This week we’re sipping delicious tea and listening to beautiful poetry, all while trying to prevent our homeworlds from being devoured by an ever-expanding empire. That’s right, in our final Hugo episode (for now), we’re talking about A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. It’s got everything: spaceships, politics, romance, action, transhumanism, and of course, super cool space names. Listen in and decide on your Teixcalaan name today!
Generously transcribed by Bosco. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants Podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
Wes: Coming to you live from Teixcalaan’s diplomatic station at the Mythcreants blog HQ, this is Twelve Jupiter, aka Berry, coming at you live. And with me today is:
Oren: Eight Penknife, aka Quill.
Chris: Negative 99 Harp, aka String.
Oren: Oh, wow. Someone got creative on that one.
Wes: I can’t believe we got ‘String’ on the podcast, you guys! This is amazing!
Oren: Yeah. This is a really good guest spot. It was hard to get.
Wes [laughing]: So today we are talking about Arkady Martine’s novel, A Memory Called Empire, and the ‘empire’ of the book is called: ‘Teixcalaan’, and we introduced ourselves with our Teixcalaanli names, which usually follow the pattern of a number and a noun. And then there’s usually a fun nickname.
Oren: You have to understand how weird this is. I love the fantasy names and the fantasy nicknames of this book.
Wes: It was so good.
Oren: I was so into it.
Chris: You weren’t confused by the fact that everyone has essentially two names?
Oren: I was not.
Wes: I know it was so funny, Chris, when I saw Oren’s note about it not being confusing, then I went back to my reading experience. It was like: ‘no, I remember everyone.’
Chris: That’s really interesting, because we didn’t get into this when we were talking about Gideon the Ninth, but Gideon the Ninth has three names for every character and it is just confusing as hell. This one has at least two and they’re kind of complicated, but they’re fun, apparently..
Wes: Well, it’s kind of funny because the Teixcalaanli characters have this intricate, interesting kind of weird naming convention but it’s just a number and a normal noun. I’m not giving you anything really new. I’m just giving you fun connections. The Lsel Station characters, except for main character, Mahit Dzmare, and her imago and predecessor, Yskandr, I had to look up everybody else’s name on that station.
Oren: Yeah, I don’t remember what any of those other characters were called or who they were…
Chris: …. because they’re made up words, right. Is like names or are arbitrary sounds generally. I mean, not in every culture, but a lot of times, whereas we’re using real words when we’ve got the number and the noun.
Wes: The author, Arkady Martine – and that’s a pen name and it’s an awesome pen name – This is a debut novel, it’s been nominated for a Nebula and a Locus award. Arkady Martine, when she’s not writing fiction is Dr. Anna Linden Weller, who’s a historian of the Byzantine Empire and a city planner. So this book has a lot of empire stuff and a lot of city planning stuff, which is pretty great, actually.
Oren: Byzantine history and city planning? Be still, my heart.
Wes: A Memory Called Empire: It’s a first person point of view of Mahit Dzmare. And she’s the new ambassador from this place ‘in space’ called Lsel Station. And Lsel Station has to send an ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire, this massive space empire that is pretty neat and exports colonization and poetry.
The immediate tension in the book is that she is called to replace the previous ambassador, but they do not say what happened to the previous ambassador. And so her people have this practice of implanting— they’re called imagos, and they’re some kind of memory-recording device—into people’s successors.
They rationalize this by saying Lsel Station only really has something like 30,000 people, they can’t really grow into a large population, the amount of knowledge that they acquire over their lifetime and generations is really important when your entire people, civilization, exists in the vacuum of space. Then, you need to make sure that you have your knowledge and, for the ambassadors, it’s to their advantage because there’s so many cultural things and nuances and political intrigues that they have to keep in mind. They pass that knowledge down as well. But the complicating factor is Mahit is sent and all they have of her previous ambassador is a recording that is 15 years out of date.
That’s really where we start it with, which I think is a pretty good premise.
