people in it. Through these shifting viewpoints, we glimpse pieces of the place, while the excerpts from City Without a Map tie together those impressions with historical perspective. Later, as it becomes evident the city is struggling privately with a sexually transmitted disease know as the Breaks, the narrative grows more intimate. Some of our characters have it, while others fear it. It’s a mostly psychological disease, and always fatal. There’s no known cure, and a highly unusual side-effect: the ability to experience the memories of those earlier afflicted; it seems the sickness, whatever it is, creates a sort of collective memory tank within the persons infected. It’s a phenomenon not easily handled by the human mind—hence, the “Breaks.” In the end, the weight of all those memories will break you.
It turns out that this isn’t a story about a place. It’s a story about the breaks, and those who break, and about a mysterious woman who arrives in the city riding upon an orca and accompanied by a polar bear. She’s a wild thing, and carries a wicked spear. The laws of Qaanaaq mean nothing to her. She’s apparently the last of a different kind of human who shared close ties with animals; that is to say, she’s nanobonded to that orca. This perfect mix of technology and wild, shamanistic magic—and that iconic entrance—makes her the most compelling character in the book. And like our experience of Qaanaaq, we see this strange interloper through the eyes of the denizens of the city, and she becomes the thread that ties them all together. Her story, and her reasons for coming to this place, prove fascinating. Her presence there could mean the city’s salvation, or its ultimate downfall.
Blackfish City is an eco-punk thriller with startling implications for how climate change, technology, and the political machinations of the mega-rich could dramatically alter our future (even if our reality is likely to included fewer orcamacers). It may seem overtly fantastical, but this imaginary world is very much rooted in our current culture and climate (in both senses of the word). Sam J. Miller’s sophomore effort proves him a writer with real potential. Best to start here, and prepare yourself for many more strange journeys at his side.