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Martine-Desolation Called Peace-coverLike all good endings, the denouement of Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire feels more like a beginning. Teixcalaan has a new Emperor—Her Brilliance Nineteen Adze—but a reign that commences in the blood of her predecessor, who publicly sacrificed himself to defeat a coup, is hardly off to the most secure start. Mahit Dzmare, Lsel Station’s Ambassador to Teixcalaan, has gone home. But it is a home where, for reasons still unknown to her, someone willfully sabotaged the imago machine that carried the live memory of her own predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn; and Mahit’s own feelings for the Teixcalaanli Empire, and for Three Seagrass, her one-time cultural liaison, remain complex and unresolved. In this backdrop, there is the news that the Empire faces an existential threat upon its borders, from an alien species that is beyond language and beyond communication. If A Memory Called Empire begins in a haze of Teixcalaanli glory, its ending is more reminiscent of W. H. Auden’s elegy for another Empire: “Altogether elsewhere, vast/ Herds of reindeer move across/ Miles and miles of golden moss,/Silently and very fast.” (Auden, “The Fall of Rome”).

If A Memory Called Empire is a story about borders—borders between people, between ideas, between forms of power—then much of the action of its sequel, A Desolation Called Peace, takes place in an actual borderland: at the far reaches of the Teixcalaanli Empire, where its starship captains engage with an alien species that destroys Teixcalaanli vessels, commits unspeakable acts upon Teixcalaanli people, and speaks no language that is intelligible to human ears. And if A Memory Called Empire is about the borders that people throw up to separate themselves from each other, then A Desolation Called Peace, which is, in many ways, a classic First Contact story, is about borders that are impossible to even articulate (because there exists no common language), but whose resolution, nonetheless, turns into an existential question.

The events of a A Desolation Called Peace are recounted from three different points of view: of Nine Hibiscus, captain of the Teixcalaanli fleet; of Mahit Dzmare, brought to the fleet by Three Seagrass, in a last-ditch attempt to “communicate” with the aliens; and, back in Teixcalaan, of Eight Antidote, the ten-year-old heir to the Empire, who must navigate complex court politics and forestall disastrous decisions. Each of these three characters brings a different lens to bear upon the questions at the borderland: to speak, or not to speak, when to speak, how, to whom—and when to stop speaking.

1. “Language is A Map of Our Failures”

Language and borders come together in multiple ways in the character of Mahit Dzmare (the central figure in A Memory Called Empire), who is now expected to play the role of Alien Whisperer instead of Lsel Ambassador to Teixcalaan. While untranslatability is the formal problem that Mahit faces in attempting to craft a common language with the aliens, in a sense, it throws into stark relief the human untranslatability, mediated by the institutions of Empire, that characterised A Memory Called Empire.

At the heart of this is Mahit’s complex, fraught, and fragile relationship with Three Seagrass, that had culminated in an ambiguous intimacy at the end of A Memory Called Empire, and now sees them thrown together upon Nine Hibiscus’s starship, working to decode the alien tongue. “She could use an alien who was good at talking to humans” (p. 110), Three Seagrass thinks early on in the story.[1] Later on, Mahit wonders if Three Seagrass would be as fascinated with the aliens as she has been with her, “considering we are all barbarians” (p. 258). The internalized language of Empire, borders, and barbarians does not constitute the sum of Mahit and Three Seagrass’s relationship, but neither can they escape it (even in moments of intimacy, Mahit catches herself thinking in Teixcalaanli). It is Yskandr—now back in Mahit’s skull, in her imago machine—who finds the right words: “A barbarian pretends that civilization might grow in the small hours of the night, between two people” (p. 124).

