Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and historian. Her poetry, short stories, and reviews have delighted Strange Horizons readers since 2014. I spoke to her this week about her debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, available next month from Tor Books.
Why did you choose futuristic space for your setting? What books do you feel are your novel’s intellectual ancestors?
The simple answer here is that I write science fiction when I’m not trying to write anything else; it is my natural mode of expression for narrative. The more complex answer comes from what I find valuable and exciting and beloved about the Star Wars universe and about Frank Herbert’s Dune—these enormous, sprawling, visually lush, politically rich, space-based universes that are at the heart of space opera as a genre. It is the ‘opera’ part as much as the ‘space’ which interests me. Narrative which is high-intensity, high-drama: vivid emotionally and vivid conceptually. And far-future science fiction is my favorite place to interrogate large philosophical and ethical questions from sideways angles.
I mean, this book is concerned with what happens to people who live under conditions of cultural imperialism and how best can a civilization honor and maintain the memory of its ancestors. But I’m looking at it from a place where the cultural imperialism is created in part by wormhole travel mechanics, and in part by the standard imperialist practice of devaluing local cultural production and labeling it ‘barbarian’; where the memory-maintenance is done by actual transmission of the minds of ancestors, or by cloning, or by intense emulation of model people from epic poetry. Sideways angles to examine intense questions by.
The plot structure of this book is heavily inspired by classic spy novels. I read a lot of John le Carré, and what I adore about his work is both the intense internality of a protagonist engaged in spycraft—how they have to think about what they’re doing from multiple, mutually contradictory angles, all the time. Le Carré and the political thriller/spycraft novel is certainly one of this novel’s intellectual ancestors. And the aforementioned Dune, certainly—that’s a very deep ancestor of this kind of political space opera. But if this book has a true antecedent it’s CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series, particularly the first six books (which, to me, form the heart of the arc of the series). Cherryh’s diplomat-embedded-in-an-alien-culture, dealing with assimilatory and existential pressures in a time of political crisis, Bren Cameron, is a direct ancestor of my Mahit Dzmare.
Except Bren’s aliens are actually alien. And Mahit’s just think she is.
What are ways that your scholarly research in Byzantine history informed your book?
The book is in a lot of ways the fictional version of what I did a postdoctoral project on at Uppsala University in Sweden. My research there was about the contacts between Byzantium and the ‘eastern frontier’, particularly Armenia, during the eleventh century—and how those contacts were remembered, represented, and narrativized by the people who lived through them. The project was very much about borderlands as trauma spaces, about history and memory as narrative repairs to a wounded sense of the world. This book came out of that project, and a lot of previous research into the history of imperialism, its methods and horrors and seductions.
But the short version of how Byzantine history informed this book is as follows: in the year 1044 AD, the Byzantine Empire annexed the small Armenian kingdom of Ani. The empire was able to do this for a lot of reasons—political, historical, military—but the precipitating incident involved the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a man named Petros Getadarj, who was determined to prevent the forced conversion of the Armenians to the Byzantine form of Christianity. He did this by trading the physical sovereignty of Ani to the Byzantine emperor in exchange for promises of spiritual sovereignty. When I started writing A Memory Called Empire, my inciting question was: what’s it like to be that guy? To betray your culture’s freedom in order to save your culture?
And I would not have known how to ask that question, or explore its answers, without having been a Byzantinist.
How do you wrestle with colonialism and ethics in your story?
With difficulty and with attention. I’ve already talked a lot about the general set-up of the colonialist power—Teixcalaan—and how it both culturally and militarily threatens the independence of my protagonist’s home, Lsel Station. But essentially, I feel as if empire is something that is either taken for granted in space opera—uninterrogated, simply present as a fact of worldbuilding—or it is rendered so evil as to be incomprehensibly bad (what does the First Order in Star Wars, for example, actually do for any of its citizens?) And empire is nastier than both those options. It is a kind of poison that gets into the groundwater, and it can be very, very pretty while it strangles a culture.
