Apr 3, 2019

It‘s the X-Men, after all

Not quite a review of Sam J. Miller‘s Blackfish City

Blackfish City looked like THE thing to me – a book about climate change and gentrification, endorsed by Ann Leckie and Daryl Gregory, compared to Kim Stanley Robinson‘s work … I thought I was bound to love this but when I finished reading it, I did not only feel let down, but also slightly angry.
So I won‘t pretend this is a review. It is an opinion piece that is probably of more interest to people who have already read Blackfish City then to those who haven‘t, and it is very much about what I wanted to book to be. I‘d like to ask forgiveness for any inaccuracies: I‘ve read this book about three months ago and initially decided not to review it; but since my anger keeps coming back to haunt me, it must be vented out.

From here on, beware of SPOILERS.

There‘s a short passage early in Blackfish City about journalists visiting a group of the nanobonded – people who, as a result of shady government experiments, have become bonded to individual animals in a shamanistic, quasi-supernatural way. These journalists are looking for heartwarming and heroic stories of the oppressed, and the novel quite obviously derides them for it. They‘re just there to find some story that will make them feel better about the world and themselves, not to actually see the nanobonded or support them. The passage suggests quite strongly that the nanobonded are not outlaws with cool powers, as some of the journalists would probably like to have it; they‘re just another footnote in the global history of the bloody persecution of all kinds of othered groups.

And then, the novel goes on depicting the nanobonded as outlaws with cool powers. Basically, they‘re the X-Men. Hey, there‘s actually nothing wrong about the X-Men. I just don‘t want to read a novel about them, especially when this novel more or less explicitly states that it is NOT about the X-Men.

For one thing, there‘s the inherent coolness of a woman with a quite bloodthirsty orca whale and a chained polar bear, whose abilities as a deadly fighter with a scythe are depicted as verging on the supernatural. There‘s how for at least two characters, the ring-fighter Kaev and the political lackey Ankit, everything falls into place once they (re-)discover their animal bonds. In Kaev‘s case, this makes at least sense because he has been hurt so much by the loss of his animal companion. But for Ankit, family is destiny: She‘s the daughter of nanobonded, so she‘s going to be nanobonded as well. After some initial reserve, she soon decides to take the orca-woman Masaraaq up on her offer, and the result is depicted as a liberation. Ankit gets bonded to a monkey and, with its help, becomes a freerunner again, like in her youth, only more amazing. So the whole thing boils down to stories about people who are either extraordinary from the get-go or who discover how extraordinary they are. The one guy who breaks the mold of super-heroic extraordinariness in this novel, Fill, is killed off on a way that I would argue is quite pointless (even though once again, the books seems to suggest the opposite).

As the novel progresses, family becomes the all-important category. All the main characters are part of a family, they‘re all bound by it, and they‘re all on a mission to rescue a family member from a mental institution. And of course, it turns out that this family member is not only a super hero, she is a super-hero because she has understood that the breaks, this terrible and bizarre illness that has been harrowing the city of Qaanaaq, is actually a super-power. Once again, a story about people suffering from an outright criminal policy (in that case, the decision to actively other the infected instead of finding ways to battle their condition or enable them to live with it) is turned into a story about how these people are actually super-heroes to be.

It‘s not that Blackfish City glosses over the grisly details or the shades of gray – I mean, this is obviously not an upbeat book about super-people saving the day. It‘s full of tragedy, it‘s cynical about what its heroes have achieved in the end, and with Go, it features at least one highly ambivalent character who luckily never quite ends up as the Criminal Who Has a Heart of Gold After All. But it‘s just not enough.

There are some other things that really bugged be about Blackfish City, like the death of a minor character that should have had major repercussions, but is just glossed over. The whole thing felt forced just for the sake of added grittiness, without any real motivation behind it or any sense of consequences. The romance between Kaev and Go doesn‘t ring true to me, and the showdown is a pretty uninspired by-the-numbers action setpiece. And if you ask me, the human-animal nanobond lacks the necessary ambivalence to feel believable– it is nothing but empowering and liberating, becoming traumatic only when the bond is severed. Problems like „you must take care not to lose yourself in the polar bear and become a fierce animal“ don‘t really feel like problems, more like power fantasies.

The good things about Blackfish City – the compelling initial characterizations of Kaev and Ankit, the depiction of the housing problem and the breaks in terms of actual political interests and conflicts – all get wiped away by the X-family story that takes over about halfway through. Where there might have been a story about solidarity and political choices, we get a story about family and personal destiny. While there‘s nothing principally wrong about the latter, Blackfish City very much feels like it wants to be the former; more importantly, I wanted it to be the former. I expected it to be a political book, and that is something it never quite achieves.

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