Mahit Dzmare is an ambassador enmeshed in intrigue. The distant, resource-poor mining station she calls home, on the periphery of the vast Teixcalaanli Empire, is struggling to defend its independence from the Empire’s lauded, ever-expanding maw. The implant that should have equipped her with all the political and cultural wisdom of the old ambassador Yskandr, through neurological technology the Stationers have hidden from the Teixcalaanli gaze, has nothing to teach her of the last fifteen years. The mystery of what must have happened to Yskandr to stop him returning to Lsel Station and bringing his “imago” up to date for his replacement pulses underneath all Mahit’s efforts to make the Empire stop noticing her home. Half the Lsel Council, acting on the Empire’s demand for a new ambassador, are more than happy to have set Mahit up to fail. Meanwhile, the Stationers have learned that in the void of deep space beyond their asteroids lurks something even more threatening to their existence than Teixcalaanli power—and then, just when Mahit has learned to operate on Yskandr’s out-of-date advice, her imago-machine shuts down altogether, leaving her with nothing but her youthful affinity for Teixcalaanli literature to help her evade the machinations of rivals for high courtly power who have taken such a sudden interest in Lsel.
This compelling mystery, which entangles its inexperienced diplomat protagonist in a succession battle that spills over into rebellion and civil war, is both a tightly woven political thriller and an exposition on empire, poetry, knowledge, and power. The failure of Mahit’s imago-machine serves initially as a handy authorial device for letting the reader perceive the inner and outer workings of Teixcalaanli governance without the foreknowledge that would have made them second nature to a fully equipped Mahit and the elite official circles through which she must move. As the story proceeds, her quest to put herself back in touch with Yskandr’s memories and then to act on the implications of what they have revealed becomes a rich philosophical discourse on whether one’s personal and cultural memories can even stay one’s own once empire comes into contact with a people—and a discourse on how empire colonises through thought, feelings, and taste as well as overpowering military and economic force.
These are preoccupations shared by some of the most acclaimed recent works in science fiction, like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, which maps the spread of imperial hegemony through the adoption of Radchaai customs, or Aliette de Bodard’s In the Vanisher’s Palace, an intimate drama of postcolonial loss and desire. What sets A Memory Called Empire alongside them is the richness with which Martine imagines a centuries-long Teixcalaanli canon of literature, history, and culture, then makes its resonances turn the wheels of a plot where war is only one loaded intertextual allusion away—within a web of conspiracies that would call out to be labelled “byzantine” even if one did not know that the history of the Byzantine Empire (and, more recently, urban planning) is Martine’s professional background. (The narration hangs a lampshade on one of these inspirations when describing a younger Mahit, learning Teixcalaanli on the Station, as believing she was “a master of intrigues and byzantine plots.”)
This is a world where emperors manipulate their households to raise up their favoured candidates for succession and rebellious generals keep building power bases on the empire’s frontiers; filtering its historical inspirations through the ways empire manifests in the twenty-first century, it is also a world where citizens plug into public news feeds through baroque head-up devices called cloudhooks; city transport and police are controlled by opaquely prejudiced algorithms; aspiring bureaucrats are cramming epic poetry into their heads to succeed in competitive examinations; and mass media project Teixcalaanli culture across the charted stars through everything from trashy “militainment” dramas to fanfic in space.
The abundance and even the solid ground and open skies of Teixcalaan’s planet-sized city are luxuries beyond the ken of everyday existence in Mahit’s home sector, as pairs of epigrams contrasting the Empire’s core and periphery at the beginning of each new chapter remind us: out on Lsel, the tiny size of the population its resources can support and the urgency of preserving every worker’s hard-won knowledge has forced the Stationers to invent a method of duplicating one person’s consciousness as an “imago” inside the mind of another human host to keep their experience and memories alive. Unlike the idealised cultural points of identification for which the psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Jacques Lacan used the term, imagos like Mahit’s old copy of Yskandr are counsellors and mentors who talk back to their hosts, and who used to host their predecessors’ imagos themselves; the consequent “memory-chains,” sometimes dating back fourteen or fifteen generations, preserve the Station’s collective wisdom in sparse, unforgiving space.
