Recent Reading: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

I enjoyed the first volume in Martine's space opera series, A Memory Called Empire, though I fell short of its general acclaim (it went on to win the Hugo, and was nominated for the Nebula and the Clarke). To me it paled beside the other lauded space operas of the last decade, lacking their clarity of purpose and inventive worldbuilding choices. The sequel works better, for various structural and thematic reasons. But it still leaves me wondering what this series adds to the field that justifies the accolades it has received.

Memory introduced us to Mahit Dzmare, newly-appointed ambassador from the small, independent space station Lsel to the neighboring Tleixcalaan empire. Like most people on Lsel, Mahit carries the personality imprint of her predecessor in the position, Yskandr Aghavn, whose memories and experience are meant to merge into her own personality. But when she arrives at the imperial court, Mahit discovers that the imprint has been sabotaged, and that the older Yskandr has been murdered. Her investigation of Yskandr's death reveals just how embroiled he was in the internal politics of the court, which boil over into a palace coup in the novel's climax.

The crux of Memory was the seductive allure of empire—to Mahit, who has grown up fascinated by Tleixcalaan culture, and to Yskandr, who fell in love with the imperial court (and, more intimately, with certain figures within it), to the point of compromising Lsel's interests. But while it's easy to understand, on an academic level, how the nearby presence of a massive cultural edifice (one whose imperial project is achieved as much through propaganda as through military conquest) would exert a nearly irresistible gravitational pull, the novel never quite makes you feel Mahit and Yskandr's infatuation. At its end, Mahit—who now carries the imprints of both the young and old Yskandr, in an uncomfortable détente rather than the seamless blending they should have formed—decides to return to Lsel before Tleixcalaan can seduce her the way it did him. It's supposed to be a wrenching decision, but to me it felt obvious—best to leave these squabbling aristocrats and their objectively meaningless power struggles (as if one emperor could be better than another) to their own mess.

Like its predecessor, A Desolation Called Peace carries a great deal of the novel of manners in its DNA. But this time around, the plot revolves not around machinations at court but an armed conflict in space, against a mysterious race of aliens who have been attacking Tleixcalaan outposts (a war that Mahit set in motion in the previous novel, redirecting the empire's attention away from Lsel by providing proof of the aliens' incursions). This shift in subgenres demands a wider perspective, and if Desolation worked better for me than Memory, it is first and foremost because that opening up gives us a more complicated view of the empire. 

Mahit is still here, having found herself, upon her return to the Lsel, in the crosshairs of several powerful political figures who want to use her to advance their project of keeping the station, not just independent, but free of all Tleixcalaan influence. But she's joined by several other point of view characters. These include fleet admiral Nine Hibiscus, who is at the forefront of the war and increasingly frustrated by both the aliens' advanced technology and efforts to undermine her from within the fleet and the war department. Three Seagrass, Mahit's former liaison to the court, who gets herself assigned as an intelligence officer to the fleet, in part so that she can reconnect with Mahit by recruiting her as a consultant to her efforts to communicate with the aliens. And Eight Antidote, the precocious young heir to the throne, who gets a front row seat to the subtle power struggles between the new emperor and the military leadership, both of whom are trying to use the war to cement their power in the wake of the recent coup.

Having more than just an outsider's perspective on the empire gives Martine the opportunity to delve into the habits of thought and psychological tricks with which Tleixcalaan inoculates its citizens from ever considering an outsider's point of view. Mahit and Three Seagrass's powerful attraction, for example, keeps being short-circuited by the fact that Three Seagrass has not only fully bought into the idea that she is civilized while Mahit is a barbarian, she doesn't even have enough self-awareness to realize that she should maybe not say that sort of thing to her prospective girlfriend's face. Throughout the novel, even the most sympathetic characters take it as a given that Tleixcalaan and "civilization" are interchangeable terms. When someone like Mahit proves herself useful, or demonstrates a mastery of Tleixcalaan poetry, they're treated as a curiosity. When some bit of culture from outside the empire is found to be worthy and interesting, it is always in the most exotifying, appropriative of terms.

Like a lot of recent space operas, Desolation takes the Bujold-ian approach of setting its story among the officers of the imperial fleet, placing great emphasis on the norms that govern interactions between officers, on the rituals of day-to-day life, and on the camaraderie between officers and enlisted soldiers. It's an incredibly seductive portrait that has been winning admirers for this idealized, officer-and-gentleman type of character going back to at least the Aubrey/Maturin novels. So it's incredibly wrongfooting—and effective—when Martine repeatedly reveals that all of these officers take as a given the empire's right to conquer. The necessity of subjugating any culture that doesn't submit to Tleixcalaan rule. The belief, in fact, that not recognizing Tleixcalaan mastery is in itself a crime that justifies brutal repression. Even Nine Hibiscus, who spends most of the novel trying to hold back the more belligerent elements in her fleet, who view her attempts to communicate with the aliens as tantamount to treason, still understands that her goal is not peace but overwhelming military dominance, to which end any military tactic, up to and including genocide, is justified.

