Saturday, April 30, 2022

Review: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles – this they named empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.

First contact stories typically consider two questions: 

  1. What is the political response of humanity to a new intelligent species? 
  2. How do we define humanity/consciousness? 

Some stories focus on the first question: Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem series is one such example. Humanity has 400 years to stave off extinction at the hands of the Trisolaris alien race, how do they respond? Other stories focus on the second question: in Ursula K Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, ambassador Genly discovers the genderless Gethenians, and discovers what it means to be human without gender. However, the second strand is present in both stories. The Trisolaris aliens are unable to deceive, and this difference between humans and aliens forms an essential aspect of humanity’s political response. Genly is intentionally sent as a lone ambassador, a political decision made to encourage social integration between the ambassador and the aliens.

A Desolation Called Peace considers both questions in roughly equal parts but its answers felt rather shallow and disconnected. The political response of the sprawling Teixcalaan empire is to send a military force to face the aliens, who have been skirmishing with pilots and knocking out resource centers. At the hint of a threat, Emperor Nineteen Adze and her Minister of War send orders to nuke the alien planet. The emperor justifies her decision with rather frightening colonial language. 

“It is a terrible thing to do, and a terrible decision to make. But that’s what Emperors are for. (...) I’d rather have a pyrrhic victory—display just what Teixcalaan is capable of, smash a living beautiful planet full of people—and yes, they probably are people, but not the kind of people we can understand—smash it to dust and deathrain. I’d rather one act of horror than an endless war of attrition, losing our people and theirs, on and on and on. Like a suppurating wound at the edge of the Empire, forever. Sometimes it is better to cauterize.”

Through the plucky actions of the empire heir apparent Eight Antidote, the army general’s best friend, an ambassador and a bureaucrat, cooler heads prevail, the aliens are recognized as human, and the war ends. What becomes of those calling for genocide? Nineteen Adze shrugs and expresses eagerness to eventually hand over the heavy responsibilities of being an emperor to Eight Antidote. Nineteen Adze isn’t the hero of the narrative, her willingness to slaughter entire villages and sometimes entire planets for strategic outcomes isn’t presented as morally right, but neither is it fully presented as morally wrong. This same sort of calculus is made throughout the narrative: protagonist Nine Hibiscus slaughters rebels to maintain peace in the empire, euthanizes a soldier to prevent a painful death, and enables the assassination of a military commander to prevent the destruction of the alien planet. The message is clearly that sometimes a little devastation is required to prevent more devastation, but the story doesn’t take a clear position on when. Is the message that imperial leaders who call for genocide won’t be punished, but will continue their careers uninterrupted? Is it that whether cauterizing the wound is smart or cruel can only be determined retrospectively? Unsatisfying.

What of the second question posed by First Contact stories: what does it mean to be human? These aliens are revealed to share thoughts and memories between individuals. Accustomed to consciousness being a hivemind, they do not, at first, appreciate what the death of individuals means to humans. In the world of Teixcalaan, a few technologies have given humans the ability to form their own sorts of shared thoughts and memories. The surveillance state at the heart of the empire allows for law enforcement to behave and respond like a hive. The Stationers’ imago technology allows for inheritance of memory between individuals in the form of a brain implant. Teixclaani fighter spaceships – presciently called shards – come equipped with shared vision and proprioception. Heir apparent Eight Antidote sees similarities in how these three technologies enable communication and how the enemy behaves, sparking his realization that the aliens possess a hivemind. He leverages the hivemind of the fighter pilots to prevent the genocide of the aliens and end the war.

This was the stand-out scene of the novel for me. The reader is thrust into the perspective of the interconnected fighter pilots, who are terrified and psychologically tortured and dying. It’s a jarring contrast to the prior 400 pages of the novel, which depicted political negotiations between powerful individuals resulting in “difficult decisions” being made, all set in serene palace chambers with large windows overlooking gardens, or pristine spaceship command centers overlooking the quiet void of space. 

