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As I was preparing to write this review a piece of news surfaced, suggesting that up to half of the current living orca population might be dying off, poisoned by all the waste products, poisons, and plastics dumped in the sea. Apex predators as they are, any poisons eaten by the fish which make up the majority of the diet of resident pods (as opposed to itinerant orca) inevitably create a toxic buildup in their hunters.

In some ways, orcas seem like a metaphor. As a child, I was taken to SeaWorld, saw them leaping up and out, splashing and seeming to play—I put my hand up to the glass like any other kid and marvelled at their sheer size. But even there they didn’t seem real (and, of course, to an extent they aren’t—the artificiality of their environment renders the whales themselves unnatural, if not unreal). Orcas are fully alien, yet their intelligence, their pod dynamics, and their curiosity seem to render them recognisable to humans in a way that, say, the blue whale could never be.

The history of white Americans and Europeans with orcas sometimes feels like a microcosm of the relationship between those groups of people and nature more broadly. We want to tame the orcas—we want to exploit them, use them for gain. We want to establish control and to know everything about them. And we want to love them and be loved by them. From Moby Doll to Shamu to Keiko and, most notoriously, to Tilikum, a complex mix of capital, entertainment, curiosity, affection, and fear have led to the exploitation, hunting, killing, and ultimately slow poisoning of this perhaps most human of animals, even as we are slowly destroying the world.

The orca, then, is an apt symbol for Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City, which takes its title from the name for the orca used by several indigenous nations of the Pacific Northwest, including the Lummi nation. The name, of course, is most popularly associated with the documentary about Tilikum, the captive orca who killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. The novel starts with the arrival of the Orca woman, her killer whale swimming next to her skiff and a polar bear in tow. The story begins to spread, echoing out through the floating city, Qaanaaq.[1] Qaanaaq is the result of a collaboration between the Thai, Chinese, and Swedish governments, a floating city of eight arms off the coast of what used to be Greenland, whose Inuit language has named the city as well.[2]

This floating city replicates current society—segregated, extremely stratified, despite it being under the control of a machine-run system which theoretically supplies the needs of everyone in it. Because the system takes care of most basic needs, including the things which would normally fall under the purview of local government, there is no government on Qaanaaq. There are, however, tenants and landlords, but the latter—who make up the minority, of course, and who are assumed to reside primarily on the glitzy Arm 1—are anonymous, untraceable. This paints a bleak picture, and Miller is uncompromising in his depiction of the way wealth, influence, and privilege inherently cause societal ills, from economic inequality to outright disregard for human life.

However, Qaanaaq is not unappealing—it is a dystopia, but it is a realistic one, insofar as in among the hardship there is colour, there is fun, there is joy and there is the potential for connection. This connection manifests between characters as well as being part of the relationship each character has with the city itself.

In fact, the book celebrates the city. A recurring element of the narrative is the City without a Map, an audio narrative illicitly broadcast over the city’s implanted transmitters which different characters listen to. It comprises descriptions of the city and its inhabitants, their arrivals and how they make their way in the city, narrated in different languages, by different voices and different genders, classes, and ethnicities. There is a kaleidoscopic quality to these interweaving narratives: even as they all build together to a unifying story, they exist as a mix of vignettes in different formats, from direct address descriptions of characters we may never meet to news bulletins, to actions separate from those of the main characters which nonetheless move the plot along. Uniting them all is the recognisability of city living, such as this description of going out to a gig:

Memories fade in, fade out. Stirred by songs. It doesn’t matter that they’re not your own. You belong to Qaanaaq now. Its people are your people. Their pain is yours, and so are the songs.

Or contemplating the constant changing of scenery:

 Sometimes Qaanaaq can seem like Saturn, ceaselessly devouring its own young—and dooming itself in the process. Blink, and something you love has vanished. Your favourite noodle stall; the karaoke skiff where you went for your first date; the Mongolian cinema where you discovered the work of Erdenechimed or Batbayar.

