Blackfish City [Review]

Blackfish City

by Sam J. Miller
Ecco, 2018

Look at this cover. Isn’t this one of coolest book covers you’ve ever seen? The black background, the red, white, and blue neon tubes, the circular orca logo surmounted by an Inuit hunter, done in a style harkening to NW Coast Indian art… now this promises excitement!

Well, no.

The story sounded promising: a floating city in the North Sea, a woman that rides on a killer whale, a cast of characters who deal with the changes she brings. In execution, eehhhhh. As it turned out the city doesn’t have an Inuit culture at all, it’s more like Hong Kong on an oil rig. The “Blackfish” in the title was clearly stuck on there clearly to capitalize on the runaway success of the movie documentary of the same name, because  the orca rider, and orcas in general, do not play a big part in the plot. The main character was, in fact, a polar bear, with his paws enclosed in little cages to avoid clawing someone.

Now, how cool would such a city have been with an actual Inuit-based culture? But the author didn’t go there. Instead there’s the same old coffin hotels, messenger boy punks, brain implants that deliver email messages, yadda yadda yadda. It was more like this.

Much of the first half of the book was worldbuilding about the city along with some vague global history  that led to its founding, and the setup wasn’t too interesting, for me at least. Something about a AIDS-like disease that transmits the memories from infectee to infectee. No one in the city seems superconcerned about it. It was hard for me to care about it too, and hard to care about the four POV characters who have to deal with it.

There were a number of writing peeves in here I dislike, authorial tropes. There’s the zingy shocker and its stronger cousin, the last word zingy shocker. There’s wishy-washy ambiguity played out for suspense, and hipster cyberpunk window dressing, usually culturally appropriated. All the characters talk alike and are mouthpieces for the opinions of the author. One of which is LANDLORDS ARE BAD EVIL PEOPLE because they hold real estate empty and don’t let it out because of… reasons. Never mind that in such a future world surely corporations would hold such quantities of empty buildings, not flesh and blood people. And for a super-futuristic city there sure are a lot of reminders of the 2010s, like offices with desks, reception areas, and fancy decor. Already, in 2020, we’re moving away from that.

The four major characters mope through proceedings accomplishing nothing, and I suppose the author wants us to think of them as Beautiful Losers, but they’re really just jaded unpleasant to be around. They walk around in weary ennui, interacting every once in a while with a cheery street vendor or passerby (Authorial Trope #382 – the Glimpse of Sunlight) or display teeth-baring annoyance to a prissy co worker, but the end result is, they are all just spoiled brats.

Let me explain The Glimpse of Sunlight trope a little better.  In the midst of grim surroundings, the trope acts like a bit of sun coming out from between dark clouds, acting on the reader to let them know there is something good in this world or with these characters, something to make their struggles worthwhile, something worth fighting for. But if done poorly, it has the opposite effect: it shows the reader how contrived everything really is. It’s a glimpse behind the curtain at the author’s machinations.

I made it halfway through and couldn’t finish.

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