March 26, 2019

Arkady Martine

“The universe is enormous, and I love it quite desperately.”
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We talked to A Memory Called Empire author Arkady Martine about faster-than-light travel, the joys of creating a complicated naming-system and which historical figure’s memories she’d like implanted in her brain.

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One of the most dazzling new settings in science fiction, Arkady Martine’s the City, capital of the Teixcalaan Empire, is a giddily complex combination of the Byzantine empire and Mesoamerican civilizations spread out over the vast expanse of an entire planet. Martine’s debut novel, A Memory Called Empire, strands novice diplomat Mahit Dzmare at the center of the City without the benefit of an imago-line—the memories and experiences of her predecessor, accessed via a brain implant. Now totally lacking the mysteriously deceased Yskandr Aghavn’s guidance, Mahit must investigate his death and advocate for her small mining station home’s independence.

We talked to Martine about faster-than-light travel, the joys of creating a complicated naming-system and which historical figure’s memories she’d like implanted in her brain.

Your background as both a historian and an apprentice city planner really shines through in A Memory Called Empire, especially in your beautifully complex depiction of the City. What were your inspirations for it?
The City—the Jewel of the World, the heart of Teixcalaan—is an oecumenopolis, a world-city: essentially a planet that has been fully urbanized aside from its oceans and its natural reserves. City-planets are quintessentially space opera for me—Star Wars’ Coruscant, for example, but also any number of others. I love the visual of the idea. All that architecture, a planet that would glow like a jewel, lit up with glass and metal and lights. But cities aren’t just visuals. They’re real, complex, messy places, and a planet-size city would be complex to the point of near-ungovernability . . .

Which of course is where the algorithm-driven subway system and other city-ruling algorithms and artificial intelligences that I created for the Jewel of the World come in. And because I study history, and because I work in city planning, I knew when I began thinking about those algorithms that they were going to be biased, be about panopticon control, be about making citizens of Teixcalaan visible to policing and governing forces . . . and making noncitizens either invisible or singled out for persecution. Because that’s what algorithms tend to do, because algorithms are written by human beings.

The other deep inspiration for the City comes from the fact that I’m a New Yorker, in that deeply obnoxious sense of being a New Yorker who thinks there aren’t any other real places in the world, if you’re asking me honestly. (Yes, yes, I know.) But also I love my city very passionately. And I have also studied Byzantium’s capital, Constantinople, and been very aware of how similar the concept of city-as-center-of-the-universe was for Constantinopolitans as it is for New Yorkers, so I wanted to play with that as an element of how my characters related to their setting.

How did you come up with the Teixcalaanli naming system?
The number-noun naming system of Teixcalaan is a direct reference to the naming practices of the Mixtec people of Oaxaca, who, like many Mesoamerican peoples, were named for the day in the 260-day cycle of the year on which they were born: a cycle of 13 numbers and 20 signs (animals, plants and natural phenomena). For the Teixcalaanli names, I have a very extensive document of “how to do a Teixcalaanli name correctly,” but the simplest version is as follows.

Each Teixcalaanli personal name has a number part and a noun part. Both parts have symbolic meanings. The number part of the name is a whole integer (i.e. no negative numbers, no decimals or fractions, and irrational numbers like pi or e are only for jokes). The range of numbers is almost always between one and 100, with lower numbers being more common. (Numbers over 100 are a little like naming your kid “Moon Unit” or “Apple.” Except that “Apple” is a perfectly normal Teixcalaanli name, and “Moon Unit” is only a little weird. . .)

The noun part of a Teixcalaanli name is always a plant, an inanimate object or a concept (in order of likelihood). No animals and no self-propelled inanimate things—i.e. “boat” is an acceptable noun, but “self-driving car” is not. (Honestly, though, both “Boat” and “Self-Driving Car” are names that Teixcalaanlitzlim would laugh at.) A lot of plant names are flowers and trees, including some unusual ones, like “Cyclamen”; object names tend to be related to the natural world (“Agate”), astronomical objects or phenomena (“Solar-Flare”) or common objects, often ones that can be held and manipulated. Tools are highly represented, like “Adze” or “Lathe.” Occasionally object names refer to architecture—“Five Portico” is only a little bit odd as a name. (Something like “Two Paving-Stone” would be odd, but no odder than a kid named “Winston.”)

This is probably more information than you wanted to know. I went deep on the world building on this bit because it was so damn fun.

Where did the jumpgates come from?
So, wormholes (or “hyperspace”) as a solution to faster-than-light (FTL) travel are a classic sci-fi trick, and the jumpgates are functionally wormholes. If you imagine a wide-bore needle that pokes through a piece of fabric and then picks up a different part of the fabric on the other side, and holds them together, that’s what a jumpgate does. You can go in either direction, but you can only get from point A to point B or vice versa at each individual jumpgate, and point A and point B have no actual contiguous bits except the jumpgate. This produces a kind of patchwork of interstellar travel, where System X and System Y might be hundreds of light-years away but very well connected through jumpgates, and thus part of the same political and even cultural unit, but System X and System Z could be only three or four light-years away but not connected through jumpgates, and thus very divergent in politics and culture.