He died twice before he learned to talk. (...) Before he could find himself in the midst of the cacophony, he was spinning in a rictus of fear, engines cut, some other Shard-pilot’s blanked-out panic in his throat as her Shard was struck by the edge of a three-ringed, slick-grey spinning wheel of a ship and she saw the flat pockmarked side of the asteroid coming up fast and faster and faster and I love you I’ve always loved you remember me and nothing. An afterimage of fire.

Powerful writing, but I felt this thematic thread fizzled. The intervention of the pilot hivemind goes only so far as to prevent the delivery of the planet extermination order. The decision to assassinate Sixteen Moonrise to stop the extermination of the alien planet was made by Teixcalaan army general Nine Hibiscus. The assassination itself was carried out by the aliens. What if instead it was carried out by the fighter pilots – recognizing in the aliens a shared humanity, protecting this other conscious collective from an Empire that sings the songs of individual emperors but not of its pawns?

There was a poetic justice of this military technology developed by the Empire being used against the Empire’s military. I had expected this trick of using the Empire’s might against itself to come from Mahit, the ambassador to the Empire from the independent Stationer community. Early on, her imago machine tells her:

But what better way to draw a monstrous thing to its death than to use its functions against itself? Teixcalaan wants; its trust is rooted in wanting; it is in this way you and I will destroy it.

Despite this tease, it was the heir to the Empire who used the Empire’s technology to thwart the Empire, another riff on the theme of the Empire containing within itself the seeds of its own destruction. I would have liked to see this probed further – is it even possible for one lone but powerful voice within the Empire to change the trajectory of the Empire, or is it too much of a machine? However, the story ends with Eight Antidote looking a little more like prey than a cancer – kept safe within the sights of Nineteen Adze and “just dangerous enough to stay alive”.

That the alien hivemind was understood solely through fantastical technologies (imago machines, combat spacecraft) was a little disappointing. I think there was room for some fun exploration of collectivism versus individualism in this tale, and it would have been nice to see a more human element to interconnectivity. Community love, collective action, the excitement of being part of a throng – when do humans behave like a hive?

My diagnosis for the causes of the issues of this novel is the choice in point of view characters. Three Seagrass seems selected to get Mahit into the alien diplomacy mission; with that feat accomplished she spends most of the rest of the novel doing nothing but daydream about Mahit and muse about poetry. Her scenes feel a little like filler that dilute the other themes; her key moments could likely be given to Mahit. More time with Mahit could help tie together the two First Contact questions a little better, since Mahit, as ambassador and peace negotiator, shapes the political response to the alien presence, and also experiences proto-hivemind through her imago machine. 

Nine Hibiscus seems selected as a point of view character to provide a window into locations where plot happens, and to explore the theme of Difficult Decision-Making. However, her second in command, Twenty Cicada, was really the hero of the final conflict. He makes the self-sacrificing decision to consume the dead alien and through this communion become part of their shared consciousness, enabling peace negotiations.  His careful compartmentalization of his religious beliefs and personality from the tasks expected of him by the Empire provide an interesting foil to Mahit's complicated attraction to and repulsion from the Empire. Mechanically, he could have served the same role in observing events onboard the Weight for the Wheel while allowing for better exploration of the themes of collective consciousness and colonialism, at the expense of the already muddled and rather uninteresting exploration of Difficult Decision-Making.

A Desolation Called Peace is a little special among the first contact stories I’ve read in that it dwells quite a bit on the actual contact part of the story. Second to the scene of Eight Antidote becoming one with the fighter pilots, the scenes of Mahit decoding alien linguistics were my favourite. I think this is something Arkady Martine does particularly well – I loved how A Memory Of Empire examined how language and literature influence connection between people, self identity and politics. But where that novel cohesively explored that theme, and tied together these threads beautifully, A Desolation Called Peace asked too many questions across too many characters and I didn’t think they tied together quite right.

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