A lot of science fiction novels explore futures where economic and political ideologies reach their breaking point. The speculation is “what comes next?”
Few stories, though, dive as deeply into the intricate workings of the collapse. We’re talking the moment the system no longer works, the turning point.
Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller, published in 2018, is a perfect example of end-stage capitalism. It follows the progression of dissent among the citizens of Qaanaaq city, and ends with a blowout of a conclusion.
(Spoilers ahead for most of Blackfish City).
The Problems of Qaanaaq
In Blackfish City, the Earth as we know it has severely changed. Most established nations have fallen into chaos, and rising floodwaters have claimed many previously-inhabitable places. The story takes place on Qaanaaq, a floating city in the Artic. The city is powered by a geothermal vent deep under the water, which provides an endless supply of heat, and rotating screens protect the city from harsh winds.
Divided up into eight different Arms, Qaanaaq is a perfect example of class-structure. The poor—refugees, the sick, laborers—are forced to live packed into filthy houseboats or cramped apartments. The rich elite can afford lavish apartments and luxuries like real coffee instead of algae-grown substitutes.
Qaanaaq’s political and municipal systems are a bit murkier. Shareholders and landlords control the vast majority of the city’s workings. They leverage hidden apartments to raise rent and manipulate the poor. Municipal AI systems run the day-to-day of the city, and many consider them impartial governors, but they were built by the shareholders for their own purposes.
Crime syndicates have as much legitimacy as landlords, with some mob bosses being more magnanimous than their “lawful” counterparts.
Overall, Qaanaaq is an example of what happens when capitalism goes unchecked. There aren’t agencies or government officials who oversee landlords or corporations, so profiteering runs rampant, at the expense of the working class.
A Commentary on Capitalism
It’s clear that Miller’s Qaanaaq is a take on capitalist greed, with property politics at the forefront of the conversation. Being a landlord is a very profitable endeavor in our current system, and it’s largely unregulated. Rent rates can rise on a whim, maintenance isn’t overseen by a governing body, and the difference between a roof over your head or homelessness is up to the landlord’s digression.
Soq, one of the main characters in Blackfish City, comes to the realization near the end of the novel that “being a landlord was the biggest racket in town, in every town, in every city, across history.” And that sentiment is the culmination of 300 pages of strife for all the characters, struggling in different capacities against the system.
In the same scene, Soq also pieces together that their mother, a feared crime boss, isn’t that different than the evil shareholder she’s fighting against. While Go—Soq’s mother—might provide stability for wayward refugees and Qaanaaq’s lower class, her drive for more will end up hurting the very people she aims to protect.
Soq poses the question: “How would Go be different from Podlove (the shareholder), from every other rich and powerful player who sucked the blood of the poor, made them pay until they couldn’t pay anymore and then pushed them into the sea to sink? Soq doubted there’d be any difference at all.”
And that is the pinnacle problem that we ourselves are experiencing today. The people we hold in high regard—our government officials, spokespeople, corporate leaders, captains of industry—they’re all easily replaceable, but will their successors be any different?
It’s not a question of morals, personality, or individual willpower, it’s a consequence of money, greed, and power. Money, as Miller tells us, “is a mind, the oldest artificial intelligence. Its prime directives are simple, its programming endlessly creative. Humans obey it unthinkingly, with cheerful alacrity. Like a virus, it doesn’t care if it kills its host.”
Even the most well-intentioned person can turn sour when they get a taste of money and power, and that’s ultimately why Soq kills Go. Not because Go abandoned them at birth and left them to grow up on the streets, but because Soq saw down the line what Go would become. In the critical moment, Soq choose the good of Qaanaaq city over any kind of familial obligation they might have had.
And that violence, as calculated as it was, is not the mark of capitalism. It’s not matricide, or an act for power. It was a move for the benefit of the people.
What Comes Next?
After the final break down of Qaanaaq’s AI infrastructure, Go’s demise, and Podlove’s dethroning, there is a vacuum of power. While Miller doesn’t show us what comes after the end-stage capitalist free-for-all that was Qaanaaq, we get an inkling.
Soq has always dreamed of running things, of being a big shot, and they have a chance now to get a head of the game. They plan on recruiting Go’s people, and positioning themselves in a seat of authority.
I was a bit disappointed in this ending, to be perfectly honest. Soq feels responsible for the outcomes of their actions, sure, but the “play for power” and “claim to the throne” language they use makes it feel like a shadow of Go. Soq killed Go because they saw what she would become, but what will Soq become? How can they be trusted to take control and not become poisoned by the same money and greed that ended Go?
Despite the massive upheaval, it feels like a return to the status quo, which isn’t what I wanted to see at the end of Blackfish City.
But how do you think the story should have ended? Let us know in the comments below!