An aspect of history that often goes unconsidered is the fact that the “barbarian cultures” conquered by the Roman Empire—and, later, the Byzantine Empire—certainly wouldn’t have described themselves as such—labels of barbarism, like history, being writ by the conquerers. As a historian of the Byzantines, Dr. AnnaLinden Weller—who writes science fiction under the pseudonym Arkady Martine—certainly knows this better than most, and her understanding lends depth and breadth to the compelling political mystery that drives her excellent debut novel A Memory Called Empire.
The story centers on Mahit Dzmare, a young diplomat of Lsel Station, an independent, planet-less civilization thriving on the edges of the massive, dominant, ever-expanding Teixcalaanli Empire. When a Teixcalaanli warship arrives at the station demanding a new ambassador be sent to the empire’s capital planet, Mahit is selected and somewhat hastily outfitted with an imago machine containing the stored memories and personality of her ambassadorial predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn.
The imago is an implanted device that merges the recorded personality and memories of its former host with those of its new one; the effect, in text at least, is not wholly unlike having someone in your head to converse with, and decades of experiences not your own to draw from. Imagos are the system Lsel has developed to conserve the essential knowledge and experience of its ancestors and keep their civilization alive in the hostile environment of space. Understandably, they are something of a state secret. It takes many months for a host to fully bond with a new imago, but unfortunately, the rushed demands of the Teixcalaanli don’t allow Mahit that luxury. Worse, Yskander hadn’t been back to Lsel Station in 15 years, so the imago Mahit is given is woefully out of date.
These competing factors mean that the young ambassador would be ill-prepared to face the political pressure cooker of the capital city even if she didn’t arrive there to discover that Yskander—the one that exists outside of her head—has been murdered, and a crisis of imperial succession is underway. The shock of learning of “his” death sends the Yaskander imago into malfunction, leaving Mahit yet more woefully unprepared to serve as the last line of diplomatic defense against Lsel’s forced annexation. To safeguard her people, Mahit must solve a dual mystery: who killed Yskander, and what was he doing on Teixcalaan that made him the target of a political assassination? All she has on her side is her quick mind, her expertise in Teixcalaanli culture, and the aide of a diplomatic liaison named Three Seagrass (Teixcalaanli naming conventions, which combine lucky numbers with evocative, symbolically significant nouns, are one of the novel’s many delights).
Mahit is faced with many immediate challenges that don’t sound quite like the stuff of space opera—a stack of unanswered mail being a chief example—but Arkady achieves the feat of making quiet conversations of procedure with palace officials as tense and thrilling as an action sequence. Mahit’s inquiries put her at the mercy of powerful, competing factions in the Imperial court, and she must be diligent if she wishes to avoid Yskander’s fate as she probes possible acts of sedition and betrayal that hold immense implications for both Lsel and the empire itself.
Intriguing mystery aside, the novel truly impresses in its worldbuilding, and most especially in the way Martine studies the interplay between Teixcalaanli and Lsel culture, the colonizer and the prospective colonized. Mahit, who grew up steeped in Teixcalaanli poetry and romantic epics, is proud to be a citizen of Lsel Station, but she’s also a huge Teixcalaanli fangirl. It’s easy to imagine a Bulgarian emissary traveling to Constantinople in the 11th century with a similar attitude—a combination of resentment, pride, and awe. Mahit’s love of Teixcalaanli culture is one reason she’s so good at an incredibly difficult job. But the spoils of empire also come with costs, and the novel also considers how Teixcalaanli culture consumes and subsumes, how it views all that is not of itself as barbaric. Other civilizations are so influenced by the ubiquity of anything Teixcalaanli they take on the ways of Teixcalaan long before they’re absorbed by it. Mahit’s love for her potential conquerers is a powerful illustration of the insidious weight of empire, making domination by the Teixcalaanli seem not only inevitable—but perhaps welcomed. It’s brilliant worldbuilding.
As a stranger in a strange land, Mahit provides a compelling view of the colonizing culture. She’s painfully conscious of her youth and inexperience, but also fiercely intelligent and determined. She’s no fool, and knows the cost of misplaced trust. She’s also brave; she represents a tiny station that every Teixcalaanli assumes will be subsumed into the empire eventually, yet she never gives an inch. The other characters are just as well drawn. Mahit’s liaison Three Seagrass is an educated patrician who glides effortlessly through the politics and social orders of the empire with humor and warmth—you understand how these two become instant, if tentative, friends. As Mahit discovers that the aged, heirless emperor Six Direction has appointed no fewer than three co-emperors to succeed him, the other members of the high court come into equally clear focus, as the author’s historical expertise pays off; she captures the mixture of awe and savagery inherent in powerful imperial systems. (The Teixcalaanli Empire is a place where poetry ciphers hide encoded messages and poisonous flowers are delicate tools of symbolic assassination.)
From Dune to Red Rising, science fiction loves to look to real history as a template for invented futures. In A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine climbs inside of history to bring it to animate, immediate life. Amid a wave of resurgent space operas, it stands apart, as pointed and dangerous as the spokes jutting from the sun-spear throne of the Teixcalaanli emperor.