Oren: Yeah. It has some really great conflict just starting off. But before we even get into that, I want to talk a little bit more about the names…
Oren [unfazed]: So, the names. I want to compare these names to the Goblin Emperor, which is another book that has a lot of name- based nonsense going on. There are a couple of differences. First of all, it is easier to remember the Teixcalaan names, because they are real words being used in an unusual way. Whereas in Goblin Emperor, they are just a strange collection of sounds.
Whereas this one is like: One Lightning. I can remember that, that’s easy. Six Direction. Eight Loop. 30 Larkspur. I am amazed that almost a year later—I read this book almost immediately after it came out—I still remember most of the characters. So there’s the distinctiveness to it. Also, the fact that these are names they gave themselves, so it says something about their personality that also helps.
Then there’s also the fact that their nicknames are all derived from their main name, it’s not like an unrelated name. So in my case I chose ‘penknife’ because I’m an editor, I cut things off of stories. ‘Quill’ as my shortened nickname, because it’s related to ‘penknife’.
And you can have the same thing with, for example, the character Three Seagrass. Her nickname is ‘Reed’ because reeds are a thing in seagrass, and the character, Twelve Azalea, his nickname is ‘Petal’ because he’s named after a flower. There are obvious connections there; because the main character is a fish out of water—isn’t from here—figuring out everyone’s name is part of the story. It’s part of the plot.
So it’s really easy to keep all that straight, just because it’s so baked into what’s happening. And that’s my pitch of why these are the best names that fantasy has ever come up with.
Wes: I felt the work of the worldbuilding in this novel and the premise made it so you could learn all of it with Mahit as she’s exposed to it because she knows a ton about the Teixcalaan Empire. She’s been studying it as a kid, poetry classes, language classes, and there’s a funny anecdote in there about her liaison—cultural liaison—and they’re having some banter, and he tells this story about when they all picked their own names in Teixcalaan language class, how there was this guy that picked the name ‘Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle’.
And it’s one of the times that Mahit experiences Three Seagrass laughing and enjoying herself. And it’s a really sweet moment with them, which is some good foreshadowing for later in the book. That name is such a joke that it’s so self-deprecating, but Three Seagrass still wants to read all the poetry that he would write.
Oren: There are some really cool, kind of implied if not outright stated rules to how this sort of thing works. You’re supposed to pick a low number but not too low a number because if it’s too low, it sounds like you’re humble-bragging. But if you pick a really high number that’s gauche, like you’re placing yourself above everyone else.
So then you have characters like One Lightning. First of all, he chose the word ‘lightning’ – which is like a violent, powerful thing – and ‘One’, which suggests that he, in a reverse way, is putting himself above others. And so when you find out he’s a claimant to the throne, it’s like: ‘yeah, that makes sense.That’s something that a claimant to the throne would be named’.
Wes: Claimant to throne and one of the head military commanders who basically docks a fleet above the planet to start an insurrection.
Oren: It’s also really convenient for his supporters to shout. It’s a really easy name to shout.
Wes: It’s true because the other contender, Thirty Larkspur? I mean, they can wear the purple flowers. That’s good.
Oren: Why do people like this book, beyond these names…I’m prepared to give the Hugo right now for the names [laughter]. Beyond that, it has very strong worldbuilding.Teixcalaan as a world is really interesting and cool.
Wes: as a world it’s cool, as a universe, it’s good. And you don’t feel like you’re done with it, which is good because the sequel is coming out in the fall and I fully intend to read it.
Oren: Yeah, I am going to read the sequel, even though I have some issues with the plot as we’ll later get into, I liked it enough to read the sequel, which is something I can’t say about any of the other books on this list, except for Light Brigade, but that one’s not getting a sequel.
I don’t know if this one’s my second choice or not, but I liked it enough to want to read more. There’s also attachment—the Mahit-Seagrass relationship is wonderful. Like they’re clearly really good for each other and they’re super-cute, but also they can’t really trust each other because of politics.
