I like to keep an eye on the ‘best new’ lists that do the rounds at the beginning of every month, highlighting some of the titles hitting shelves. One book, in particular, caught my eyes recently, A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. A space opera with alien civilisations and political conspiracies! This sounds so up my alley it’s like she read my mind.

I was desperate to not only read the book but get Arkady on the blog! I asked her about space operas, worldbuilding, conspiracies, and cultural differences.

A Memory Called Empire is out now from Tor Books.

Why did you want to write a space opera? What do you love about space operas?

I really love sprawling, visually lush, politically rich, space-based universes that are at the heart of ‘space opera’ as a genre. I am a big Star Wars fan an even bigger fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune. But I also love the ‘opera’ part of space opera as much as the ‘space’ part. When I think of ‘space opera’ I think about narratives which are high-intensity, high-drama: vivid emotionally and vivid conceptually. And far-future science fiction is my favorite place to play with large philosophical and ethical questions from sideways angles, to bring that high drama to ideas about, oh, what makes a person and how do we have good government and what does a planet-sized city really mean for the people who live in it, etc. And the space opera subgenre is perfect for this.

Creating an entire alien civilisation requires some intense worldbuilding. How did you approach this? And how do you get across enough information about their civilisation without info-dumping?

History is the trade secret of science fiction, to quote Patrick Nielsen Hayden. And I’m a historian, and that’s what helped me create Teixcalaan and Lsel in the depth that I did. In fact, this book is in a lot of ways the fictional version of my postdoctoral project at Uppsala University in Sweden. My research there was about the contacts between Byzantium and the ‘eastern frontier’, particularly Armenia, during the eleventh century – and how those contacts were remembered, represented, and narrativized by the people who lived through them. The project was very much about borderlands as trauma spaces, about history and memory as narrative repairs to a wounded sense-of-the-world. A Memory Called Empire came out of that project, and a lot of previous research into the history of imperialism, its methods and horrors and seductions.

But aside from that direct inspiration, the Teixcalaanli empire is what happened when I put Byzantium, the Mexica, and the Mongol Empire in a blender; it is a culturally imperialistic universalizing empire that thinks it is the only real civilization in the universe. And Lsel Station comes from my forever-long obsession with generation ships and cultural transformation in closed societies. (Blame Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero for that one, though the best modern examples for me are Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder trilogy and Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts.) Which is all an elaborate way of saying that I built almost everything in this novel piecemeal: a lot of it came from having a defined aesthetic that I wanted to hit, and going looking for what fit that aesthetic. I’m not someone who plans much in advance, in terms of writing things down; I find them when I need them, and the work I do beforehand is just developing for myself a sense of what feels right and what doesn’t, for the culture I’m creating.

To try to get all of that on the page for the audience, though – that’s where the epigrams that start each chapter come in. Because, well – how do you put in all the worldbuilding and richness and complexity of a giant space opera universe, while still keeping the pacing and tension of your political thriller spy novel? I ended up writing chapter epigrams, which were quotes from in-universe texts I’d created for just this purpose. A customs form, a tourist guide, a pilot’s manual, portions of contradictory histories written about the same event from different cultures’ points of view, a transcript of a news program, a propaganda poster (and what it was defaced with), a request for supply requisition, a bunch of different poems, an instruction sheet on how to apply for a particular job training scheme, a flyer for an intramural handball game … anything and everything, the ephemera of a real world that produces real texts.

I think I stole this trick from Dune. Thanks, Princess Irulan.

A Memory Called Empire contains politics, intrigue, and conspiracy – something that seems to crop up time and again in scifi. Why does this kind of mystery work so well in science fiction? 

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine - book cover

The plot structure of A Memory Called Empire is heavily inspired by classic spy novels. I read a lot of John le Carré, and what I adore about his work is both the intense internality of a protagonist engaged in spycraft – how they have to think about what they’re doing from multiple, mutually contradictory angles, all the time – and also how there’s usually an inciting incident which drops the protagonist into a political conflict they aren’t prepared for. The murder mystery is a great inciting incident: someone is dead, we don’t know why, the protagonist needs to figure it out. In a spycraft-based novel, the murder victim usually has information the protagonist really needed, and now they have to work to get it some other way – which also helps kickstart their involvement in the politics. So for me, murder mysteries and political thrillers are very close friends, plotwise.

And space operas use this plot structure all the time! I’m certainly not the first. Frank Herbert’s Dune, which I mentioned earlier, but also C.J. Cherryh’s work – Cyteen especially is a good comparison, since it’s also a murder mystery with political consequences, using space opera technology to make the questions it asks much more focused and pointed and strange. And more recently, books like Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes, which is a literal murder mystery in space! I think this inciting incident format works incredibly well in science fiction, especially space opera, because it forces the reader to get to know the world because the protagonist so desperately needs to figure out what information they’re missing, and thus goes exploring.

A key element of the novel involves the ‘navigating of an alien culture’. Why did you want to tackle cultural differences?

I was highly influenced by CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner books, particularly the first six books (which, to me, form the heart of the arc of the series). Cherryh’s diplomat-embedded-in-an-alien-culture, dealing with assimilatory and existential pressures in a time of political crisis, Bren Cameron, is a direct ancestor of my Mahit Dzmare. But more importantly, A Memory Called Empire is a book which is deeply concerned with empire, colonialism, and cultural assimilation. The colonialist power – Teixcalaan – both culturally and militarily threatens the independence of Mahit’s home, Lsel Station. And essentially, I feel as if empire is something that is either taken for granted in space opera – un-interrogated, simply present as a fact of worldbuilding – or else it is rendered so evil as to be incomprehensibly bad (what does the First Order in Star Wars, for example, actually do for any of its citizens?). And empire is nastier than both those options. It is a kind of poison that gets into the groundwater, and it can be very, very pretty while it strangles a culture. So I wanted to work with that, think about that, really dig into it.

Pitch A Memory Called Empire to us! Why should we be reading it?

If you like House of Cards, this is like House of Cards in space. If you like poetry, this has plot-bearing poetry contests. If you’re really into subways, there’s a whole sub-plot about subways and routing algorithms and sneaky police state panopticon use of such algorithms. And if you like slow-burn wlw romances … well, I’ve got one of those, too. ☺

Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a Byzantine historian.

Her work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Ideomancer, Strange Horizons, and various academic journals, amongst other places. She was a student at Viable Paradise XVII.