Blackfish City by Sam J Miller

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Blackfish City by Sam J Miller

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: A spectacular science-fiction epic. Plausible and realistic yet fantastical and inventive, sure to be a highlight of 2018.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: April 2018
Publisher: Orbit
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0356510026

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I spent two weeks engrossed in Blackfish City. Fans of dystopian sci-fi will eat this one up – it's only January and already I can guarantee this one will make a lot of best of 2018 lists.

The novel opens in the near future (it's never definitively stated when, but certainly a couple of generations removed from our own) in the aftermath of several climate wars and great destruction all around the globe. Seeking refuge, countless people have fled to Qaanaaq, a mechanical arctic-sited city. But the problems of the past have followed it: massive poverty and inequality, refugees streaming in from all over the world, political instability and corruption, and deadly diseases like the breaks, a sexually transmitted infection that slowly drives those who are afflicted to madness. And despite the setting being well-removed from our own, it feels extremely close – like something that could be happening now, or in as little as ten years. At times Blackfish City almost seems less like a novel and more like a highly detailed study of a world that feels far deeper than the novel's 300 pages would suggest. You can sense the author's enthusiasm in sketching out the social divisions and intricacies that make up the enormous floating city, and the customs and living arrangements of its disparate population.

Miller writes with fine-tuned precision, never wasting a word. But the plot takes a long time to really get moving – almost a third of the book, in fact – and I was left wondering if it would ever start at all. In the end, though, I was glad to have persevered, because the plot threads are so well-connected it was worth the time it took to set them up.

We follow four principal characters – a deliveryperson, a civil servant, the grandchild of one of the city's shareholders, and a street fighter – whose stories all slowly meld together as the story moves to the climax. The chapters are all incredibly short – almost vignettes – which makes the novel feel much shorter than it is, and has the odd effect of making you feel simultaneously close to and distant from the characters.

I'm reluctant to typify this book as hard sci-fi, because I feel it's one that should have a broad appeal. Yet I do find myself wondering if Blackfish City can appeal to a wide readership – dystopia as a genre is starting to feel more than a little played-out. I hope it does, though, because I'm hard-pressed to find anything negative to say about it. I'll be watching how it does with interest.

After finishing this, I'm not sure quite where to turn. But if dystopias are your thing and you somehow haven't already picked it up, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is a must-read.

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