The emphasis here is on interdependence and interconnectivity. No one can protect themselves entirely or isolate themselves entirely: changes in climate, in economic systems, in the power structures of the world affect us all. The city was built as a perfect ecosystem, controlled by a flawless electronic system which makes sure, theoretically, that not lasting damage can occur within Qaanaaq’s society. But the City without a Map makes the point again and again that there is no such thing as a perfect system; only a human, flawed world endlessly shaped and reshaped by the stories we tell in our own voices or through a translator system, face-to-face to someone or implanted into their jaw and projected into their mind. And the stories are messy—angry, lost, erotic, peaceful, enraged, grieving, wanting, they encompass the full range of human emotions and ways of relating to the world.

That description risks implying that Miller’s world borders on the utopian or at least suggests that climate change won’t change much. Miller avoids such a conclusion, however, because the plot of the novel moves toward revolution, toward drastic and much-needed transformation. What Blackfish City does brilliantly and consistently is paint a world worth saving, alongside the people in it. This is clear in the different experiences of the city presented through the novel’s multiple narrators: of Ankit’s former hobby of scaling the buildings, of Soq’s speedy traversing of the city; even—although it is also presented as immoral and objectionable—Fill’s love of Arm One. Love is evident in the recordings of the City without a Map. And perhaps nowhere is it more evident than in the descriptions of the markers of city life that recur through the narrative: descriptions of food, of buildings, of music and newspapers, of the myriad ways in which a city becomes more than a place, becomes an object of love. This love is not generic, however; the ways characters understand, interact with, and experience the city show their personality and shapes them in turn. Messenger and sometime criminal runner, Soq has a strong reaction to a noodle stand:

This one had little stools and a tarp on each side to keep some of the wind off. Soq was swallowed up in clouds of hot steam smelling of five-spice powder. Home was noodles. Home was food and warmth. Soq paid, took a stool, shut their eyes, and meditated on the moment, its beauty, its peace.

This tells the reader a good deal about Soq (that they live very basically, that they come from a background where noodles are a staple food, that they are often cold and hungry), who is arguably the character with the most ambivalent relationship to the floating city. More than that, this kind of description and love grounds the text’s desire for revolution alongside its socialist and green politics and indeed arguably presents one of the most effective bases for revolution. It is not an ideology, nor is it love of a specific small group (although that is also present in the Orca Woman’s narrative). Rather, Blackfish City argues that it is worth fighting for the right to eat noodles, to watch the sun set from an uninhabited apartment, to walk along the pier and watch the seals in the knowledge that you matter beyond what the system has calculated, that you are part of, and therefore are responsible for, this city, which provides the potential for true multiculturalism, community, and transformed notions of interconnectedness.

Blackfish City’s vision of interconnectedness is resolutely unsentimental: it makes space for connection and horror at the same time. Nowhere is this clearer than in the breaks, a mysterious illness, transmitted through blood transfusions and sexual contact (the first character we meet who has it is Fill, a young gay man. The parallel is exceedingly deliberate) which supposedly drives the inflicted mad. However, its immediate effect is to give the infected person the memories of everyone else the virus has been through. Not coherently, but they are there, in flashes and in forms of déjà vu, in the ability to speak previously unknown languages. This is a form of radical connection with the potential to eradicate the individual and kill them. Yet, even the breaks are, over the course of the novel, revealed to be more than what they initially seemed; they are both a medical experiment gone wrong and the promise of a new way of interrelating.[3]

This is not an easy promise, nor do all the characters accept it easily, and this is another of the novel’s strengths. These are not simple, good characters, but they are all characters trying to do the greater good as they see it, with the possible exception of Fill.[4] And their vision of the greater good increasingly moves towards the same goal, but with very different ideas of how to get there, what justice would look like, and how to balance the scales after the transformation.

