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One Good Thing: The wonderful sci-fi novel A Memory Called Empire makes diplomacy enthralling

This award-winning book is equal parts Game of Thrones, Cold War realpolitik, anti-colonialist tale, and Star Wars prequel.

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A Memory Called Empire’s cover illustration of a throne that radiates spikes.
The cover illustration from Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire depicts a young woman meeting a very old emperor.
Tor Books

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations series. In each edition, we’ll tell you about something from the world of culture that we think you should check out.

Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, which recently won the Best Novel award at science fiction’s prestigious Hugo Awards, reads like its author was simultaneously influenced by Game of Thrones, histories of the Cold War, various anti-colonialism writings, and the Star Wars prequels. It’s a grand, galaxy-spanning space opera that is mostly about diplomacy. Or, if you prefer, it’s an impressively wonky novel about galactic geopolitics that just happens to feature spaceships and aliens. I love it.

It’s difficult to talk about A Memory Called Empire without spoiling some of its best surprises because the core of the book sounds impossibly dry. But let me give it a shot anyway, because the best way to read this book is to know almost nothing about what happens after its first few chapters.

Mahit Dzmare is just 26 years old, and she’s been named ambassador to the mighty Teixcalaanli Empire. She grew up on tiny Lsel Station, a space station near extremely important jumpgates that allow the Teixcalaanli people to travel easily to other parts of the galaxy. The control of those gates has allowed Lsel to maintain independence rather than being sucked into the empire. (In this far-future world, humanity has carved out its own corner of the Milky Way, but life on various planets and space stations has created impressive genetic variance as natural selection does its thing. Mahit, for instance, is taller than the average Teixcalaanli citizen.)

Like others from Lsel Station, Mahit’s brain contains something called an “imago,” a machine that gives her access to the memories and feelings of her predecessor, Yskander, just as he had access to the memories of his predecessor, and so on, back through several ambassadors. The people of Lsel Station use these imagos to create long lines of knowledge and intelligence, a kind of institutional memory turned very literal. Such neurological enhancements are illegal within the empire, but goodness, wouldn’t the empire like to get its hands on them anyway?

But Mahit’s imago is out of date. Yskander died — or maybe (probably) was murdered — before he was able to update his imago with the last 15 years of his ambassadorship. She only has five years of memories, and they are woefully incomplete, leaving her reeling when forced to navigate situations that Yskander would have known how to handle but that she does not.

That’s probably all you should know before starting this book because Martine takes that basic premise and weaves it into an addictive tale of political intrigue, espionage, and interstellar war. The story remains firmly within Mahit’s point of view as Teixcalaanli society stands on the brink of catastrophe and Mahit tries to untangle a web of promises made and deals cut by Yskander, who was almost certainly killed because of the many different diplomatic balls he kept trying to juggle. Can Mahit avoid the same fate?

What’s impressive to me about A Memory Called Empire is the way it takes all of the above — which could sound like impenetrable sci-fi nonsense that only the devoted and/or diehard diplomacy wonks would be able to wade through — and grounds it in recognizable human traits. For all of its big, exciting plot devices, the book is most concerned with the ways that gigantic empires gobble up local cultures almost without trying.

Mahit spent most of her life studying Teixcalaanli culture, not because she ever expected to be an ambassador but because it seemed so much more exciting and glamorous than her own. But now that she’s actually embedded within the empire, she longs for home all the same, and her imago becomes a kind of link to a place she might never see again, both literally (imagos only exist in Lsel) and figuratively (it’s a deep, psychological connection to the history of her people).

When you live in a place filled with power and wealth, it can be difficult to see how power and wealth breed destruction radiating out from the center. The empire can’t help but knock over smaller, independent nations, because even when it doesn’t try to, its pop culture and brand of politics infect everything around it. Smaller nations can stay alive through crafty diplomacy or military might or some combination of the two, but they still have to coexist in a world built by people who don’t realize how much chaos they’ve caused. The chaos becomes oxygen. It’s all around, so it must be normal.

What’s even more impressive about A Memory Called Empire is how Martine weaves a conflict between a colonial power and the not-yet-but-probably-some-day colonized, alongside a conflict about the political struggles within the empire, struggles that move toward the book’s forefront as they continue, with Mahit and her imago right in the middle. She can’t stop what’s coming, but she can maybe influence it via crafty diplomacy and some light espionage. And in so doing, she might buy a little more time for Lsel, which is all she can ever ask for.

Martine does some impressive world-building, from the idea of a city as a single algorithm that can be corrupted to the way Teixcalaanli citizens name themselves — with a number and then a noun (the novel’s most important supporting character, for example, is Three Seagrass). And sometimes this world-building happens almost as a grace note at the novel’s edges, as do the numerous examples of Teixcalaanli poetry she includes.

Mostly, however, A Memory Called Empire offers a reflection on what it means to know everything about a place and how it’s hurt people you love, while still longing to, in some ways, be of that place. Mahit doesn’t want to be a Teixcalaanli citizen, yet she can’t help but wish she could all the same. It would make so many things so much easier. And yet it would also be a betrayal. So, ever the diplomat, she seeks a middle ground, as everyone around her tries to knock her off the razor-thin wire she balances upon.

A Memory Called Empire is available through bookshop.org and all major booksellers, though I had to wait a bit to get a copy, due to the novel’s popularity in the wake of the Hugo win. A sequel will arrive in 2021.

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