In her poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” Adrienne Rich writes that “language is a map of our failures.” The words that Mahit and Three Seagrass use—the words they cannot avoid using, whether it is “barbarian” or a fragment of Teixcalaanli poetry that Mahit reaches for instinctively—are flags upon that map; and yet, as Rich also recognises in that same poem—“this is the oppressor’s language/yet I need it to talk to you.” By turns tentative, wary, and passionate, inhibited and yet not, Mahit and Three Seagrass evolve together like Rich’s poem, with knowledge of the oppressor and the oppressor’s language framing the struggle “to imagine a time of silence” and “the fracture of order/ the repair of speech/ to overcome this suffering.”

But Mahit’s own interior landscape is further complicated by the fact that it is not, for her, simply an oppressor/oppressed binary. Mahit has grown up a xenophile, in love with Teixcalaanli culture, and that makes her, in turn, untranslatable to the Lsel Stationers, whose overriding goal remains the preservation of Lsel sovereignty in the teeth of the ever-expanding Empire. Yskandr—and later, Mahit’s—love for Teixcalaan is supposed to be the weapon with which Lsel defeats an immensely greater enemy (“But what better way to draw a monstrous thing to its death than to use its functions against itself? Teixcalaan wants; its trust is rooted in wanting; it is in this way you and I will destroy it.” [p. 123]). The Lsel authorities’ single-minded determination on seeing Teixcalaan ruin itself in an inter-species war (thus saving Lsel from conquest) makes Mahit’s actions unintelligible to them, or at least, unintelligible in any frame other than a loyalty/treachery binary.

These multiple layers of untranslatability, inwards from alien to Empire to homeworld, are topped off by the spaces between Mahit and Yskandr. Their “integration” remains (inevitably) imperfect. Mahit’s question to Yskandr over whether he had realized that Lsel’s Councilor for the Miners was using him as bait is met with “the emotional equivalent of a flinch, a squirming sense of avoidance, of needing to think of something else.” (p. 125) Endocrine responses are their own language, a language that remains a “map of failures” even within Mahit’s own mind.

2. “Those People Were a Kind of Solution”

In his poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”—the poem that inspired Coetzee’s book of the same name—C. P. Cavafy ends by asking, “Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians/ These people were a kind of solution. (Cavafy, “Waiting for the Barbarians”; trans. Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard) If Darj Tarats, Lsel’s Councilor for the Miners, dreams of goading Teixcalaan on to self-destruction, enough Empire citizens are happy to oblige. Nine Hibiscus’s fleet thus becomes the theatre for domestic power play, with the outward-facing responses towards the aliens feeding back into their inward-facing engagement with the heart of Teixcalaan.

Cavafy’s poem is an excellent frame for understanding the complicated politics that plays out within Nine Hibiscus’s fleet. In “Waiting for the Barbarians,” there is a set of assumptions about what the barbarians are like (or not): “things like that dazzle the barbarians,” “the barbarians are bored of rhetoric,” etc., and the actions of the citizens take shape as reactions to these assumptions. We do not hear from the barbarians, and at no point does it seem that the citizens are interested in that either: barbarians, thus, become a device for the explanation and justification of Imperial actions.

For one faction upon Nine Hibiscus’s fleet, the aliens play exactly the role that the barbarians play in Cavafy’s poem. Here, of course, the “barbarians” are real, and they do come—leading perhaps to the most expected of reactions, an instinctive appeal to force. Extending Cavafy’s logic, the barbarians remain a kind of solution—either as that nameless threat that never comes, or as an example to be made, when it does come.

 3. “There is No Document of Civilization That Is Not Also a Document of Barbarism”

That brings us to the last of the point-of-view characters, Eight Antidote. The scenes featuring Eight Antidote bring us back to the heart of Teixcalaan, and the heart of Empire. But this is a darker heart than the one revealed to us in A Memory Called Empire, with its lightness and poetry (and failed coups). Now the war is on, and as various factions close to the Emperor vie for control, the possibility of destructive nuclear strikes upon the aliens’ home world begins to be mooted.   