As I read it, I’m like (Obsessive, Vaguely Evil Reader Voice): “ Yes, don’t trust each other, but LOVE each other, but no TRUST! Only LOVE!” [laughter]. And I’m like, “Ah! This is great! I love it!”
Wes: That actually, there’s a really good quote from the scene when they finally make out, basically Mahit says something a lot like: ‘This is wonderful. This is terrible, but it’s awesome. And I want to keep doing it.’
Oren: That’s why I think it’s been nominated.
Wes: The other factor: there’s an empire and there’s a small station trying to resist being absorbed by said empire. People love resistance stories.
Oren: Resisting empires is kind of a hot thing. It’s also just important part of human history,
Wes: Even when you’re technically the ruling body in a galactic empire and some upstart organization – let’s just call them the First Order – shows up, you’re still going to be the resistance. For some reason.
Oren: Oh God, that’s the best burn. That’s the best burn. I’ll never do a better burn than that.
Wes: Let’s talk a little bit about the three things technology-wise to maybe talk about in this book. The first one—well, let’s not talk about the imagos, let’s save that. The Teixcalaanli politicians, a lot of the people, they have these things called ‘cloudhooks’…
Oren: … what if Google Glass actually worked. Is basically the concept of the cloudhook….
Wes: Yeah. Like Google Glass, except I imagine them as all monocles, right? They only covered one eye, which is way better.
Oren: It’s like a smartphone that you wear on your face. I’m not convinced that’s a thing anyone actually wants, but who knows? They all have like a portable interface to the empire-wide space Internet.
Wes: Three Seagrass’s cloudhook is Three Seagrass’s cloudhook and has certain access and permissions and things like that. So that’s kind of important for something in the story. Another one on Teixcalaan is that the city itself has a planned algorithm that basically lets it control certain types of security systems, presumably surveillance, and then they don’t get into this a lot, but possibly some kind of augmented mind control to the police force—’the Sunlit’?
Oren: Yeah. I was a little disappointed with that. I felt like that was going to be a bigger plot point than it was.
Wes: I don’t know if it’s being saved or what it would be saved for, but Mahit just has this moment of basically saying “no algorithm is neutral”, even though the city claims to be operating in the interest of the city, somebody had to create it. That intention persists.
Oren: Also a very relevant thing for today. It just does a great job of showing that yes, you can create algorithms and they can be very useful. But when you program bias into the algorithm the algorithm is biased. It makes it harder to hold some people accountable in this version of the future, where everything is automated and we know someone is controlling them. But there isn’t a process by which we can check and be like: “Hey, are the people controlling these algorithms doing their job properly?”
The, one of the reasons the skyhooks are cool is that they signify both your status in society and just your being part of society. Because if you’re not a citizen, you don’t have a skyhook. Mahit is not a citizen, she’s a barbarian. So she doesn’t have one and that’s both a physical, visual reminder but also hinders her because there are some things that you are expected to have a cloudhook in order to do, and that’s part of the reason why she depends on her liaison Three Seagrass, but also can’t really trust her liaison because she has no way of verifying a lot of this stuff.
And that’s just a really cool dynamic to put in your book. It just helps a lot. It makes Mahit very sympathetic. And it also just feels like a thing that Teixcalaan would do. Maybe not even intentionally—it’s possible that they didn’t even mean for people without skyhooks to be at such a disadvantage. But that just happened over time because nobody thought otherwise.
Wes: Faced with all that tech, the one advantage that Mahit is supposed to have is her imago. If everybody else has basically plugged into this cloudhook network and has all this information at their fingertips and Mahit doesn’t have one, ideally she has all the memories and experiences of the former ambassadors in her brain, that’s the idea to try to help her navigate these types of nuances or communications. And her predecessor, Yskandr, can inform her of things like when to bow, who this is, where to go, how to walk and make it seem like she knows a lot more in her efforts to navigate and be a diplomat.
Oren: So this is where I started to have problems with the imagos because, first of all, they are very inconsistent. There are some scenes that only make sense if they can’t be backed up. But then later we find out they can be backed up. There’s this weird idea that they have, that if a person is dead for more than a short amount of time, their Imago becomes useless because it is recording their dead brainwaves.