I’m an assimilated American Jew, myself. My immediate history is of being a somewhat-tolerated member of an imperialist power, not of being from a culture which was colonized. But these questions: the questions of what if you find yourself loving what is poison to you, even though you know it is poison—I mean, I wrestle with this all the time. I like Wagner operas, for instance. I have paid a great deal of money to see a full Ring Cycle, and I’d do it again. And yet I know what Wagner believed about my people, and how interlaced those beliefs are into all of his work.
It’s not the same as being from a colonized culture, of course. But it’s where I first got caught on the idea. And then I studied an empire that believed so profoundly that it was the mirror of heaven, the extant known universe, the only place where the world was true and right, and I found that empire beautiful, and I wanted to know why it was so easy to be seduced.
What is the role of poetry in your book?
Poetry is absolutely central to this book, because poetry is absolutely central to the expression of Teixcalaanli culture and the demonstration of civilization—of civilized skill —that being Teixcalaanli demands. Teixcalaanli literature—which is in many ways based on Middle Byzantine literature—is a literature that centers poetic forms. In part this is because their literature is one which is performed out loud in political settings, so oratorical verse, with rhythm and meter, is a valued skillset amongst the intelligentsia. (The poetry contests in A Memory Called Empire are a little bit like rap battles with politics in. Think of the Cabinet Battle songs in Hamilton and you’ve got the idea pretty much solid.) Most of Teixcalaanli classics are epic poems—and a lot of Teixcalaanli culture is expressed in verse and song.
I wrote three full poems and many partial ones for the book, including two versions of the same protest song, a political intervention in the form of a three-line epigram, and a public safety message that used to be part of an epic about city-building. A great deal of the plot of A Memory Called Empire moves through the speaking of, transmission of, and use/reuse of poetic form: there’s a poetry contest that prefigures a war, for example, and the aforementioned protest song first incites a riot and then is used to calm it down. Poetry is capable of all these things; I am not instilling it with any special quality that it lacks in the world we live in. Anglophone Western culture of the 21st century has mostly relegated the political power of poetry to in-group settings: the open mic, the protest rally. But poetry has a political valence which is widely recognized elsewhere, both currently and historically.
What idea sparked the Imago Machine? Why did you include it in your story? Would you use it if it were available to you?
I was thinking about how a person could be haunted, actually. The different kinds of being haunted: by situations, by your ancestors and their actions, by what has happened in a particular place. And about ghost-possession, and how that might be useful, if the ghost had information.
Also, I am obsessed with generation ships, and concepts of resource scarcity, and I was trying to work through a thought experiment about what might happen if the most important thing a culture needed to preserve was how the hell do you pilot this ship.
The imago machines came out of that. And also out of thinking a lot about the nature of memory itself, of consciousness and continuity. I kind of blame Peter Watts and his Blindsight, at a very significant remove (his consciousness work is much more scientifically accurate than mine, and his philosophical conclusions vastly grimmer). But that’s where I first started thinking about continuity and sapience/sentience.
Would I use an imago machine? That’s really two questions. Would I allow myself to be recorded and passed down? Yes, absolutely. Would I, in my mid-thirties, be willing to combine my consciousness with a long line of other ones in order to maintain or obtain a skill? I don’t know. It’s a terrifying idea, to give up so much individuality for the sake of the whole.
I guess it depends on the skill, really. And who the imago used to be. And how much we need both of those things.
Tell us about queer representation in your stories.
My work reflects the world I see around me, which means there are a great many queer people in it, of varying sorts. This is true throughout everything I write.
In the Teixcalaan universe specifically, I wanted to explore a culture (several cultures, in fact), where reproduction had been unpinned almost entirely from both gender and sex, since 99% of babies are grown in artificial wombs and at least partially gene-designed. This let me have queerness as a somewhat neutral state—Teixcalaanlitzlim don’t much care who a person has sex with, or what gender they are, and neither do Stationers. Queerness is pervasive but not plot-bearing in this book.
Which let me do things like having all of the political trouble that the bisexual cis male character got into be completely not about how he had relationships with both men and women, but about who those men and women were.
