This Hugo Award winner is a weird beast. I hesitate to call it a political thriller because it isn’t thrilling enough. It’s definitely not a space opera, even though it is marketed as such. It can be described as a detective story, but that mystery is resolved halfway through the book. Memory is a beautifully written worldbuilding exercise, reminiscent of golden age science fiction where continuity and plot holes didn’t matter to the extent that descriptions the wonders of a fictional universe did. However, it is also different enough to feature a very nuanced protagonist and offer a fresh spin on afterlife.
Mahit Dzmare travels from her home, the mining space station Lsel, to the capital of the Teixcalaanli Empire to become her nation’s new ambassador. The empire had requested a replacement for the old one, and when she arrives, she finds that her predecessor, Yskandr Aghavn, had died under unclear circumstances. But she also carries him along. Lsel Station has the technology to implant devices under people’s skins that record their memories, which can later be implanted into other people. There, they gradually merge with their host. In some cases, the imagos, as the technology is called, can spread over fourteen generations, which is as long as the imago machines existed. Mahit has the imago of Yskandr from fifteen years ago, to help her with customs and politics in the empire. Unfortunately, the imago malfunctions when she sees Yskandr’s body, and she is left to her own devices.
Fortunately, she had been assigned a liaison, Three Seagrass, who would help her to navigate the court and customs of the civilized world. Mahit relies on her to try to find clues what happened to Yskandr. When she meets Yskandr’s former liaison, a bomb explodes nearby, killing the liaison and hurting Mahit. On the way from the chaos, in order to avoid the local security service whose motivations to arrest her are unclear, they find refuge with Nineteen Adze, the emperor’s formidable advisor. There, Mahit escapes another attempt on her life through a poisonous flower.
Mahit meets with the emperor, and slowly begins to unravel the mystery of Yskandr’s death. She begins to suspect that Yskandr’s task was to prevent the annexation of the Lsel Station by Teixcalaan, and she thinks that as a payment, Yskandr promised the aging emperor an imago machine, as a way to grant immortality. When she receives a coded message addressed to Yskandr, she decides that the only way to decode it would be to extract Yskandr’s imago machine from his dead body and have it surgically implanted in herself. After some cloak and dagger action, she manages just that, and with the help of a much more recent copy of Yskandr in her brain she not only decodes the message, but also learns how and why he died.
By that time, however, a coup has been launched in the city. An imperial general has triggered and invasion, while the citizens on the ground rallied behind one of the three designated co-emperor successors. Mahit and Three Seagrass navigate the streets full of riots and battles to deliver the emperor the decoded message that an alien force is threatening the empire, and this should take precedence to the unrest within the empire.
This synopsis doesn’t give full credit to the story. There are side stories, more political intrigue, a host of other secondary characters, and a very well developed political and cultural world where all this takes place. Teixcalaan is how I’d imagine the Aztec empire in space (which, I believe the author intended with its name). It is a mix of tradition, high culture and highly selective technology based on their moral code. For example, everyone walks around with an augmented reality screen over one eye, but messages are still written down and physically delivered. When the content should be kept secret, the messages are encoded in popular poems, as the entire society seems to be enamored with poetry. On the other hand, technology like the imago machines, is considered highly immoral, and Lsel has to keep it secret lest its citizens would be endangered.
Martine explains all this and much more through the eyes of Mahit. She is one of the most fascinating and best written protagonists I’ve seen in a long time. She is an unreliable observer, swept by the events, and yet manages to maintain her agency. Mahit is very young and inexperienced. Even though the studied the language and customs, she is way over her head in the politically and culturally intricate empire. As such, she often does not understand what she sees, and she conveys a false picture to the reader. For example, it took me a long time to figure out that she landed in the middle of a succession struggle, and even then, I didn’t know what prompted the struggle, because she didn’t bother to ask. The worldbuilding is also described through her experiences, so I didn’t “see” much from the empire itself, but this felt much more intimate. She also stumbles from one crisis to the next, often at the risk of her own life. Many other writers would just let her roll with the blows and keep her as a passive observer, but Martine gave her enough agency to make crucial decisions at the right moments, to actually drive the story.
She finds great help in Three Seagrass, who acts as her guide. Here, I was initially skeptical of this character. She is an employee of the Information ministry, with her own motivations and loyalties, and yet she helps Mahit without any questions, even when her actions go directly against the empire. She also recruits her friend to help out, too, and both of them do so with great enthusiasm. Only later I realized that Martine described a society so complacent and decadent that its own civil servants felt that the excitement from doing something nefarious was worth the risk to their life or liberty. Looking at it from this angle, the characters seemed far more authentic than I gave them credit before.
On a very personal note, I really appreciated the character names. Martine had all Teixcalaani citizens named through numbers. She also explains the cultural significance of this, so the naming convention does not sound absurd. This helped me to navigate through the large amount of secondary and bit characters, especially at and around the imperial court, and keep track of who is who. Martine has also proven her masterful grasp of the literary tongue. Just like Alastair Reynolds, she is extremely efficient with her wording, always conveying the meaning she intends. Unlike Reynolds, however, she uses very flowery language, which I’d compare to Roger Zelazny. She had me reach for my dictionary multiple times while reading the book.
One aspect of the book, which I found quite unappreciated by other reviewers, was the moral implication of the imago machines. The empire considers them immoral, but only because they are an extension of the entire immoral neurosurgery field. However, there are certain moral implication on Lsel as well. There, people strive to live in a way that would make it worth to preserve their minds in posteriority, as part of an imago recording. Conversely, there’s no bigger punishment than to have one’s imago line erased. This way the author created a very tangible afterlife, and even though she didn’t explore it too deeply, she left enough tantalizing hints to whet my appetite for more.
Unfortunately, Memory also has its drawbacks. As I mentioned in the introduction, it does not bother with logical and plot holes. The most egregious examples are the selective use of technology, and the unrealistically high amount of power an ambassador from a 30,000 strong statelet enjoys in an empire that spans multiple star systems. In addition, the book drags at places, primarily because of unnecessary scenes, which lead nowhere and don’t even further the worldbuilding. This may be showcasing Martine’s wonderful language, but it also feels as if the author was looking to branch out the story, abandoned some of her attempts, and her editor didn’t ask her to cut them out.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. It takes some careful reading to appreciate the protagonist and the nuances of the culture developed in Memory, but I thought the result was worth it. The story was not as strong as I would have liked, and the logical holes were large enough to drive a starship through, but the style and language offset these drawbacks and provided for very pleasant reading.