And it’s like, okay, that seems like a really obvious design flaw. There’s seriously, no way to fix that? And then earlier they were talking about retrieving imagos from dead people and it’s like, well, apparently you can’t do that because they record dead brain stuff. Later, we just completely recon that and it turns out it’s fine and there’s no issue.
And also they’re super fragile to the point where like a tiny little nick on one of them can cause it to malfunction terminally. But also, we can have an unskilled surgeon cut one out of a dead body doing significant damage to it in the process. And it works fine.
Wes: Hey, there’s nothing Twelve Azalea can’t do…
Oren: …Yeah. He is a man of many talents…
Wes: Oren, you bring up a good point. When Mahit goes to the planet for the first time she has the 15 year-old dated version of Yskandr Aghavn in her head – the dominant host absorbs the experiences to where it’s no longer a voice, but more just kind of like instinct – but Yskandr is still very much a voice in her head. But when they go and find out what happened to the real Yskandr (he’s dead), her Yskandr in her head basically malfunctions and just vanishes.
We later learn that that was the result of sabotage. Somebody took her fingernails and scraped them real hard on all the connection points or not even real hard— a little bit. I like to think that maybe Twelve Azalea just kind of chopped it out: “Well, I’ll just take a real wide area, like the lower part of this guy’s skull, and that’ll probably get all the good parts? Maybe?”
Oren: There was a specific description about how he left some parts in there. And he was like: “I hope those weren’t important.” I don’t think there would be that many ‘not important’ parts on a piece of brain implant tech, but who knows? Maybe they just have a lot of redundancy, except for that one area.
Wes: And the recording death part. Yeah. Mahit makes it very clear about how it’s recording nothing, but then when she gets the most updated version of Yskandr put into her head through experimental surgery later in the book, it does go off well…probably not enough time spent with her trying to call that imago and make it realize it’s not dead? Which is also weird.
Oren: That part I didn’t mind so much because they established that normally you have several months to integrate with your imago before you go do a job… her having issues with it getting put directly into her head and then having to go do some plot stuff, that makes sense to me. It’s just that in one scene, there was no way to do that because it was the obvious solution to her problem.
And then later she just does that because the author couldn’t think of another way out of that problem. I also just have a hard time believing that the empire doesn’t know about this tech, because it’s so powerful and so useful. I don’t believe that everyone on Lsel all the time, forever, is keeping that state secret.
Wes: I was a little torn on that, too. Because the reveal in the book is that a lot of people do know about the tech because Yskandr told them about it but Three Seagrass, when she learns about it, tells Mahit that it’s cheating to have that – says the person with the cloudhook!
Oren: that’s a whole weird cultural thing, that’s not supposed to be an explanation for why the empire doesn’t know about it. That’s supposed to be a thing that the empire has that causes some conflict later about how they would never use any kind of performance-enhancing stuff. I’m sorry, I just don’t believe you. At best, you might have some kind of cultural value for that but everyone will be doing it anyway. I refuse to believe that a society as competitive as Teixcalaan, that people would not be going for every advantage they could get.
Wes: Experimental Surgeon has self-augmentation. So presumably there are members of Teixcalaanli society that do this, but it’s not “proper”.
Oren: As a rule, cultural taboos do not inconvenience the privileged and powerful because privileged and powerful people don’t like being inconvenienced and they will use their influence to change those taboos if they get in their way. Also just for reference, the idea that Lsel keeps this technology secret is like if the entire country of Liechtenstein had this tech and never told anybody.
So the plot opens very strongly, right? Because we’ve established that the premise is that Mahiti is going to the empire because something happened to her predecessor, but no one will tell her what, and then she finds out he was murdered or at least that he died. She doesn’t know immediately that it’s murder, but it’s pretty obvious that it was murder.
So we have this dual conflict that is very strong, which is that Mahit is both trying to keep her station from being annexed by space Rome and also trying to solve the murder of her predecessor. Those are two good conflicts and they work together because it’s pretty likely that he was murdered in his job as an ambassador.