And also it let me write a slow-burn lesbian romance where the conflict is about cultural incompatibility, not the sexual orientation of either participant.
Queer people are people, is what I’m saying. It’s nice to write them without having to mark them in some particular way.
How has studying city planning influenced your sense of cities in your writing?
There is an entire subplot about a subway routing algorithm in this book, which is both straight out of any ‘smart cities’ course and also deeply influenced by how urban planning is a long history of seeing, and not seeing, the people who live in them. And about how algorithms are biased because they are made by people. Working in city planning makes me consider the city as an organism, as a machine for living in (to deliberately misquote Le Corbusier). And that is reflected in the City which is the Jewel of the World in A Memory Called Empire—a thing which is almost alive, and almost thinks, and serves and misserves its residents in equal measure.
Describe some of the ways that fan fiction has impacted your life.
Ha! I met my wife, Vivian Shaw, because I left her elaborate comments on some Star Wars fanfic she was writing in January of 2016. So it’s pretty safe to say that fan fiction has completely transformed my life—it is how I found the person who is my person, and we found each other because we were compelled by the same kind of stories, interested in telling and retelling them—to the world, and to each other.
Which is the magic of fanfiction in its entirety, even sans the epistolary-romance-ending-in-marriage angle. Fanfiction lets you share the kind of story you like with other people who take delight in it, too, and lets you participate in making that sort of story for those people.
Also one time I made a bunch of graduate students climb the Galata Tower in Istanbul and read Byzantine histories and fan fiction in parallel. So that was fun.
Tell us about your Reckoning 4 project.
I’m incredibly pleased that Michael DeLuca, the editor in chief of Reckoning, brought me on to guest edit the fourth issue. Reckoning is a journal of creative writing on environmental justice—it’s heavily climate-focused and deeply embedded in exploring the relationships between humans and ecology. The issue I’m editing is centered on humans and the built environment—cities, buildings, structures, anything that humans make that intersects with the environment in a spatial sense.
In editing this issue I wanted very much to look for more climate change-oriented SFF and nonfiction which was focused on cities and on symbiosis between ‘gray’ and ‘green’ infrastructure as well as symbiosis between human, natural, and constructed systems. I work in climate mitigation & adaptation in urban environments as a city planner. I want to use this issue to dream about it, too: to think of the future city as a place that might be a living system.
We’re open to submissions until September 19.
What’s next for Arkady Martine?
Right now I’m finishing up the direct sequel to A Memory Called Empire, which is titled A Desolation Called Peace. Yes, I thoroughly stole the title from Tacitus. But it’s the best line. It’s Tacitus writing in the voice of Calcagus, about Roman imperialism. Rome makes a desert and calls it peace. And the words for ‘desert’ and ‘desolation’ are sort of the same. A desolate place. An emptiness. The book I’m writing is about incomprehensibility and impossible wars. A lot of it happens on a Teixcalaanli battleship. There’s interstellar mail fraud. And a kitten. (Technically, several kittens). Also a maybe-genocide, some extremely unwise kissing, and the usual dose of political machination.
I’m also working on two other novel-length projects. One is a science fantasy co-written with my wife Vivian, which contains, in no particular order, a post-nuclear-war desertscape, mass-concentration-inducing minerals, a dead city that talks, a political romance, a pre-fab imperial colony town, a steppe kingdom with a city on a mountainside, a possibly-alien or possibly-magic local king, and a geologist/mining engineer who ends up becoming a cartographer (amongst other things). The other is the novel I’m currently calling ‘the one about drought politics, the Santa Ana winds, and arson investigation’, because I’m terrible at titles if I don’t get to steal them from Tacitus. That one is my cities & climate change novel, and to my fascination and despair, it seems to be about Los Angeles. As a New Yorker, I find this a bit distressing. But that’s what I get for really thinking about how Raymond Chandler books work, and whether they could fruitfully be combined with Peake’s Gormenghast and Tana French’s Trespasser.