One of the best and most imaginative first contact fictions yet to be written
Aliens and Statecraft
Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace, like A Memory Called Desire to which it is the sequel, is entertaining and intelligent speculative fiction. Martine’s fiction embraces soaring fantasy mixing imagination with politics; future scenarios with present colonialisms; and a traumatic encounter in outer space that brings an existential and ethical reckoning.
Teixcalaan is a powerful and ambitious empire. The commander of its military legions is Nine Hibiscus and her adjutant is Twenty Cicada. Their challenge is a militarized force appearing on the periphery, near a routing point (jumpgate) to other regions of the galaxy. Alien to the point of being incomprehensible, audio recordings of noises made by the foreigners induce nausea.
Lsel is a torus-shaped space station, where 30,000 people dwell with meagre resources, close to the jumpgate where the aliens are operating. Lsel society has developed the imago, a memory stick of a person’s mind and memories, implantable in the brain stem of someone who then blends with it neurologically. It is a way of preserving experience and expertise and in A Memory Called Desire Mahit Dzamare was appointed ambassador to Teixcalaan where her consciousness merged with two imago-versions of Yskandr Aghavn, her predecessor. She became a close friend of her Teixcalaanli liaison officer Three Seagrass, and together they struggled with a political, life-threatening maelstrom.
Fast forward three months and the reader is at the start of A Desolation Called Peace. Three Seagrass now seeks Mahit’s assistance in trying to communicate with the aliens, a dangerous first contact situation, while Lsel seeks to prevent absorption into the Teixcalaan empire by drawing it into war with the aliens. Mahit’s loyalties are at risk of being divided and she knows it. For some on Lsel, she has been corrupted by her susceptibility to Teixcalaanli culture. Three Seagrass likes to believe her comrade’s language skills may help understand the nature of the alien beings but it is also a way to reconnect with someone who kindles her libido; the homoerotic feeling is mutual.
The plot speeds up when the corpse of one of the aliens becomes available for dissection. It seems to be a scavenging mammal, with claws for hands, a flexible neck half as long as its torso and a head that is mostly jaw; it literally tears apart its human victims. So far, so analogue: the creatures look to be straight out of central casting. But the alien body wears clothes, a sign of culture, making communication a possibility.
The book’s title comes from a Tacitus quotation – ‘to ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace’ – pointing to the perils of imperialism. One political faction on Lsel views Teixcalaan through this optic but the aliens could be an even blunter version of the empire they already know and fear. Mahit’s dilemma – even before this new danger – stems from the way she appreciates the empire’s rich culture to the point of preferring to think in its language. Knowing this intensifies the risk of having her mind colonised by accepting an imperialist ideology that views people from Lsel as barbarians. This entanglement of the political, cultural and personal comes to a head in a brilliantly scripted squabble between herself and Three Seagrass. As heated arguments tend to show, it arises from something minor but builds into a frank exchange of suppressed suspicions and presuppositions.
The aliens’ spacecraft are untraceable but, when they unexpectedly lift their cloaking device, their appearance is striking: like the ringed mouths of cave-dwelling fish’. Whether this confirms or is at odds with their grotesque method of destroying Teixcalaani pilots remains unknown until Mahit and Three Seagrass make some progress in understanding their language. Communication, if only at a pidgin level, gets under way while a military option becomes available to Teixcalaan, one that could deal a fatal blow to the invaders. Added to this volatile mix is an alarming discovery about the aliens’ biology, involving fungal tendrils.
Linguistic, military and physiological information polarises opinions on Lsel and Teixcalaan about how best to respond to the presence of aliens. The story builds to an exciting climax, making A Desolation Called Peace one of the best and most imaginative first contact fictions yet to be written.
A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, is published by Tor.
Review by Sean Sheehan
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