So that’s a very strong start and I have seen many published and award-winning books that have worse initial premises than that. Unfortunately, the plot does start to break down eventually. And now we’re getting towards the end and we’re like 20 minutes into the podcast so there are going to be some spoilers here. As Mahit is going about her investigations and about her political maneuverings— which are pretty cool and complicated, but also I can still remember most of them — I’m not going to try and explain all of them here as we only have half an hour—but as that’s all happening we keep getting interludes—nothing good ever happens in an interlude—back to Lsel Station where they’re talking about these weird Cthulhu aliens. And it’s like: what do the Cthulhu aliens have to do with Mahit and what she’s doing in Teixcalaan?
She doesn’t know about them. If she did, how could they possibly affect what is going on? That was a problem that I was noticing throughout the whole book. And then towards the end, that problem gets worse because Mahit figures out what happened to her predecessor. So she solves that problem. And then she gets sent a message by the people back on Lsel. They’re like: “Hey, uh, so there are these Cthulhu aliens…bargain this information to the emperor that we know about the Cthulhu aliens, and then get him to promise not to annex Lsel.” I’m like: ‘okay, that’s putting a lot of faith in the emperor’s word’, but there’s still like a fifth of the book left.
So what’s the fifth of the book still about? A giant scramble for the throne because a whole bunch of different factions try to take over, primarily the general One Lightning and the political guy Thirty Larkspur? But the problem here is that Mahit has no real interest in that conflict. It doesn’t matter to her who is on the throne because, in theory, she can bargain this information to anybody.
And she has some slight sympathies with the current emperor because her predecessor was in love with him. But that’s not really enough. This story still needs her to risk her life to go to the palace while this coup was happening and then get involved and stop the coup. And it’s really unclear how she’s supposed to do that.
So instead we ended up mainly watching the emperor do stuff for the rest of that section. And it’s just kind of a disappointment. It’s a disappointing way for that story to end.
Wes: The interludes in this book were done far better than the interludes in the other books, because the book begins with one of those to set the scene with a different type of narrator— here’s space, here’s the thing—and so when that happened, and then Mahit (happened), and then it came back I wasn’t as thrown as if we’d started with Mahit and then had a random interlude, like what we did with the Light Brigade.
That basically told me at the start within the first two chapters that there’s a tacit agreement here that this is going to happen.I don’t like going away from Mahit but I guess this is happening rather earlier than later.
The other points: you’re right. Yskandr’s whole reason for being murdered was not because he had any vital information for Lsel Station other than trying to gamble that they would not annex the station if he gave them the imago machines to basically give the emperor Six Direction everlasting life. Which doesn’t happen with those things, although the way they were probably going to go about it is extra creepy.
Oren: Let’s talk about that a little bit more because that’s an interesting plot point. We find out that there was this whole deal in place where the emperor was going to get an imago and he was going to put it into a young clone of him with the idea that a young and unformed mind would be taken over by the personality and the imago instead of the personality being absorbed into the host.
Yeah. That’s creepy. We find out that was part of the plan, but then Mahit isn’t gonna do it. That’s actually too bad because that was actually a thing that the emperor would have needed Lsel to be around because what if the imago broke down? He’d need people who know how to fix it. So that was actually a potential explanation. But we quashed it because instead it was like a morality story about how it’s wrong to extend your life at the expense of others
Wes: during the time when she’s answering the mail and stuff, she does get that message from—I do know this stationer’s name: Darj Tarats. I don’t remember if he’s the head of pilots? He might be head of pilots, which is like the main branch out there. As far as we know he still thinks Yskandr is alive and sending this message toY skandr because it came from like the Lsel ambassadorship and Mahit never got a chance to write them a letter home and say, ‘Oh, by the way, he’s dead.’
