Loving the Oppressor: Identity in A Memory Called Empire

Alana reviews Arkady Martine's space opera mystery, A Memory Called Empire.

A Memory Called Empire
Photo: Tor Books

Everything you love is problematic.

There have been tons of great articles written about loving problematic things—and learning how to be OK with loving that thing while still engaging with what’s problematic about them—to the extent that the phrase “your fave is problematic” spawned an entry on Know Your Meme. This may be why, Mahit Dzmare, the perspective character of Arkady Martin’s A Memory Called Empire, reads so familiar.

Mahit, the Ambassador of Lsel Station, a small outpost in a big galaxy predominantly ruled by the expansive Teixcalaanli Empire, lives in a vastly different universe than modern commentators. But, like many of the bloggers critiquing pop culture, Mahit is the member of a minority population—and she has an unabashed love for many aspects of the dominant culture. Being an Ambassador is her dream job, but it’s one that puts her in direct confrontation with how she loves a culture that may very well try to consume her own.

The universe of A Memory Called Empire.

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There’s no real sense of how the universe came to be the way it is in A Memory Called Empire—but the narrative never really needs to give us one. What we know is this: Lsel Station (the Stationers) is on the outskirts of the galaxy, sitting at a jump gate. They want to maintain control of that gate and their own sovereignty.

Teixcalaan is a vast Empire, with a distinctly Aztec-inspired flare, whose culture has expanded even the reach of their own government. They have a long history of conquering world after world, such that their word for the concepts of their central planet (“the City”), their Empire, and the world itself are all one and the same. Once a planet has become part of their Empire, they revolve around the City, because it is the center of all things that matter.

Teixcalaan is ruled by an Emperor who has the weight of divine blessing about him, but also the acclaim of the people—or he finds himself replaced. (The Emperor Mahit meets during Memory of Empire is a man, but other genders can be Emperor as well.)

Over the course of Teixcalaanli history, Emperors have been overthrown by formidable warriors and generals, who then go on to write the histories that they became ruler not through popular acclaim (though that is a necessary formal step), but because the stars themselves ordained it. Everyone knows the histories, and everyone can recite the poetry in which history is captured, such that letters are encrypted based on cyphers developed from the most popular modern poet in the City.

And, of course, any “barbarian” from beyond the City (the Empire/the world) can’t be expected to follow all that weight of history, all the legacy of that literature. Early on, Mahit’s liaison, Three Seagrass, says: “I don’t at all mean to be disparaging. I’m sure that on your station you are an extremely educated person.” This, of course, is followed by a “But.” But of course Mahit couldn’t possibly know all the things she needs to keep up. Mahit responds:

“We do have poetry out on Lsel, you know.”

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“I know,” said Three Seagrass, with such sympathy that Mahit wanted to shake her.

Cover for A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

A hidden advantage.

Mahit is hiding her own cultural legacy and heritage from the Teixcalaanli, who would find it at best distasteful and at worst an opportunity for exploitation.

The Stationers have imagos, impressions of the memories of former people in their same positions. A pilot would inherit the imago of a like-tempered pilot who had died, who likewise inherited an imago from the former generation, and so on. After some time, the imago and the pilot become integrated into a single person, dominated mostly by the personality of the living person, but with the skills, experience, and muscle memory of all those generations before.

For Mahit, her imago is Yskandr, the former Ambassador. The pair are very much alike: they fell in love with Teixcalaanli literature and poetry in academic circles on Lsel, fancying that perhaps they, too, could write such poetry. They both had the same experience, in encountering a Teixclaanli poem, of feeling, “At last, there are words for how I feel, and they aren’t even in my language—”

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Something about Teixcalaan speaks to them, and it is only through Yskandr’s untimely death that Mahit is able to enact her dream of traveling to the City herself. Her imago is fifteen years out of date—Yskandr hasn’t been back to Lsel to refresh it—and, shortly after her arrival, it stops functioning at all, leaving her without the years of experience she was relying on in order to not only do her job, keeping Teixclaan from conquering her home, but to solve the mystery of Yskandr’s murder.

The resulting novel spins with intrigue as Mahit finds herself not only embroiled in court politics at a much higher level than she anticipated (without Yskandr being able to unravel it), but watching at Teixcalaan spirals toward a civil war.

Mahit, Three Seagrass, and her friend Twelve Azalea—who early on become conspirators in an archaic-seeming ritual of secret-trading that feels out of a novel from an earlier age—find that, while they are lower in stature than the major players, Yskandr stirred up enough trouble to make Mahit a target.

But that also puts Mahit in a place where she may be able to change everything, and save an Empire from collapsing, even as she wonders if that is the best possible result for her own people.

Constant reminders of being an outsider.

In a later scene in the novel, Twelve Azalea mentions that their cloudhooks—personal devices that connect them to the information of the City—are being monitored. He continues, to Mahit:

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“and you don’t even have one—”

“Yes,” Mahit snapped, “I am still aware that I am not a citizen of Teixcalaan, I have not forgotten even once, you don’t have to remind me.”

“That wasn’t what I meant—”

Mahit exhaled hard…. “No. But it is what you said.”

Throughout the novel, even as Mahit is surrounded by the elements of Teixcalaanli culture that she so admired from afar, even when she weeps to know she can’t keep up with the poetry games of the city and is ashamed of herself for wanting to so badly, she is constantly reminded that she is not a part of it. It’s an experience that many fans of pop culture, and especially fans of speculative fiction, have repeated in their own critiques. On BGD, Tessara Dudley wrote in “Your Fave Is Problematic: Loving Media That Doesn’t Love You Back”:

There’s a fear that comes when we start watching/reading/enjoying a new work. It’s a coiled little fear in our hearts: when will this one go wrong? When will this excitement be tarnished by casual ableism, by racism, transmisogyny, or heterosexism?

Mahit, like many underrepresented readers and viewers, is constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it so often does. Yet she never stops loving the poetry, the outlook, the City itself. Even though she is an outsider, it is part of her.

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At the same time, she discovers that she has a deep and abiding love for Lsel, a dedication to it that is fierce enough to help her push through the most difficult moments. That same impulse often drives fans and creators to push the speculative fiction genre into greater spheres, where a multitude of voices are represented rather than silenced, othered, and made “barbarian.” (The fact that Mahit’s primary romantic interest in the book is female, and that Yskandr presents as bi, shows some of that trend inside a wider cultural critique.)

And, like Teixcalaan, which benefits tremendously from Mahit’s steps toward saving it from itself, all of speculative fiction becomes greater for those voices who see the problems, and, out of love, find ways to make things better.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine is now available to purchase via Amazon or your local independent bookstore.

Alana Joli Abbott writes about books for Den of Geek. Read more of her work here.