I got two gifts in the work Secret Santa this year, an NROL-39 Mission Patch sticker and a copy of Blackfish City, a science fiction novel by Sam J. Miller. I’d not heard of the book, but then I’ve not been paying much attention lately to the SF/F scene I guess – I read a lot more non-fiction these days.

First impression – the cover to the UK edition looked a bit like a cheap airport novel (having subsequently seen it, I prefer the US cover). Something about the colours and fonts, together with a full complement of six promotional quotes on the front. Based on this, I’d probably have passed it by on the shelf without a second glance. Superficial, I know, but I guess it goes to show the influence a cover can have – despite the fact that I’m fully aware of how little influence most writers have over the marketing of their books and what a poor heuristic this is for a book’s contents. As this was a gift, and given the general good taste of my esteemed colleagues, I thought I should give it a go.

Fortunately the book was far better than my reaction to the cover would have led me to suspect. The book is structured in chapters from a range of point-of-view characters, each simply named for the person in question, interspersed with extracts from a text-within-a text, City Without a Map or from the various media outlets operating in the book’s setting, the floating city of Qaanaaq. These fragments offer a nice way to provide background and exposition as well as a mystery that threads through the book’s action. The writing is good, particularly the interstitial fragments.

Qaanaaq is intriguing and its world all too believable. A floating arctic city dominated by a secretive class of rentier capitalists in a world devastated by climate change. Power is obfuscated behind layers of inscrutable software agents and some tokenistic democracy, a largely anarcho-capitalist arrangement that ensures the continued security of the shareholder landlords who have ruthlessly maintained their wealth and power through the chaos and violence of the preceding years of disruption and collapse.

The city is populated mainly by refugees and is being swept by a mysterious plague called “the breaks”. The breaks kills those it infects by flooding them with the memories of previous sufferers, eventually overwhelming their minds and bodies. Into this arrives a mysterious woman on a quest, the last survivor of a community of posthumans who bond their minds with animals using an experimental nanotechnology. These “nanobonders” were almost exterminated in one of many genocidal purges tacitly encouraged by powerful interests to ensure people were too busy hating one another to unite and deal with the real threat to their lives.

This is a political book. You could read it purely as a thriller with an exotic setting but you’d be missing much of the nuance. The main themes concern power and exploitation and their consequences for our world and the individuals within it. Although the trappings are science fiction it is clearly relevant to today, covering the intersection of power and the ruthlessness of those who use their wealth to maintain it with the suffering and dehumanisation of the marginalised. The casual way their fates are rendered invisible or portrayed as the result of their own lack of faith, or their race, class, or gender, or whatever other factor can be exploited to separate them from those with whom they might otherwise find solidarity. But there’s also hope and the strength and love that can be found in family and community when these divisions are overcome, despite some inevitable tragedy.

There is violence and loss, redemption and revenge. Some answers and some hope for the future. At first I felt that some of the partial resolutions were a bit pat, but on reflection I think that this first impression was wrong, just like my initial response to the book’s appearance, and the whole thing hangs together pretty well. I’d certainly read another book by Sam J. Miller.

Oh, and don’t judge a book by its cover.