(Even here, however, the novel has some blind spots. A recurring theme throughout the story is the military characters' dismay at the high casualty numbers among Shard pilots—the advance fighters who keep being overwhelmed by the aliens' weapons and stealth technology. This dismay ends up percolating to the higher levels of government, and is one of the drivers of Eight Antidote's determination to insert himself into the decision-making process over the course of the war. No one points out that these are soldiers, in a dangerous job, in wartime. It feels like the novel has missed the opportunity to recognize that the Tleixcalaan military is accustomed to facing vastly inferior foes, and perceives a fair fight—with its attendant loss of life—as an atrocity.)

Again and again, Desolation returns to the theme of infection. Mahit is seen by several factions in Lsel's leadership as irretrievably corrupted by Tleixcalaan, and a minor subplot concerns the efforts of one of these figures to purge the station not just of her presence, but of any trace of Tleixcalaan culture, language, and influence. The Tleixcalaan fleet, meanwhile, is perceived by its officers as the empire's immune system, its acts of subjugation a means of staving off infection—by, for example, the idea that people have the right not to want to be Tleixcalaan. When Nine Hibiscus opts for dialogue with the aliens rather than extermination, she's accused by her underlings of spreading a corrupting influence that could undermine the empire.

Against this we have the aliens, who turn out to be infected with a fungus that turns them into a hive mind, and who are unable to perceive of unitary individuals as sentient. In other words, like the Borg on Star Trek, they are simultaneously an existential threat to, and a dark mirror of, the more traditional form of cultural and military imperialism. This division is complicated, however, by the fact that even among humans, there are varying forms of personhood—people like Mahit and others on Lsel station who carry the memories and personalities of their predecessors; the Shard pilots, whose recent tech upgrades grant them an awareness of each other's perceptions and feelings; the police on the imperial capital planet, who appear to be fully depersonalized, operating as the agents of a governing algorithm (a dangling thread from Memory, and one of its most disturbing images, which is not followed up on here except to be mentioned in this context). As is often the case, the empire's claims of purity are often more an ideological boast than a practical reality.

Still, the solution Martine posits—that these joined individuals, as well as some imperials who agree to take the fungus, will act as a bridge to the aliens—feels thin and unconvincing, a sop to multiculturalism that doesn't face up to the fundamental problem of empire. At the end of the novel, some characters, like Three Seagrass and Eight Antidote, have only begun to have an inkling of how limited and damaging their worldview has been. But outside of the moral awakening of specific individuals, the machinery of empire grinds on, and no one in this series (except a few briefly mentioned revolutionaries who exist far off-page) seems to have any interest in stopping it. Perhaps that's simply a function of where we are in this series—like its predecessor, A Desolation Called Peace doesn't demand a sequel, but I suspect that one is coming. But after two books (and several other recent series that run along similar lines) it seems worth asking what we get out of yet another story that so slowly interrogates empire from within. I'd like to see the next evolution of space opera, a story that imagines a different way for a far-ranging, spacefaring civilization to be. Martine's series, for all its accomplishments, feels like it's treading in place.


Retlawyen said…
Strong agreement.

I remember in A Memory Called Empire, the dedication is to everyone who ever fell in love with a culture that devoured their own. Intriguing! But then, in the book, the author's disdain for the empire could not possibly be more clear. It is really hard to understand what initially attracts Mahat and her predecessor to the state, which really undermines her ultimate decision to reject it.

I've always thought the hard part of writing a breakup with an abuser isn't making the audience agree with the breakup, it is making them agree with the relationship as it stood before the book starts. I feel like the author doesn't pull that off, it is just 'so there I was, with my hand in a fire. I mustered up my will, put aside reservations, and ultimately decided to pull it out, weeping a single tear at my sacrifice'.
I'm curious. What would you say are the best space opera of the best ten years or so?
Off the top of my head, it would almost have to be Ninefox Gambit, which I think did a great job of creating a weird space empire setting that the reader has to figure out, which it then used as a powerful metaphor for how empire perpetuates itself.

Some other standouts: The Vanished Birds, Linda Nagata's Inverted Frontier series. Kameron Hurley's The Light Brigade isn't a space opera but it does a lot of similar things to the Lee. Plus there's been a lot of epic fantasy that I think borrows heavily from the space opera toolbox, from authors like R.F. Kuang or K. Arsenault Rivera.
I think it's interesting to look how space opera and epic fantasy overlap. Space opera really is a subgenre of epic fantasy.
S Johnson said…
The Borg struck me as symbols of Communism, not traditional "cultural and military imperialism..."
The equality was the darkness in this mirror, I think, appropriate to the Reagan years I suppose.

"Tleixcalaan" strikes me as a false evocation of the Aztec/Nahuatl, somehow reimagined as a space empire, a kind of exoticized steampunk. I finally read some more Bujold, a Cordelia omnibus and a Miles in Love omnibus and don't much care for them. I really only liked Ethan of Athos. So this review has successfully dissuaded me from investing time in this series, thank you.

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