A junior ambassador from one alien nation and planet to another, which boasts of a highly complex language and culture? Finding herself scrambling to catch up with her predecessor (rudely murdered, instead of being in her brain as would be appropriate), trying not to share his fate? Sudden conspiracies, even more complex cultural games, plus an assistent she’s very much into? Hell yes.
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is exactly the kind of sci-fi that I like reading. All people in this novel are human – but they don’t necessarily see each other this way. Our protagonist is the ambassador to a sprawling, huge empire that has a terribly lyrical culture, where everything is an allusion or a poem or a reference, and probably all of these rolled together. She has to come to grips with her new posting, and find her way in this world, while figuring out why her predecessor is dead, and … well, the empire kind of collapses.
This on its own would be fascinating, but we don’t only get to see the culture clash between our protagonist and her empire assistant, oh no – without giving away too much, this story is also about neural implants, and self-modifications, and different definitions of being human. And as if that wasn’t enough, we also get to think about the further reaching implications. What if my culture says that your culture does hideously brutal things that make it barely human at all – but I have to choose between allying with you and potentially dooming all thinking galactic life? Yeah, that.
In one or two places, the book takes the easy way out of these moral quandaries, but then again, that’s fair: We do the same in every-day life. We break problems down, or circumvent them, and don’t always meet them with intellectual curiosity and honesty head on. I enjoyed this book very much, and I’m extremely impressed that this was the first published book by this author. Apparently a second volume is in the making, which I’m very much looking forward to.