Book Review: Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller is a remarkably creative and compelling story about a floating city in the ocean at the top of the world that survives a global collapse caused by climate change. Colorful characters, a riveting plot, and a surreal-yet-believable setting come together to tell the tale of a strange, alienating, and at times terrifying new world born in the wake of the collapse of society as we know it.
Genres: Climate Fiction (Setting), Climate Fiction (Refugees), Dystopian
Genres are dynamic frameworks that describe texts with similar or related forms and contents. Readers and authors alike are free to ruminate on the nature of genre and how it relates to any given text. For Blackfish City, three different genres come to mind: Climate Fiction (Setting), Climate Fiction (Refugees), and Dystopian.
Climate Fiction (Setting)
Blackfish City is a fascinating example of a story that takes the climate crisis very seriously, but doesn’t emphasize climate change as a driving element of the plot. This story is very much about climate change on a thematic level, but none of the action of the story is driven by climate change or human responses to it. By the time the story starts, global society as we know it has already collapsed decades ago. The damage is done, and new ways of organizing societies have emerged from the wreckage. None of the characters are specifically responding to or trying to avert new climate catastrophes. They’re just responding to other characters and the dystopian nature of the setting.
And what a remarkable setting! As the cities of the old world were consumed by climate catastrophes (and the associated human conflicts), wealthy shareholders built an entirely new floating city in the middle of the ocean in the distant north. This “Blackfish City” of Qaanaaq is now filled with refugees from every nation, every economic stratum, and every other identity imaginable. They live together amidst stark economic stratification, governed by secretive shareholders and automated systems without much input from the majority of people. Into this seething stew of inequality and alienation, an almost mythic stranger appears with two animal companions, along with a series of stories that seem to be telling the story of the city itself.
Climate Fiction (Refugees)
In a very real sense, every character in Blackfish City is a climate refugee. The story takes place in and around the floating city of Qaanaaq, so it’s not entirely clear what’s currently going on in the rest of the world. What we do know, however, is that many of the biggest cities in the world — and possibly all of them — have collapsed entirely due to sea level rise and violent conflicts. Some of the founders of the city came there semi-voluntarily during the early days of the global collapse. Most residents came later as they fled the worst days of the collapse. Either way, they are all refugees — or children of refugees in the case of the younger characters born in the floating city.
Blackfish City is decidedly dystopian. Society as we know it has collapsed, leaving nothing behind but deeply troubled enclaves of refugees and survivors who have resettled far away from their native lands. I wouldn’t quite call this a post-apocalyptic tale since a highly technical and institutionally-organized human society has survived the collapse. But the poverty, the poor conditions for new waves of refugees, the vesting of all political and economic authority in the hands of a handful of elites and a series of dysfunctional AI programs, is very much dystopian. The resulting city is not a shining example of human excellence so much as a testament to the raw tenacity of both the species as a whole and the largely malevolent bureaucratic institutions that govern it.
There are also arguably utopian elements to this story that give it considerable depth and prevent it from devolving into a two-dimensional tale. The fact that human beings were able to build an entire city out of nothing in the middle of the ocean, in the midst of a global collapse, is an impressive achievement. Even with all of its flaws, the resulting city is an incredibly diverse human settlement that serves in many ways as a memorial to the drowned lands that its inhabitants emigrated from. Also, most if not all of the protagonists and antagonists are varying degrees of morally gray. Rather than a simplistic tale of good people struggling against bad people, this is a tale of characters with complex histories and motivations doing their best to achieve their objectives in an alienating and often surreal setting.
Strengths of Blackfish City
This novel is strong on all fronts. The characters are complex, believable, colorful, and compelling. The setting is definitely surreal, especially when it delves into futuristic technology and its impact on human societies and consciousness. But it’s surreal in a gritty, visceral way that feels tangible and believable due to the vivid imagery and fascinating characters and plot.
The greatest strength of Blackfish City is arguably the remarkable vision of a floating human-made city founded and populated by climate refugees from around the world. The characters, the plot, and the broad-strokes setting of a drowned and broken world are all well-developed enough to be compelling in their own right. But what stands out the most is the characterization of the city itself — a strange new metropolis built by extremely wealthy shareholders, run by said shareholders and impersonal AI, populated by climate refugees from around the world. Much as Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 takes a real-life city and turns it into a well-developed climate-themed character, Sam J. Miller’s Blackfish City invents an entirely new city from scratch and develops it into a fascinating portrayal of what our future may look like.
Weaknesses of Blackfish City
Even now that I’ve had a few weeks to reflect on Blackfish City, I still can’t think of any major flaws or shortcomings. The fact that it takes place long after the worst of the global collapse does mean that it doesn’t deal as directly with the climate crisis as I might like, but that’s just the type of cli-fi story it is.
Dystopian cli-fi tales are becoming common enough that some readers and reviewers view them negatively, either because they’re seen as increasingly unoriginal or because they don’t contribute meaningfully to climate discourse. Blackfish City is definitely original enough to escape the first criticism, reminding us all that there is still new territory to be explored in the “dystopian cli-fi” subgenre. As for its contributions to climate discourse, I would argue that it has enough social commentary in there to offer some meaningful contributions to the discourse. Yes, it’s dystopian — but it’s part cautionary tale, and part critique of the willingness of the wealthy and powerful to exploit and abuse those beneath them on the socioeconomic ladder, even to the point of allowing whole cities to sink beneath the waves in the name of profit.
In retrospect, I also wonder if readers who haven’t read much sci-fi or speculative fiction may be put off by some of the more speculative elements: nanobonded humans, AI running cities, a mysterious disease that alters people’s memories. If they are, though, that’s their loss. It should be clear from the book description that the story is going to contain some of those “genre” elements. While that may narrow the audience somewhat, it opens up a whole range of delightful storytelling possibilities, many of which the author has taken advantage of quite nicely. This is a tale that can be appreciated for its literary merits, even by readers who less commonly read “genre” fiction.
Blackfish City is one of my new favorites in the “dystopian cli-fi” and “refugee cli-fi” genres. The characters are compelling, the plot is riveting, and the setting is a remarkably creative take on where current trends in climate policy and human society generally may take us.