Imago technology is, or should be, the Stationers’ biggest secret from the Empire, at risk of being revealed if the Teixcalaanli will for total knowledge of its territories ever gets too close. Grounding the narrative voice in the deep interiority of Mahit’s thoughts allows the story to explore the implications of such a mechanism (and the transformations it undergoes as she gets closer to reconstructing what Yskandr knew) for the host’s own sense of self, and their relationships with people the imago knew and loved.
The voice relaying Mahit’s observations to the reader simultaneously shows us just how deeply Teixcalaanli culture has shaped her points of reference for understanding the world. A courtier she meets on her first night in the city “looked like he’d climbed out of a classical Teixcalaanli painting: his features were unbelievably symmetrical: lush brown mouth, low forehead, perfectly hooked nose; eyes like deep brown pools.” Not only do we start being able to picture Teixcalaanli art; we see how axiomatically it is a yardstick for aesthetic judgement in the mind of a character who is not quite a subject of the Empire, yet is still subject to its hegemony in cultural as well as political and economic terms.
Indeed, the emotions of Mahit’s identification with Teixcalaanli culture and the course they take as the story develops give A Memory Called Empire just as much of its substance as the plot writ large. Mahit’s identity as “someone who’d spent their whole childhood wishing she could be an imperial citizen, if only for the poetry” is the reason she was chosen to replace Yskandr, an honour she could scarcely have dreamed of when she was a teenager studying Teixcalaanli poetry, inventing her own encryption keys based on Teixcalaanli grammar manuals, and choosing a name in Teixcalaanli language classes after the heroine of her favourite Teixcalaanli novel, one of the many imperial epics whose emperor and usurper characters are still living traditions for the Empire’s elite.
Already, at her first soirée in the City, Mahit is conscious of her presence as “an extremely proper barbarian” among the up-and-coming Teixcalaanlitzlim around her, understanding “about half of the allusions and quotations that slipped in and out of their speech.” (Remembering my own constant failures in jousting with a second language, albeit in a different relationship of centre and periphery, I sympathised.) Here, she first puts into words a theme on which the story will increasingly dwell, the “dumb longing of a noncitizen to be acknowledged as a citizen” that empire creates without ever satisfying:
Teixcalaan was made to instill the longing, not to satisfactorily resolve it, she knew that. And yet it wormed into her every time she bit her tongue, every time she didn’t know a word or the precise connotations of a phrase.
Teixcalaanli encryption becomes astoundingly wasteful drudgery when Mahit starts being worn down by diplomatic correspondence, expected to pronounce on everything from citizens’ business disputes with Stationers to curious letters about how Stationers celebrate their ritual days (working like Martine has in an academic profession deluged by email, I might wish my ever-multiplying messages would arrive on bespoke wax-sealed infofiches like they do in Teixcalaan). She quickly learns that the enthusiasm with which new Teixcalaanli poems were celebrated on the Station is a mark of backwardness rather than belonging in the eyes of world-weary Teixcalaanli literati, who gather at salons to read vital political cues from poets’ performances and sneer at unfashionable turns of phrase.
(The extent of linguistic geekery this book rewards is hinted at by the glossary’s offhand observation that “[i]f one wishes to pronounce Stationer words one’s own self, and has only Earth languages to go by, a good guide would be the pronunciation of Modern Eastern Armenian”—apart from names, we have not even seen any Stationer language yet.)
As Mahit, trapped ever so gently in the chambers of dangerous eminence Nineteen Adze, starts receiving her own coded warnings from allies and realising she has been drawn into a real-life court conspiracy, she starts to question whether it is still “an untoward degree of affection” for Teixcalaanli literature if one is living it, “in one’s own culture,” as well. By the end of the novel, the woman who grew up pretending to imitate the great Teixcalaanli poets is forced to write her own poetry in a last-ditch attempt to stop a civil war.
