Out on the edge of civilized space, Lsel Station, the largest of the Stationer settlements, is home to some thirty thousand humans, a gateway to a few further systems, and the holder of some remarkable neurotechnology. The center to which Lsel is peripheral is the Teixcalaanli Empire, a star-spanning empire in the grand tradition with starfaring legions, a capital world that is almost entirely city, and a succession crisis in which minor characters wind up playing a major role. Communication between star systems is only as fast as the fastest jump ship, echoing the state of terrestrial empires prior to the invention of the telegraph.
Lsel has received an urgent message requesting that a replacement for the station’s ambassador to the empire be sent as quickly as possible. Further details are not forthcoming, but the implication is clearly that the ambassador has died at his post. That’s more than unfortunate for the station for several reasons.
The neurotechnology that plays an important role in Lsel’s culture is called “imago,” and it is a full recording of a person’s knowledge and memories at a particular point in time. After that person’s death, an imago recording is implanted in the brain of someone with a compatible personality, giving the recipient full access to the lifelong experiences of the deceased. Done repeatedly, this creates an imago line of massive knowledge. Some of Lsel’s lines of spaceship pilots stretch back fourteen generations. The imago is also considered a crucial secret, and knowledge of its existence is not passed to outsiders.
The sudden and presumably permanent indisposition of the Lsel ambassador to Teixcalaan is unfortunate because he had not been back to the station in fifteen years. Without his body, the recording of all of those years is lost to the imago makers on the station. His successor Mahit Dzmare, the protagonist of A Memory Called Empire, will take her position missing vast amounts of knowledge that she would otherwise expect to have. Further, the previous ambassador’s mission was to deflect, or delay as long as possible, Teixcalaan’s intention to annex Lsel and its allied stations. The empire is vast and could easily bring Lsel into its fold, but the empire also has myriad interests and problems, and a deft ambassador could work to see that imperial attention turns elsewhere, maybe even for a generation or more.
A Memory Called Empire offers readers court intrigue in a space-opera setting. Mahit has been dropped — literally, as chapter one opens with her falling in a capsule to the surface of Teixcalaan’s capital world — in at the deep end and must learn to swim fast or sink utterly, possibly taking her world with her. She has to do it alone. Not only does she lack the full imago that she should have gotten from her predecessor, soon after her arrival the partial imago that she possesses crashes, possibly overwhelmed by seeing his dead body, possibly the result of deeper machinations. And she has to do it fast, because there are signs that Teixcalaan’s attention has settled on Lsel and its cherished independence will not last long.
Martine’s background is a historian of Byzantium, and she began writing A Memory Called Empire during an intensive course in the Armenian language. Martine says in her acknowledgments that she was “writ[ing] sbout assimilation and language and the seduction and horror of empire.” (p. 463) Mahit comes from the periphery just outside of Teixcalaan, and she has grown up entranced by what it has to offer. She studied the language, devoured the media shows, tried writing her own poetry in the Teixcalaanli styles and idioms. She’s a fangirl called to be a diplomat, where she comes to realize that the empire would sweep away the order that she knows, the order that everyone she knows has worked for generations to keep intact, without even really noticing. She has come of age loving Teixcalaan, but Teixcalaan does not love her back. Inferences about overwhelming terrestrial powers are left as inferences for the readers.
What I thought about A Memory Called Empire depends a lot on which measuring stick I use. I found that the pace of roughly the first two-thirds was more like an imperial progress than a breakneck adventure. I did not have much difficulty putting the book down from time to time, and in fact I read three or five other books in the time between when I began Martine’s novel and when I finished. Two key premises of the book strained my suspension of disbelief.
First, that Lsel Station has sustained a space-borne civilization for centuries with just thirty thousand people. This is roughly the population of Morristown, Tennessee. It’s big enough to support two high schools, but the city’s minor-league baseball team folded about 60 years ago. I have a hard time seeing how Lsel can support the industrial base necessary for its own maintenance, let alone for a fleet of starships, let alone develop a technology that is beyond the capabilities of the immense Teixcalaan Empire. A better Tennessee comparison might be Oak Ridge, which is about the same size and is certainly home to cutting-edge technologies. Those are there because a continent-spanning bureaucratic state that was the world’s largest economy at the time chose to concentrate a hugely disproportionate share of national resources in one location to advance the state’s utmost priority. Maybe Martine has a very unusual backstory in mind for Lsel, but every time I read “thirty thousand people” I thought “no way.”
Second, Mahit is incredibly young for an ambassador, especially one whose mission will likely determine the station’s fate. Part of the explanation comes from the small population, and the implication that older people have already become part of an imago line and are thus unavailable, but that struck me as shaky reasoning. Insofar as a state the size of San Marino at all, Teixcalaan is Lsel’s most important neighbor. The ambassadorial posting is going to be coveted and not left to a novice. Further, there seems to be no institutional support at all for Mahit. The entirety of the embassy is her. Teixcalaan provides a cultural liaison, but that’s part of the problem: embassy staff provided by the host inherently play two roles, often in conflict with each other. Especially when conquest is involved. Martine shows this problem clearly and eventually opts for the liaison to make a choice, but it still demonstrates the absurdly small size of the embassy. Every time I was reminded about Mahit’s age, I thought “nah.”
Another measuring stick, though, is that A Memory Called Empire is Martine’s first published novel, and on that scale it’s quite an achievement. It’s a much better book than, say Ursula K. Le Guin’s first published novel. She has built a fictional empire that feels real, and she has populated her book with characters that interested me and whose stories kept me reading. I could have stood for more judicious insertion of cultural background, but a big part of what Martine wants to write about is the effect of empire on people living nearby: its attractions, its ability to shape (or obliterate) other cultures without noticing at all what it is doing.
The attractions of empire are real. Consider Georgia, where I lived from 2008 to 2012. The country that is now Georgia was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1803 and remained in Moscow’s orbit through the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Georgian language is not quite an isolate, but the languages of the Kartvelian family are spoken by far fewer people than that of their northern neighbor. Russia offered Georgians with ambition a larger stage, and many of them auditioned. In the early years after annexation, Georgian intellectuals who had gone north were said to have “drunk from the waters of the Terek,” a river in the north Caucasus, implying that they had seen and done more than their compatriots who had stayed home. In the years since Georgia regained its independence, its politics have often seemed to me to have something of a hothouse quality, full of people whose abilities and ambitions are confined by their current conditions. Participation in a larger project — perhaps that of Europe — would be good for them and for the country they seek to serve. So Martine’s theme resonated with me, even as I thought the set-up improbable. (Incidentally, Ani, the Bagratid kingdom of Armenia that was one of Martine’s inspirations for Lsel, shared a ruling dynasty with medieval Georgia and surely fought with Georgians over some of the same lands.)
Finally, A Memory Called Empire has an ending that affected me more than I expected. For all that I had kept a distance from the first two-thirds or so of the book, as the story came to a close I felt both the grandeur that Martine had built up and the inevitable effects that choices and events had on all of the key characters. For me, the end came at just the right time and contained just the right balance of choice and repercussion. What happened was both the result of choices made long ago and of actions taken at the very end, a satisfying resolution of conflicts that nonetheless contained surprises.
Doreen’s review of A Memory Called Empire is here. I agree that the book would have gained from a much more sparing use of italics throughout.