How to describe A Memory Called Empire? Clearly reviewers and readers have struggled. In the Praise For… section at the back of the Kindle edition, the phrase “space opera” keeps occurring, and every time I come across it, it jars. When the Incomparable podcast crew discussed the novel, they also ran aground on the term. While “Space Opera” is a hard-to-define sub-genre, I’d argue that you know it when you see it, and AMCE is definitely not it.
For example, while – technically – a planet is in space, I think a story that is 99% set on a planet is technically not a space opera. Otherwise, well, any novel set on Earth (A Tale of Two Cities, Emma, Lord of the Flies) would also be a space opera.
The term was first coined as a pejorative, a way of dismissing silly and formulaic science fiction stories set in outer space by comparing them to daytime serials and bad westerns. But then some of us have always loved stories set in space, and so took a perverse pride in ownership. Anyway, over the last 30 or so years the “new” space opera has brought a certain heft and rigour to the form. But I’ll go back to the slightly narrow definition of “a story set in outer space” and insist that for a novel to be a space opera a substantial part of its action has to take place outside of a planetary atmosphere or gravity well.
AMCE is definitely not a space opera, although it does remind you a lot of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy (it does have Empire in its title). But to compare: Leckie’s protagonist is a sentient space ship, and the series takes place across several planets, the ship itself, and a space station.
AMCE has some short sections taking place on a station, but as I said, most of it takes place in a city. It’s really a classic fish out of water story, much like N K Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. In fact, it resembles that more than it does Leckie’s series, as it is about succession and power struggles. But instead of a fantasy setting, it colours its background with high tech, much of which draws on familiar science fiction tropes: always-on network connections, recorded and uploaded personalities, artificial intelligences.
So it’s a story of empirical succession and power struggles, but instead of ancient Rome, we’re in a strange solar system at the heart of an interstellar empire, in a city which has the same name as the world which has the same name as the empire: just like Rome. But is it just that? Our protagonist, the fish out of water, is the new ambassador to the City/World/Empire, and our introduction to the strangeness of this empire is through its language, its obsession with poetry, and the hidden codes she has to negotiate and decipher, not knowing who she can trust.
This is a story, not with a map, but with a glossary. Words matter, syntax matters, facial expression and accents matter. It’s about finding your way through the labyrinth of political allegiances and understanding what people mean when they say you or we.
In other words, it’s a novel about class, about code switching, about passing, about identity, about the power of language to communicate more than mere meaning.
It’s science fiction. Who needs sub-genres?