Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller, a Review

Pros: Intricately imagined world. Timely themes. Much wisdom.
Possible Cons: Suspension of disbelief mandatory. Many informational passages, characters and indefinite nouns.

Tell/Show Ratio – high
Graphic Index Sex – low
Graphic Index Violence – medium
World Building – excellent
Internal Veracity – medium

Science fiction novels often magnify current societal concerns. The opening quote from Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, informs the reader that Blackfish City will involve real estate problems of epic proportions. The story also takes place after a series of climate disasters, an issue closely related to real estate, if one considers shrinking land mass.

A portion of the world’s population has migrated to floating cities built by the exceptionally wealthy; one founder of Blackfish City made his fortune in a bout of appallingly amoral real estate speculation.

Curiously, these wealthy have stocked their city with an impoverished underclass. The economics of the city don’t bear scrutiny, but perhaps the wealthy overlords couldn’t imagine a world without tenants to oppress.

Against this backdrop, a diverse group of characters struggle with issues of survival, identity and community.

Not only do the lead characters start out underdogs, alienated or broken, but a mysterious and chimerical sexually transmitted plague, colloquially termed “the Breaks,” mixed people’s thoughts; memories seep from mind to mind. And a nanobot technology bonds the minds of humans with animals.

Can our heroes lay aside their self-interests, fears and estrangements, team up and create a better world?

Courtesy assumes a certain degree of common ground. Everyone can afford to be nice to each other, when no one is trying to exterminate anybody.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, though long passages describing the setting may impede some readers. Science fiction worlds require a fair bit of explanation, and a degree of information dumping is unavoidable. Many authors attempt to weave the setting into conversation and internal dialog. In Blackfish City, a mysterious publication entitled “City without a Map” relays much background information en block. As a reader, I’m okay with setting infodumps (and flash backs and told tales and long asides) just as long as the information is interesting and well presented. “City without a Map” is fascinating, can be poetic, and the publication is a mystery, pulling the reader deeper into the story. Additional backstory is dropped between the action as rumination, which slows down the story, but a fair bit of wisdom is mixed in with the “tell.”

In addition, multiple characters tell the story, and their lives glance off each other until the characters convene, and the threads braid together into one story. Some readers find multiple points of view confusing, but I found each character’s voice sufficiently distinct to remember.

Even a reader fully immersed in the story may encounter a few believability issues. A few story threads occur, resolve or drift away with no explanation. A brain-injured character displays overly complex thought. Serious injuries don’t cause as much damage as expected. And a bike messenger becomes a computer genius rather rapidly.

But I’m happy to overlook a few flaws for my take on the bottom line message: we won’t evolve until we realize that we are the same, that we’re all traveling in the same direction, and that any individual advantage is likely an empty win.

They knew how empty all that comfort felt, how little it helped to hold off the dark.

Only power shifts the scales, and people build power only when they come together. When they find in each other the strength to stop being afraid.

Stories are where we find ourselves, where we find the others who are like us. Gather enough stories and soon you’re not alone; you are an army.

We are one thing, and there’s power in that.

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