Thursday 16 July 2020

Sleeping Next To An Elephant

It’s often said in Canada that living next to the United States is like sleeping with an elephant: you are
A Memory Called Empire
does not seem like a
first novel.
(Image via Amazon)
affected by every twitch and grunt. It’s a phrase that came to mind when reading Arkady Martine’s debut A Memory Called Empire, a sprawling and richly imagined novel about hegemony and loss of culture.

Set in the capital city of the vast Teixcalaanli interstellar empire, A Memory Called Empire follows Mahit Dzmare the new ambassador from the much smaller Lsel Stationer Republic as she investigates the murder of her predecessor and navigates a political crisis that could spell disaster for both nations.

Martine has delivered one of the most Asimovian science fiction novels we’ve read in recent memory, while making the narrative uniquely her own. There are clear parallels to Asimov’s Caves of Steel, as an outsider partners with a local to investigate a killing in a sprawling steel megacity. Much like in that classic robot novel, this provides the reader a powerful cultural vantage point. But the ways in which American exceptionalism is subverted in each novel is different, and reflects the time periods in which they were written; Asimov was concerned with what he saw as a growing rift within American society between the educated and the uneducated, while Martine seems to concern herself with the nature of how a culture exerts its dominance on another. While Martine’s staging of a dominant culture grappling with self-preservation in a wider social network pushes our use of the American metaphor, the use of a wider lense makes Memory more interesting.

Adding to the intellectual richness of this novel is the way in which the Teixcalaanli cultural and governance practices are emblematic of an empire in decline. Their obsession with rote memorization and a pedigreed form of high literature aligns with the obsessive conservative culture of, for example, the British Empire’s heyday. Their preoccupation with the preservation of their own culture at the expense of creative and technological innovation perhaps mirrors the Bakumatsu period in Japan (I.E. pre-Commodore Perry). The portrait of a civilization in which bureaucracy has bloomed past the point of usefulness is painfully relevant today. It’s a portrait that again evokes comparisons to Asimov, as one can find parallels to the crumbling Galactic Empire of Foundation.

Theodore Judson once observed that history is often the secret weapon of science fiction authors, and by that standard Arkady Martine is armed and dangerous.
Arkady Martine's academic background
in Byzantine history helps inform
her excellent debut novel.
(Image via

And this examination of hegemony is in fact one of the strongest elements of the novel; how the children on Lsel Station are exposed to so much Teixcalaanli poetry that they ignore their own cultural output, and how Mahit is at once both drawn to the dominant culture and uncomfortable with its allure. To be blunt about it, the Stationers are sleeping with an elephant.

Throughout the book, Martine makes these cultures feel distinct, and delves into their unique social mores. The writing is clear and engaging, and while the science fictional aspects of the book are never overwhelming in their detail, they are interesting and believable. Given the quality of the writing and plotting, it is hard to believe that this is a debut novel.

Despite the hype for A Memory Called Empire, none of us had read it prior to its inclusion on the Hugo Award ballot. We are very glad that it got nominated because it is very likely to end up at the top of some of our ballots.

1 comment:

  1. This was my favourite book of the year so far. Great review!