Before she was a novelist (and occasional NPR contributor), Arkady Martine was a Byzantine historian and an apprentice city planner — and that expertise is on display in her new book A Memory Called Empire. It's the story of an ambassador from a small, independent space station on the edge of a huge, devouring galactic empire, who arrives in the imperial capital and is almost immediately launched on a wild ride of intrigue, courtly manners, poetry and plotting.
Martine's Teixcalaanli Empire has overtones of Byzantium and the Aztecs, among other cultures. "I wanted to think about empires that were conquest-oriented, that were war-and-sacrifice oriented, and that led me to the Mexica — the Triple Alliance of the Aztecs," she tells me in an email conversation. "The world of Teixcalaan isn't Byzantium, and it isn't the Mexica, and it isn't any of the other cultures I added in, but I wanted to look outside of what I knew best, see what other imperial structures with a universalizing we-are-the-center-of-the-world ideology could add to my conceptions of empire and its functions. And also I wanted to pull away from the elements of Christian theology which are deeply embedded into Byzantine imperialism, and one of the ways I did that was to design a religion that was based on blood sacrifice (though, in the period of this book, Teixcalaan is a long way away from any actual human sacrifice practices, though they're drifting around in the background.)"
You're also a city planner — tell me how that played into the way you designed the City and its AI.
The poetry contests in 'A Memory Called Empire' are a little bit like rap battles with politics in. Think of the Cabinet Battle songs in 'Hamilton' and you've got the idea pretty much solid.
Urban planning is a long history of cities (and their planners) seeing, and deliberately not seeing, the people who live in them. Working in city planning makes me consider the city as an organism, as a machine for living in (to deliberately misquote Le Corbusier). And that is reflected in the City which is the Jewel of the World in A Memory Called Empire. The City — the Jewel of the World, the heart of Teixcalaan — is an oecumenopolis, a world-city: essentially a planet which has been fully urbanized aside from its oceans and its natural reserves. City-planets are quintessentially space opera for me — Star Wars' Coruscant, for example, but also any number of others. I love the visual of the idea. All that architecture, a planet that would glow like a jewel, lit up with glass and metal and lights. But cities aren't just visuals, they're real, complex, messy places, and a planet-size city would be complex to the point of near-ungovernability.
Which of course is where the algorithm-driven subway system and other city-ruling algorithms and artificial intelligences that I created for the Jewel of the World come in. If you have something so complex as a world-city, it would require artificial intelligence to keep tabs on, most likely. And algorithmic processes, to help predict what its needs are. And because I study history, and because I work in city planning, I knew when I began thinking about those algorithms that they were going to be biased, be about panopticon control, be about making citizens of Teixcalaan visible to policing and governing forces, and making non-citizens either invisible or singled out for persecution. Because that's what algorithms tend to do, because algorithms are written by human beings.
I'm a worldbuilding nerd and I love the tiny details that make a setting pop ... like those Teixcalaanli names! (They reminded me of reading National Geographic stories about excavations at Rio Azul when I was little) How did you come up with them?
I actually got Tor to put up a version of my (terrifyingly extensive) document about How Teixcalaanli Names Work, over here.