One version of this possible new world is the community of nano-bonded humans and animals, which also presents the potential last authentic link between humans and what we would think of as the natural world, Qaanaaq being decidedly “unnatural” in every sense. The Orca Woman (later revealed to be called Masaaraq) and her orca, Atkonartok, are bonded and the description of their connection again suggests the potential power of an extreme form of vulnerability. Masaaraq and Atkonartok both run a risk if they take the bond too far; Masaaraq explains that at her most grief-stricken, she did nearly disappear into the mind of a predator. Ora, her wife, later explains that animals and humans tend to reflect each other: “She was always like this. A hunter. Out in the wilderness all the time.” Animals and humans are usually bonded young and their personalities develop together. This presents a form of animal-human interaction where influence and impact go both ways; animals become more human, humans become more animal.

However, even more importantly, both animals and humans are at risk if their bond-partner is. Kaev and Liam (the polar bear) are both extremely affected by their separation, suggesting a form of community which goes beyond the human, where the risk to animals and the natural world cannot be as easily ignored as it is today in countries and communities where exploiting, destroying ,and permanently changing the environment have not yet had devastating consequences. In short, the novel makes explicit the truth we are already realising: we cannot afford to pretend that the suffering, death, and extinction of animals and nature doesn’t affect us.

This inequality in the current suffering caused by environmental damage is, of course, reflected too in the choice of characters and the animals to whom they are bonded. The Inuit, whose languages are the root of the city’s name and Masaaraq’s, have seen the rhythm of their hunting seasons and consequently their lives increasingly disturbed and in places destroyed. The polar bear is the largest land mammal to be significantly affected by climate change. By contrast, the orca has long seemed one of nature’s exploiters of climate change: increasing the predation on beluga claves exposed by shrinking protective ice, some pods changing their hunting seasons and techniques in order to hunt those animals struggling to adapt.

However, even the most adaptable, intelligent animal will eventually be caught up in the consequences of climate change and excessive consumption, as the poisoned orcas I mentioned above show. Everything is connected, Blackfish City points out again and again, and there is no escaping the consequences of your actions: from water wars to rent exploitation to the genocide of communities of “others,” from publicising the reality of a taboo disease, to going up against a criminal gang, to deciding to reunite your family, no matter the cost. Many of these consequences are unintended and uncontrollable, affecting people and causing reactions which cannot be escaped, no matter the money or resources or privilege you believe may safeguard you against harm. It is not necessarily a hopeful message, but it is a much needed one, and Blackfish City makes it feel more pressing than ever. The novel does arguably end on a hopeful note, its vision of a new future for humanity and animals hardly assured nor even particularly explicit, but nonetheless there: the reader is left with a family (or, if you will, a pod), bound together by an acknowledgement of their dependency, across race, gender, sexuality, and species’ boundaries. There are worse starting points for a new world.

 

Endnotes

[1] Qaanaaq is named after an existing city in Greenland, itself created as a “model village” for Greenlanders who were displaced by the Danish in order to create space for an American airbase, and as such carries significant associations of colonial (and natural) exploitation.

[2] As an aside, Miller’s understanding of the politics of Scandinavia and their (former?) colonies is fascinatingly good—the strange and often not-entirely-ethical ability of Sweden to survive any major disasters somewhat unscathed is acknowledged, as is the inevitability of Denmark’s abandonment of Greenland and their betrayal of minorities who live among them, a plot point which shapes a significant part of the narrative.

[3] There is an interesting comparison to be made between the way HIV/AIDS operates in Michael Arditti’s Easter (2000) and the way that the breaks work in Blackfish City; in both novels, the illness forces a kind of reckoning and a new way of thinking about relation, connection, and community, albeit in wildly different settings.

[4] As a white, middle-class, queer woman, Fill is to me the most relatable character, in a lot of excruciatingly uncomfortable ways, and there is a whole other essay in the genius of this. Miller, I think, actually succeeds where most “sidelining the white characters” narratives fail, partly because (spoilers) he  follows through on the logical end point of this.



Marie lives in Newcastle with her wife and an accident-prone miniature poodle named Ernie. She's written a PhD on coming of age in the First World War, but now spends most of her time thinking about education, community, queerness, and the sea. She is still looking for a social media outlet for these thoughts.
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