Blackfish City sinks under the weight of its unfulfilled potential.
Sci-fi author Sam J. Miller’s dystopian novel Blackfish City bites off more than it can chew. Miller creates an elaborate and intriguing floating Arctic city run almost entirely by advanced technology, only to populate it with garish yet depthless characters. With very little in the way of unique inner lives, the characters seem to exist merely to blurt out extensive backstory and hugely expository dialogue used to propel a melodramatic plot that borrows liberally from the most contrived bits of The Matrix, Blade Runner and Star Wars universes.
The wealth and power within the palindromic city of Qaanaaq are consolidated to a powerful few known as shareholders, whose identities are allowed to be kept anonymous. A labyrinth of geothermal heating pipes crisscrosses the city and armies of drones operated by both the shareholders and rampant crime syndicates mean that nearly every inch of the floating city can be surveilled by camera. But the denizens of this corrupt Gotham City on ice have their hardscrabble existence shaken up when a strange visitor comes to town: a brawny warrior woman riding on the back of a killer while.
As the story unfolds, we learn that this “orcamancer” isn’t some supernatural figure, but one of the remaining few from a society where people were “bonded” to animals, forming symbiotic relationships that makes them both physically and psychically more powerful as a result. A bonded polar bear and monkey eventually get thrown into the mix as well, and the psychic connection with these animals seems to emulate aspects of the strange mental connection that the people of Qaanaaq share after contracting a feared STD called “the breaks.”
Miller uses an omniscient third-person narrator throughout most of the book, breaking up the narrative into short chapters that swap the specific focus among a set of about a half-dozen characters whose disparate threads gradually entangle. Among them is Kaev, a cognitively battered journeyman fighter who loses bouts on purpose for his paycheck; Fill, a young man who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth; Soq, a genderqueer orphan who scraps for their living as a futuristic courier; Ankit, a city worker who finds herself drawn to Kaev; and, of course, Masaaraq, the mysterious orcamancer herself. On the periphery are a crime boss, a strange old man and a powerful shareholder who all play significantly into the plot but don’t get chapters told from intimate third-person perspectives.
These are a lot of moving parts, and unfortunately Miller doesn’t do enough to define his individual characters. Their dialogue all sounds uniform. Even more damningly, so do their inner thoughts, which Miller uses in a way that spends far too much time telling when he could be showing. By only skimming the surface of such issues as climate change, corruption, gender identity and oppressive technology, Blackfish City exploits these themes in an attempt to add depth to what is essentially a soap opera about long-lost family members converging in the midst of a sci-fi adventure à la the Star Wars franchise—in place of the Force and midichlorians we’ve got psychic bonds with animals and “nanites,” though the symbiosis between humans and killer whales or polar bears feels shockingly secondary to the focus on revelations about parentage. By refusing to explore the philosophical, social or psychological ramifications of the admittedly fascinating premise the book is built upon, or at least fleshing out its characters into unique and distinctive people, Blackfish City sinks under the weight of its unfulfilled potential.