Yet Teixcalaanli culture, as the City and its literary culture continually remind her, is not hers. Teixcalaan’s ability to instill longing, never to resolve it, is empire, stoking its colonised subjects with desires to belong to the culture of the imperial centre which they will never be allowed fully to achieve; and yet empire sustains itself as long as its subjects carry on wishing for that very thing. If Mahit’s sense of unreality and disconnection at the literary salon, chatting to Teixcalaanli friends with drink in hand and realising that she is experiencing “[e]verything she had ever wanted when she was fifteen” is her first impression of Teixcalaan as a metropole, understanding that feeling as part of the structure of empire is her coming of age. Beneath her growing consciousness of “how barbaric” the endless succession struggles of Teixcalaanli epic have been, there lies the personal blow of understanding how poorly the culture she could take part in on the Empire’s periphery has equipped her to take part at its heart: not only will she never be able to hold her own in the competitive poetic games that constitute court life, she feels the humiliation of knowing “they wouldn’t [even] laugh. They’d be indulgent […] of the poor, ignorant barbarian playing so hard at civilization and—”
Teixcalaanli power lies, in fact, in how deeply its poetic conventions and the values they enshrine seep into how the Empire’s citizens and subjects think. (Why do we, readers of English-language SFF, even imagine that economic exploitation and frontier warfare are what people do in space?) The literary allusions that govern Teixcalaanli culture and society, such as an early explanation of how Mahit and Yskandr devised an honorific for her first mention of the Emperor to express both her respect for his office and the Stationers’ claim to sovereignty in their sector (by referring back to the epithet that the oldest history of Teixcalaanli presence in Stationer space had given the Emperor of its time), are crafted with needlepoint-fine detail; here, the point draws blood. Bowing to the Emperor in a pose that recalls a famous image of another past Emperor greeting the envoy of the alien Ebrekt, Mahit both asserts the Station’s independence and worries that “one symbolic allusion” might have marked her whole home as “inhuman” in the Empire’s eyes. The crowd at Mahit’s first salon can tell from a four-line poem about the import of flowers to the City not only which rival heir the poet is throwing his weight behind but precisely how the poet is threatening war. A later poem, composed by Mahit and her liaison Three Seagrass, spreads through the public feeds to spark a counter-coup with no more than a description of a child playing with a star chart, an ekphrasis of the building where Mahit has taken shelter, and images that name who is under threat from whom. There is no question poetry is political in Teixcalaan, or in the world where Teixcalaan could be imagined.
Out on the imperial periphery, however, one of Lsel’s councillors thinks back to a message she received “six weeks” ago by Teixcalaanli reckoning, then notices that “it is by such small degrees that a culture is devoured” —“she had not ever known to notice that a ‘week’ bore no resemblance to the rotation of Lsel, facing and unfacing again its sun.” The “more indigenous sovereignty” to which Mahit’s chief supporter on the Council looks would have to be sovereign not only in terms of political affairs, but also in terms of culture and thought: if not for empire, the Stationers would still describe the passage of time in images which matched their own cosmology. Teixcalaanli power, Mahit reflects as the insurrection of the rebel general One Lightning breaks against the palace, has manifested as “a crushing onslaught of symbolism” throughout her own and Yskandr’s memories. For all the unrequitable love that the Empire has breathed into its subjects, their relationship to it is still that of the birds Mahit spots in a palace garden full of red flowers, apparently satiated enough by the flowers’ sweet nectar not to fly off into the uncanny open sky:
Perhaps succor was enough to keep a whole population trapped, willingly.
Succor, and the fine mesh of a net. When she tilted her head to exactly the right angle, she could see it, strung silvery and near-invisible at the funnel’s mouth.
That fine net is being cast over Lsel Station only so that the Empire can expand further still, with an “endless self-justifying desire” in which the words for the empire, the city, the world, and the universe are all the same.
