“Was there even such a thing as Mahit Dzmare, in the context of a Teixcalaanli city, a Teixcalaanli language, Teixcalaanli politics infecting her all through, like an imago she wasn’t suited for, tendrils of memory and experience growing into her like the infiltrates of some fast-growing fungus.” – Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire
A Memory Called Empire begins with a bizarre premise, but one that may be familiar to sci-fi fans. A remote mining outpost called Lsel Station sits on the edge of civilized space, allowed to remain independent from the galaxy-spanning Texicalaanli empire largely because it has nothing valuable to offer. But Lsel station has a secret. With a tiny population, they cannot afford to lose experience, even in death. More than a dozen generations ago, Lsel engineers invented a tiny device called an imago. Usually implanted around the age of 18, an imago records a person’s every thought and memory so that critical knowledge is never lost. When a person dies, their imago is removed and implanted in a young person. Lsel engineers need no training, because they remember building the station centuries before. Lsel pilots don’t need flight school because they already remember a thousand battles, including the ones they died in. If Texicalaan, an empire obsessed with recreating its own past, were to ever discover imago technology they would annex Lsel in an instant. That’s why Lsel’s most valuable imago lines are its diplomats, ambassadors to Texicalaan with literally generations of experience and memory to draw upon.
The last Lsel ambassador to Texicalaan was not well liked. During his 20 year career on Texicalaan, he returned to the station only once, so his imago recording is 15 years out of date. When Texicalaan demands a new ambassador to Lsel, no one has any idea what could have gone wrong. The new ambassador, Mehit Dzmare, is sent to Texicalaan with 15 years worth of memories missing. Worse, Mehit arrives in Texicalaan only to find that her predecessor was murdered. When her imago goes completely silent, leaving her stranded and alone in an empire as foreign as it is familiar, Mehit’s only hope is to find out who murdered her the last time she was here, before it happens again.
In many ways, A Memory Called Empire is the latest entry in a long line of science fiction literature. As Martine says in the first chapter of the book, in Texicalaanli the words for “empire”, “world”, and “city” are all the same. To Texicalaan, the empire is the only thing that exists, and the city is the only part of the empire that matters. This idea of The City as a world-defining concept traces its roots all the way back to Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, first published in 1953. While The Caves of Steel is often remembered as one of Asimov’s early robot novels, and an early exploration of his famous Laws of Robotics, what struck me most when reading it was his description of The City that his characters inhabit. Asimov’s City was a monstrous thing, a featureless steel cube whose inhabitants sacrificed every personal freedom, from privacy to the ability to leave, in order to be a part of it. As one of the City’s inhabitants explained, “The City was the acme of efficiency, but it made demands of its inhabitants. It asked them to live in a tight routine and order their lives under a strict and scientific control.” But the strangest part about the City was that it was completely voluntary. Its citizens were deprived of every right we would consider vital but, as one of Asimov’s characters discovers in a moment of revelation, the doors to the outside world are all unlocked. Anybody could walk out at any time. They do not, because the city is the world. City, world, empire.
In many ways, A Memory Called Empire is a better version of The Caves of Steel. Asimov may have been a visionary, but he was also a pretty terrible person by today’s standards. Many of his books are an unfortunate combination of genuinely compelling sci-fi ideas and rampant misogyny. His ideas inspired a generation of science fiction, but his books are very uncomfortable to read. A Memory Called Empire combines Asimov’s vision with a genuinely compelling narrative, one that does not include the morally suspect qualities of his books. Just like The Caves of Steel, A Memory Called Empire is a grand experiment about what humans will give up for survival. The hardest part of reading either book is realizing that the people in the City are not unhappy. Having given up so many of their rights to the empire, to the city, to the world, they are perfectly content. That realization, that people who seem perfectly normal can remain happy simply by ignoring the horrible things going on around them, is haunting.For all its beauty and adventure, A Memory Called Empire is a tragedy. Just as Texicalaan covers the dark truths of its empire with poetry, Martine’s beautiful prose paints the story of an empire stuck, if not trapped, in the past, and the ordeal of the people it paves over in its unceasing quest to be civilized. In the end, A Memory Called Empire wears its heart on its sleeve, or in this case its cover. Texicalaan is not an empire, it is a memory of empire. Whether in the story of one ambassador from Lsel station or in the history of an empire, with every perfectly chosen word, Martine asks the question: What happens when our memories betray us? What happens when we start to believe that the past was better than the present? This question seems particularly poignant today, when many seem to desire a return to the “good old days”. Many have said that the world of Texicalaan is equivalent to the Roman Empire and, to some extent, that is true. However, it is also the easy comparison. The United States is in many ways the modern day Roman Empire and so the United States can be perceived as Texicalaan as well. One of the largest countries in the world, with a military that swallows up more money every year, predisposed to glorify the heroes of our past. To see Texicalaan, one need look no farther than an American history textbook.