Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Sam J. Miller may have been on the cusp of winning literary awards for much of his career, but in 2019 he broke through once again, winning the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for his science-fiction novel Blackfish City. Taking us into a future ravaged by war and climate changes, we follow the fate of various denizens of humanity’s last surviving city, constructed in the Arctic Circle, and perhaps more importantly, on the brink of collapse… though not everyone can see it.
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Sam J. Miller Explores a Ravaged Future
The question as to what might await humanity in the future is one we’ve never stopped being preoccupied with, but really only in theory. Time and time again the greatest minds of their generation try and warn us of the impending ravages we’re causing to the planet, and consequently society at large.
Some choose not to believe them, while most of those who do simply nod in agreement and continue on with their lives. The fact of the matter is, we know we are collectively headed into the fire, but we choose not to concern ourselves with it since it hasn’t touched us yet. Recently, Sam J. Miller provided his very own image of what might be in store for us in his award-winning novel, Blackfish City.
Transporting us into a future where the world is ravaged by massive climate change and wars, we meet the remnants of humanity inhabiting an artificial floating city in the Arctic Circle. A marvel of technical and social engineering alike, the city is completely self-sustaining and its denizens have more or less gotten used to the rough life which allows them to keep on existing. However, the future is looking darker by the minute, with corruption, inequality and unrest creeping their way into people’s lives.
Suddenly, a rather unusual event occurs. A stranger comes visiting town, a woman riding an orca with and accompanied by a polar bear. Entrancing the city, she slowly begins to work her way into the lives of four separate people on the edges of the city in hopes of staging a grand resistance, perhaps even a revolution. Unfortunately for the mystical woman, the corruption and decay are spreading as fast as ever, and very little time is left before what’s left of mankind becomes encased in a giant frozen tomb.
The Broken People of Blackfish City
As you might expect from this novel judging by its very nature, much of the content is coloured in darker and bleaker colours, with Miller doing his best to convey the edge of desperation mankind has found itself in. He takes his time in exploring the city, showing us in detail how people live, what they eat, think, who they dream of, and so on and so forth. The denizens of Blackfish City feel like much more than just background fixtures, but rather like small organs all belonging to one very complex body.
Everyone can afford to be nice to each other, when no one is trying to exterminate anybody.― Sam J. Miller, Blackfish City
Personally, I found the author did an exceptional job at explaining the social constructs in play and the thought processes of large crowds, at least in this essentially post-apocalyptic scenario. With this being said, I do have to note the lack of redeeming features for many of these citizens, and as we progress further and further through the story things largely become more and more bleak and hopeless. While I don’t think it’s a drawback in and of itself, it is something which requires a more specific mood to be enjoyed in my opinion.
Overall I think other writers could stand to learn from the work Miller did here in characterizing the city itself and the myriad of ways through which he painted it. From the moment we set foot in it we feel the broken and merciless atmosphere descending down upon us, and just like the majority of the people living there, our hopes for a better tomorrow is extinguished fairly quickly. If I do have a complaint about anything, it’s the fact Miller doesn’t really go into detail about how the world got into this state in the first place… but then again, this isn’t what the story is about, so I think it’s very forgivable.
The Chaos of Civil War
Blackfish City certainly does have a lot of characterization and world-building going on, but it isn’t to say it lacks in the plot department in the slightest. At first, things move at a frantic and even seemingly disjointed pace, bombarding us with a chaos of information which I believe was a deliberate choice by the author to try and mirror the city itself. However, as we familiarize ourselves with the people and the surroundings, the narration also begins to fall into a more familiar place, taking us on a fairly epic story of redemption.
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.― Sam J. Miller, Blackfish City
For all intents and purposes, the orca-riding lady, named the “Orcamancer” by the locals, is our main character and her thick veil of mystery is something which dares to be pierced the whole way through. I couldn’t help but constantly wonder about her origins, abilities, plans and goals throughout the whole thing, and every time the author gave me a new bit of information it felt like a great discovery. It is interesting to see her navigating this society as an outsider, trying to convince people of a civil war being the right course of action, essentially. The Orcamancer also faces a lot more than just philosophical challenges on her way to her goal, with organized crime also having found some roots in this society.
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I must admit, there was actually a fair bit more action than I had anticipated going into this novel, and there are definitely a few deaths which took me by surprise. Nobody is safe from Miller‘s murderous intents, even the few characters with redeeming features he managed to put in there. If anything, this makes the novel less predictable, which is always a plus in my book.
The Final Verdict
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller is a fantastic and original story which balances entertainment with thought-provoking depth quite adeptly. Combining a good amount of action with meditations on climate change, corruption, rising technology and human connections, this novel definitely stands out as something special in science-fiction right now. If you enjoy the post-apocalyptic genre, then I strongly recommend you give this book a shot.
Sam J. Miller
Sam J. Miller is an American author of fantasy, science-fiction and horror stories primarily. He was a finalist for numerous Nebula Awards, as well as the World Fantasy Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards.
In 2013 he won the Shirley Jackson Award, and most recently, in 2019 his novel Blackfish City earned him the 2019 John W. Campbell Memorial Award.