 Walter Benjamin famously wrote that “there is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism” (Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”). The unfolding machinations in Teixcalaan as the war continues upon the borderlands present a particularly stark contrast with A Memory Called Empire, where Teixcalaanli civilisational superiority was manifested through culture and poetry. But it is the existence of the borderland that holds up the mirror to Teixcalaan itself, revealing the “barbarism” that its civilization believes it has long vanquished, and relegated to the other.  To Eight Antidote, that itself is something unintelligible, untranslatable: “And yet it was tenable to her to kill a whole planet to maybe stop a war. Eight Antidote didn’t understand. He didn’t want to understand” (p. 608).

At the heart of the Empire’s war plans—and Eight Antidote’s attempts to save Teixcalaan from its own barbarism—is, once again, the recurring problem of language and the borders of language and thought. We are given a sense of this in A Memory Called Empire, where the city occasionally acts as a single organism (memorialized in the striking phrase, “the jewel of the world heals itself”), and the Sunlit (the imperial police force) act in unison. In A Desolation Called Peace, that is taken further with the Shard, for the Empire’s military pilots: “the new programming, the collective proprioception—we keep feeling each other die, and there are so many, and I’ve turned off all my programming but I can’t stop thinking about it” (p. 666).

Not precisely a hive-mind, but something closer to the Kel in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire novels (or, to take a more distant analogy, but from a series that the Teixcalaan novels are in conversation with, Gaia in Asimov’s Foundation), the Shard seems designed to solve the problem of communication and translation in one domain (unsurprisingly, it’s the military where the technology is first perfected!)—while revealing, as the quotation shows, that seemingly perfect communication creates other problems. As the novel’s denouement shows, something like that can be put to the purposes of “barbarism” (indeed, for which it seems to have been designed)—but also, for something else altogether.

 4. “Other Barbarians Will Come”

In response to Cavafy, the great Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, wrote a poem called “Other Barbarians Will Come.” “And Why Should We Care?”, Darwish asks thrice in the refrain, before ending with “Will Homer be born again?/ Will myths ever feature the masses?”

In a novel about language and its limits, the silences stand out. And, in A Desolation Called Peace, “the people are silent” (Pushkin, Boris Gudonov). In A Memory Called Empire, the people make a brief appearance as the City is convulsed by riots, but in A Desolation Called Peace, they remain almost permanently off-stage. It is hard to imagine that the people would not have an opinion about Teixcalaan’s border war with an alien species, or even, for that matter, the development of paradigm-changing technologies such as the Shard, which would not take long to translate from military to civilian contexts. In Teixcalaan, however, it appears that the people—with Darwish—do not care, and are silent.

The silence of the people may well be a testament to the success of Teixcalaan as an Empire. In A Memory Called Empire, Nine Maize’s epigram reveals Teixcalaanli discomfort with plurality and the drive towards homogeneity; but even more than homogeneity, empires are comforted by quiescence. The ending of A Desolation Called Peace does suggest that that quiescence may no longer be an option. If so, then it will be fascinating to see in what manner Martine chooses to fill this silence in the succeeding novels.

Conclusion

A Desolation Called Peace is a worthy successor to A Memory Called Empire. It is simultaneously in argument with science fiction’s history of empires as protagonists, in conversation with familiar ideas such as hive minds and first contact, in engagement with the timeless themes of language and borders, while all the time managing to tell an entirely original story. There are also little delights scattered across its pages: one can spot a tip of the hat to Hamlet here, a mischievous riff off Star Wars there, a quick homage to This Is How You Lose the Time War elsewhere, and a memory of Ursula K. Le Guin somewhere else. And it is at its heart a human story that encourages us to think, as Mahit once encouraged Emperor Six Direction to think, about what it means to be human. Long after putting it down, readers are likely to find themselves in extended conversation—and occasionally, argument—with its principal characters.

[1] The use of the word “alien” to refer both to Lsel Stationers as well as nonhuman aliens also occurs in Memory of Empire.



Gautam Bhatia is based in New Delhi, India. He is the co-ordinating editor of Strange Horizons. His debut novel, The Wall, was published by HarperCollins in 2020.
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