“How goes this stupid rebellion, Nineteen Adze?” asked the Emperor.
“Stupidly,” Nineteen Adze said…
On the dedication page, Ms Martine expressed this sentiment,
This book is dedicated to anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own.
That is a powerful statement, and it is one I wrestled with in my head for years. I am an ethnically Chinese person residing in Malaysia, and one thing any Malaysian kid learned growing up is the long succession of world powers and nations that have brought my country to heel throughout history: the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Brits, and for a brief and horrifying period, the Japanese as well. And thanks to the cultural dominance of the United States and the English-speaking world, we grew up soaking in American pop culture too. I consume predominantly media in the English language—be it books, films, or TV shows. I cannot read or write Chinese. I am not cognizant of most Malaysian screen or print media, and have never developed a taste for Malay works. You see that sometimes in the Western media, when they want to humanise people in the third world, they tell us how so-and-so brown person loves Michael Jackson or the Avengers. Without realising it, their measure for our level of civilisation is our love of theirs.
So thanks to that primer by the author, I was expecting a very introspective and socio-anthropological examination of the idea of cultural hegemony—but I felt like I was being misled. What I ultimately received in A Memory Called Empire is a potboiling political thriller wearing a space opera hat. The story follows Mahit, a rookie ambassador who was being sent to the heart of the imperialist and colonialist Teixcalaanli empire as a replacement of the previous ambassador who passed away under highly suspicious circumstances—so highly suspicious that the corpse might as well have “I was murdered LOL” tattooed on its bum. The Teixcalaanli empire is nominally inspired by the Aztecs and Byzantium, but in truth, it is more a stand-in for contemporary USA to me with its sense of self-assured cultural superiority, its ignorance of the customs of other nations, and its smartphone addiction—but with a bit of blood sacrifice thrown in for seasoning like ketchup. And like ketchup, that’s not a lot of flavour. Sure, we are told that the Teixcalaanli people are shorter and browner than the protagonist’s people, and that they emote with their eyes rather than their faces, but these differences didn’t seem particularly striking or differentiating when compared to Mahit’s people.
In fact, I was more interested in Mahit’s Lsel space station-dwelling people which, similar to the Belters of The Expanse by James S. A. Corey, are typically lankier. They are also racially so averse to wastage that they symbolically consume the ashes of their dead, which also informs their ritual of recording the memories of their people so that after they die, their knowledge and expertise can be grafted onto others. There is a group of ascetics in India called the Aghori that consumes the flesh of the dead believing that it will imbue them with special powers, so one wonders if the Lsel’s practice was inspired by them.
Still, all of this is ultimately moot because the story only brushes the topic of cultural clashes lightly. It is a relatively straightforward story about how Mahit, an outsider, needs to quickly learn about (a) why her predecessor died, and (b) how she can serve her own country with that knowledge. The story then proceeded through a series of conversations where the involved characters tell Mahit exactly what she needed to know, leading her to the next person to talk to. Riveting, it is not. I would have much preferred it if the story revolves instead around the promise Ms Martine made on the book’s dedication page.
One interesting thing that A Memory Called Empire could have done is explore Mahit’s views on the annexation of Lsel. I mean, she herself is in love with Teixcalaanli culture, why wouldn’t she even consider how it might be a good thing? But she just took the automatic position of being against it, which I felt is not in keeping with her character. Why have a character who loves her oppressors’ culture if that doesn’t figure into her actions at all? I would have preferred it if she learns some things about Teixcalaanli culture to turn her against it, either by living at the capital or by interacting with people from other annexed worlds.
Also to bring up something else I noticed, the skeleton of the story is very similar to Le Guin’s 1974 sci-fi classic, The Dispossessed. How similar? Consider the following statement:
SPOILERS (Highlight to Reveal): [This is a novel by a female author wrote a sci-fi story in which the protagonist from a supposedly less technologically advanced country in space travelled to the planet and capital of a more powerful nation which has customs that are alien to the protagonist’s own and what ensued is a fish-out-of-water story where the protagonist experienced condescension and bigotry due to the protagonist’s humble background and beliefs. The protagonist was also immediately embroiled in political intrigue involving many parties from the upper echelons of society with opaque and disparate interests centred around a new valuable technology hidden in the protagonist’s brain. In this new world, the protagonist was assigned a native person to aid the protagonist in day-to-day activities, and also met an alluring woman from the upper crust whom the protagonist felt sexual attraction to (and in a different state of mind, even had sexual relations with). At one point, the protagonist left the safety of the quarters the protagonist was placed in with the aid of the native helper, and met someone in the outskirts who have ties to anti-government activists lower on the social ladder. In the background, there was an escalating distant war and domestic unrest, peaking when the army started shooting at civilians and a companion of the protagonist died as a result. The central conflict of the story was resolved when the protagonist went to a figure of authority and provided that figure with crucial knowledge that affects all of humanity, and the protagonist then returned to the homeworld from whence the protagonist came.]
That statement is true for both The Dispossessed and A Memory Called Empire, but that is not to say they are the same story. The fish-out-of-water narrative is common in sci-fi because it allows the author to contrast and compare disparate ideas represented by the fish and its new dryer environment. The Dispossessed explores the conception of an anarcho-syndicalist state versus capitalism and centralised communism. Meanwhile, A Memory Called Empire is… well, I wanted to say that A Memory Called Empire is about cultural imperialism and colonialism but I find that it failed to deliver on that front. It is a shame that it traded the verve of its ideas in order to serve a rather pedestrian thriller plot.
I think there are still a lot to like about Ms Martine’s debut novel. It is not a bad one and I am not sorry that I read it, but it could have been so much more. Everything that the author set up fell into place by the end (almost mechanically so), but unfortunately, I fear it is not a story that would linger in my mind after I close the book.