In the Teixcalaanli universe, there isn’t any FTL that doesn’t involve jumpgates. They can go pretty fast! But not faster than light. And the physics of it all is pretty normal—they experience relativistic effects when traveling near light speed, so really they want to take jumpgates as much as possible.

But none of that answers why. The why is: I wanted to mimic the communication and travel difficulties of a medieval empire, while having my empire be In Space. And the jumpgates essentially function as mountain passes: narrow places that only a little bit of an army can go through at a time. It creates real constraints on how, where and why an empire can expand . . . and that’s what I wanted to be able to play with.

So basically, I made up some very complex physics so I could reproduce the situation of a Byzantine army trying to get into the Armenian highlands in 1054 CE. ☺

The threat of an alien species is a major part if A Memory Called Empire’s plot, but you don’t describe any other encounters with actual nonhumans directly. How do you think any contact between humankind and alien species would go? Would any of them be amicable, or would they all be like the ones with the three-ring ships?
I think it depends very much on the aliens. I can imagine there are aliens we can talk to, and aliens we can’t; aliens who we think we can talk to, and we aren’t really communicating with at all; and aliens who we simply don’t have anything to say to, don’t share any resource concerns or desires with.

I hope the first set we meet are kind and smart and savvy, and also mammals who breathe oxygen and have hierarchical structure, because otherwise we’re going to not be able to figure out how to say anything useful and understandable, and if they’re not kind, they may decide they’re better off without us.

Humans have some growing up to do before I’d trust us with interstellar negotiation, basically.

If you were part of a historical figure’s imago-line, who would it be and why?
This is genuinely the hardest question anyone has asked me recently, because it’s so hugely self-revelatory. Um. I’d be honoured to be the recipient of James Tiptree, Jr./Alice Sheldon’s imago, and I think we’d be a surprisingly good match on aptitudes, but also I’d be scared as hell to take on a personality that is as strong and unique as hers. I love her work though, and it’s an enormous influence on mine.

For a more historical figure, I’ll be grandiose in my ambitions here and go for Börte Ujin, the Grand Empress of the Mongols, first wife of Temujin a.k.a. Genghis Khan, who ran the court in the center of the Mongol homeland. She was one of her husband’s closest advisors and a powerful ruler in her own right, a civilization builder and a politician. I’d like to be in the imago-line of her successors: a whole sequence of people who know how to create and manage a culture at a time of profound change, and did it through relationships and connections.

There’s one question that is explicitly raised in the book but never answered, so I thought I’d ask: How are the Sunlit made? Or is that a trade secret?
I am sorry to tell you that that is absolutely a trade secret, and you must stay tuned to find out. But you wouldn’t be wrong if you started thinking about those subway algorithms, and other ways of being a shared mind . . .

What’s next? Will there be more stories about Teixcalaan, or in Teixcalaan’s universe? Or something completely different?
There is a direct sequel to A Memory Called Empire, titled A Desolation Called Peace, coming out in 2020, which is a book about unwinnable wars, incomprehensible aliens and apocalyptic violenc—and also space kittens, unwise kissing and interstellar mail fraud. It’s the second part of Mahit’s story, and I’m very excited to be telling it. I absolutely don’t rule out writing more Teixcalaan books, either—the universe is enormous, and I love it quite desperately and have lots of ideas for books I could write. We’ll see how these two books are received and what my publisher is interested in!

But I’m also working on two other non-Teixcalaanli, novel-length projects. One is a “science fantasy” co-written with my wife Vivian Shaw, which contains, in no particular order, a post-nuclear war desertscape, mass-concentration-inducing minerals, a dead city that talks, a political romance, a pre-fab imperial colony town, a steppe kingdom with a city on a mountainside, a possibly alien or possibly magic local king and a geologist/mining engineer who ends up becoming a cartographer (among other things).

The other is the novel I’m currently calling “the one about drought politics, the Santa Ana winds and arson investigation,” because I’m terrible at titles. That one is my cities-and-climate-change novel, and to my fascination and despair, it seems to be about Los Angeles. As a New Yorker, I find this a bit distressing. But that’s what I get for really thinking about how Raymond Chandler books work, and whether they could fruitfully be combined with Peake’s Gormenghast and Tana French’s The Trespasser.

I’ve also got some plans in the works for a nonfiction book wthathich is about narrative-making, Byzantium, politics and possible futures—stay tuned, that’s a 2021 sort of thing.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Memory Called Empire.

Author photo by Karen Osborne.

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