The fragile, compromised nature of selfhood under imperial power is evoked throughout A Memory Called Empire not only in Mahit’s unreachable longing to define herself through closeness to Teixcalaanli culture but also in the relationship between imago and host that makes Mahit’s consciousness so intimately strange. Three Seagrass, learning about the imago-machines and insisting that “[s]o much of who we are is what we remember and retell … Who we model ourselves on, which epic, which poem,” cannot be sure whether Mahit is truly Mahit or actually Yskandr; Mahit, for her part, wonders if there is “even such a thing as Mahit Dzmare, in the context of a Teixcalaanli city, a Teixcalaanli language, Teixcalaanli politics infecting her all through, like an imago she wasn’t suited for.” Mahit and the Stationers who sent her on her mission are well aware that a Lsel devoured by Teixcalaanli expansion would itself become “something that wasn’t Lsel at all, but Teixcalaan.”
A title like A Memory Called Empire, indeed, clearly invites those readers who enjoy playing textual detectives—the very ones who might immerse themselves most in Teixcalaan’s poetic world—to search the characters’ inner lives for memories that might dramatise how empire works. The strongest candidate by far is a memory that resurges into Mahit’s mind as she attempts to reintegrate what has now become a doubled imago of Yskandr. To integrate an imago, we learn, hosts are supposed to remember an early choice where they and the imago both chose the same thing; both, it turns out, had shared the same thoughts on reading the classic Teixcalaan history of expansion into Stationer space and reading its description of the Station’s triple sunrise. To have found their sense of home described so closely, although not even in their language, produced for both of them a “longing and a violent sort of self-hatred, that only made the longing sharper,” just as that impossible dumb longing to be acknowledged as Teixcalaanli pierced Mahit with anguish at that first literary salon.
That memory which integrated Yskandar’s imago into Mahit’s mind, allowing her to live her dream and orbit the Teixcalaanli court, is the titular memory called empire, which infiltrates your thoughts and your desires and your emotions so deep down that that you cannot even long for your colonised home except in the coloniser’s words.
Here, we are perceiving empire not just through the eyes of a novice diplomat and her mentor but also through the lens of postcolonial thought. Empire fills up its colonised subjects with desires to belong to the culture of the metropole and at the last tantalising moment throws them back into their ordained place as roughly as the slamming of a palace door. What Homi Bhabha calls “mimicry,” or the revelatory “double vision” towards colonial power that comes from this endlessly desiring position, becomes visible (in Bhabha’s words) at “the site of interdiction,” where the colonised subject is confronted with the reality that they will never fully be admitted after all. Mahit wants “simultaneously to climb back inside [a certain Teixcalaanli woman’s] mouth and shove her out of her lap” when the lover she takes at a pivotal moment comments off-handedly that if Mahit had been “one of us,” she would have wanted to do exactly what she has just done: that longing sharpened by self-hatred is the very same that marked both Mahit and Yskandr, reading a Teixcalaanli historian find the most eloquent words to sing of their space-station home.
The blending of the personal and intimate with the collectiveness that makes epic literature and narrative history meaningful, and with the coercive power that lurks behind the pleasing but insidious forms of imperial hegemony they represent, brings that site of interdiction into resplendent view. Martine succeeds in making the plot and Mahit’s interior arc turn again and again on the details of poetry and customs which are just as much the work of her own imagination, as clearly as if they were the cultural knowledge of the reader’s world. By the end of the novel, Mahit has made choices about her identity and loyalty that will surely reverberate into the forthcoming second part of the Teixcalaan duology, A Desolation Called Peace. (Perhaps here we might learn more about Mahit’s life on the Station before integrating Yskandr, a period that, apart from her voracious appetite for Teixcalaanli culture, is quite thinly drawn. A best friend is remembered early then practically forgotten, while a younger brother, whose possible fate gives Mahit an extra personal motivation for not giving up the secret of the imago-machines, is only mentioned more than halfway through.)
A Memory Called Empire is at once an immersive court conspiracy, an imaginary canon brought to life, and a meditation on the complexities of a colonised subject’s love for the culture which has colonised their own—a relationship that hangs in the balance as Teixcalaanli ships loom over Lsel, and something even more threatening to the Station or the Empire waits in space which not even the all-knowing, all-conquering Teixcalaanli Empire has been able to chart.