A Memory called Empire by Arkady Martine – An Arthur C. Clarke Award book review.

A memory called empire is a solid, standard science fiction novel. It very much has the feel of those classic yellow Golancz sci fi books of old. The plot is basically a blend of political intrigue and a murder mystery in a science fiction wrapper.

We follow the arrival of a new ambassador, Mahit, from a tiny outpost to a vast and majestic Texicalaanli empire. She is there to replace the last ambassador who appears to have been murdered. The depth to this novel come from the culture in which we are emerged. The empire is a fully realised and complex entity with interesting viewpoints and sociological standpoints.

I had a small problem with the naming structure of the imperials citizens, and I found it hard to track the less regular cast of characters, nevertheless these characters each have well identified traits and personalities. The culture in question feels very Aztec or at least meso-American in feel and this only increases towards the end of the book.

In terms of messages and meanings the book attempts to explore somewhat superficially the complexities of the transition of power and the way in which technology and how the possibility of some kind of immortality impacts upon the morality of a government and it people. This is obviously not the main thrust of the book, but it is interesting to examine.

It is the technology of the ambassadors, people, which is the most interesting, an implant allows the memories of another person to be downloaded into the brain and consulted like one would like Siri of Alexa. AI companions are a staple of science fiction but Arkady takes a bold spin on the trope by having this AI interface minimised within the first few pages. This humanises the central character as she struggles to cope in a new world, alone in a situation where her predecessor was probable murdered. It instantly ups the stakes for the protagonists and allows us to experience the new empire alongside her and allows us to question her own people as much as the empire in which she has been thrust.

This books strength is its realisation of an empire that is human in nature and recognisably so but just alien enough to be new and interesting, this is a worthy entry into this years prize.

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