He sends her, basically, (he) coordinates the information about the space Cthulhu stuff. They don’t describe it in any way other than that there’s some kind of black void that eats ships. And they think it’s malevolent and it won’t communicate with them. The rush for her to go get that information to the emperor and the kuu, it’s a lot of drama and you’re right she could’ve sat back…I guess maybe there was the rationale that no one would listen to her because Thirty Larkspur had kinda written her off. She’d never spoken to One Lightning. The LSel Station was just poised to be annexed anyway by the warships in the quadrant, so maybe they figured: we don’t care about this person.
Oren: It’s not impossible to explain, but it definitely felt like a weak motivation.
Wes: What I do think is interesting though, is they’re able to resolve the conflict by getting this knowledge to the emperor and basically forcing the Teixcalaanli to rely on their value of tradition and law. To say that ‘while there’s an external threat they apparently cannot have internal conflict’, which is—just not a thing.
Oren: I found that very unconvincing. That’s sort of a separate ‘x’ problem. That’s the issue of, well, why would the emperor take this deal in the first place and…that reason? And in that case, it’s like, well, you don’t even have to see the emperor at that point. You can just upload the Cthulhu alien footage to the space internet. And that would do the job apparently. So that’s a separate issue.
Wes: It definitely was a way for her to get the information for the emperor to have his speech and moment in the sun temple in front of everybody where he recites that quatrain that Three Seagrass and Mahit wrote: ‘released my tongue will speak visions released I am a spear in the hands of the sun,’ and then he performs ritual suicide and grants Nineteen Adze—who we have not talked about —the Regency of the entire empire,
Oren: which is another thing I just found kind of unconvincing. It’s like: ‘Okay, I buy that this has a lot of cultural impact. But One Lightning still has a giant army. I don’t buy that he would just stand down for that. Maybe his troops would rebel, but it wasn’t really very clear to me what was going on.
Wes: I think it’s plausible to see why Thirty Larkspur would stand down from that because we actually interact with him in the story. But One Lightning doesn’t interact with anybody. I don’t even know if One Lightning has any dialogue aside from like one broadcast message or something like that. It’s just kind of an ambiguous force. And so we don’t know, presumably this guy doesn’t respect the traditions that they have because he’s trying to take power for himself. So you’re right. Why would he be like: ‘Oh, okay. External threat? Okay. I’ll stop the coup.’
Oren: I just generally find that in a contest between cultural values and a guy with an army, the army usually wins.
Wes: A guy who had the military, but they kept pointing out how he didn’t have any significant victories.
Oren: Yeah, but apparently his troops were all loyal to him, anyway. So who cares?
Wes: What does it matter?
Oren: What do you think? One Lightning’s nickname is?
Oren: We’ve discussed this plot pretty much to death. Chris, do you have any questions for us before we end this podcast? Is there anything you’re just like: ‘what are you talking about?’
Chris: That was surprisingly clear. I don’t know how much of it was because I’ve heard rants outside the context of this podcast about this book already. I did find it humorous when Wes was like: ‘But the interludes aren’t that bad because I could put up with them’. That’s a real, real vote of confidence for the interludes, Wes.
Wes: Fortunately, the interludes were short. Each time they appeared, they were short. And with this being one of two or maybe more, they had to foreshadow some things, I guess. I mean, they didn’t have to but, so it goes.
Chris: You painted a pretty good picture, I think, of similarities to some of the other books, particularly in Gideon the Ninth where we have some interesting things, we have a fairly strong start. It does not make the landing.
Oren: That’s its biggest issue. And I think that’s like the problem with all of these books, the ones that are good, anyway, a lot of them start off good and then just can’t stick the landing. And I get it. Endings are hard. That’s a considerable problem trying to do all the setup and then follow through with it. But I do think that that is something that maybe for all of the writers out there who are writing the next set of Hugo nominees, try to focus on the ending a little more and you’ll stand out.
With that, since we ended by talking about endings, we will now end this podcast as well. And also our six weeks Hugo nominees. It will be very interesting to see who actually wins after all this talk we’ve had.
But for now, I want to thank a few of our patrons.
First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, who is an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of all things Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com.
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