Review: A Memory Called Empire

Arkady Martine’s Hugo-winning debut novel A Memory Called Empire follows in the footsteps of similarly lauded space opera series including Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary novels: texts that set out explicitly to critique the nature of empire and the assumptions that lie behind classic imperial space operas like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, the collapse of whose Galactic Empire heralds a new dark age. To repeat a standard observation, science fiction has its generic roots in narratives of colonial exploration; here we have SF texts that acknowledge and interrogate those roots.

Martine’s heroine is Mahit Dzmare, an ambassador from the relatively obscure but strategically positioned Lsel Station to the city-planet at the heart of the Byzantine-esque Teixcalaan empire. She’s been chosen for the job because of her love for Teixcalaanli literature, which is densely allusive, “impossible to over-read” and central to Teixcalaanli politics; but also because of her psychological similarity to the previous ambassador, Yskandr Aghavn, whose memories and personality have been implanted into her brain using a delicate piece of technology called an imago machine – something Lsel is keen to keep from Teixcalaan. Mahit’s job is to find out what happened to Yskandr, who has disappeared mysteriously in the line of duty, and, more importantly, to keep the wolf of Teixcalaan away from the door of Lsel Station, to protect her society from being colonised.

Much has been said about the strengths and limitations of Martine’s treatment of cultural imperialism: Catherine Baker, in a favourable review for Strange Horizons, discusses how the empire instils a longing in its subjects which it refuses to fulfil; Nandini Ramachandran observes that its understanding of cultural exchange as a one-sided devouring is somewhat flawed, and that Teixcalaan, for all its supposed hostility to non-citizens, opens itself far too easily to Mahit’s investigations; Nina Allan points out that the text never really asks us to encounter anything truly alien or strange. This is obviously an important aspect of the novel, given current trends in the genre and popular progressive thinking; but I’m not sure I have too much to add to the conversation about it.

What I am interested in is the novel’s exploration of differing conceptions of selfhood, which it has in common with both Lee and Leckie’s work. Neurological enhancement is frowned upon in Teixcalaan; it’s seen as cheating, as presuming to become something you are not. Thus the imago technology Mahit carries is anathema to her Teixcalaanli hosts, and in fact much of the novel’s intrigue comes from their inability to understand it: they persist in believing that Mahit is “really” Yskandr re-bodied, whereas to Mahit it’s more of a blend, two personalities coming together to make something that is more than the sum of their parts. A question that the novel comes back to repeatedly is, “How wide is the Teixcalaanli concept of you?” The answer? “Not as wide as Lsel’s.” This recalls the way in which Teixcalaanli culture figures anyone who is not Teixcalaanli as a barbarian: it points to a narrowing of perspective, an over-simplification that’s designed to exclude.

I’m interested in how we can compare Lsel’s expanded definition of selfhood to similarly expanded definitions in the Ancillary and Machineries of Empire series. The protagonist of Leckie’s trilogy, which begins with Ancillary Justice, is Breq, a ship-mind who becomes trapped in a single human body. Ships are not considered full people in the Radch empire the novel depicts, because acknowledging them as such would prevent the empire being able to use them indiscriminately in combat. Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit and its sequels, meanwhile, are full of split and doubled selves: Revenant Gun features two versions of the revolutionary mass murderer Jedao, for example, and in the first novel Jedao occupies the body of infantry captain Kel Cheris, using her to perpetrate an atrocity aimed at ending the repressive regime of the series’ world. In all of these texts, the expanded self threatens the cohesiveness and homogeneity of empire, its drive to categorise and simplify the other. They’re texts that seek to imagine new ways of being and resistance in response to totalising imperial influences.

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