Courtesy of Tor Books

April 5, 2021

‘A Desolation Called Peace’: Language and Personhood in a Space-Opera Sequel

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At last, we can now do more than wait for the sequel to Arkady Martine’s Hugo-winning sci-fi debut, A Memory Called Empire

On Mar. 2, the second book in the Teixcalaan duology — titled A Desolation Called Peace, after a quote from Tacitus’s Agricola 30 — became available to readers, with the anticipation that it would finally shed some light on the mysterious aliens that had been encroaching on the galaxy at the end of Memory

To give some context, this duology is set in a galaxy dominated by the highly literary and technologically-advanced Teixcalaanli Empire. However, just outside their territory is Lsel Station, which has technology that they lack, “imago” machines that allow people in various professions to pass down a copy of their consciousness to their successors. This drives the plot of the first novel, in which the Lsel ambassador finds herself in the capital of Teixcalaan with a malfunctioned machine.

I was thrilled to find out about the sequel, since I found the aliens to be a tempting, yet unresolved, plot thread from Memory. Needless to say, I dove into Desolation, finishing it in six days. (Which for me is rather fast, mind you.)

And the book doesn’t disappoint! Martine paints her world with vivid strokes, utilizing the rich worldbuilding she’d already established to hone in on some of its finer aspects. 

In Desolation, we glimpse the inner workings of the Teixcalaanli fleet, as well as Lsel Station, through the eyes of both new and returning characters. One of the former, Twenty Cicada, has become an all-time favorite of mine, and is a testament to Martine’s skill at blending and subverting a variety of tropes within a single character.

Viewpoint characters include Nine Hibiscus, commander of the war against the aliens; Eight Antidote, imperial heir and ninety-percent clone of the late emperor; and Three Seagrass, Mahit’s liaison from Memory; with ambassador Mahit Dzmare returning as the fourth. Interludes give additional glimpses into the minds of other characters — including the aliens themselves!

The contrast between Empire and Station once again highlights themes of imperialism and assimilation, as well as the struggles inherent to governance. Even an organization as outwardly poised and deadly as the Teixcalaanli military finds itself fraught with secrets, internal politics and ethical dilemmas. Meanwhile, the government of Lsel resorts to propaganda and censorship to protect their culture from Teixcalaanli influence, even “pruning” their aptitude-tests to shepherd new generations into careers that would be most useful to the Station. 

Characters on all sides scheme, dream, or simply hope to survive another day. But it is clear that their roles in life are irrevocably marked — if not defined — by the civilization that they were born into: an issue at the heart of Mahit’s struggle with identity.

Major themes in this book include the idea of personhood, collective consciousness and what does or does not constitute “language” in our minds. The latter is brought to the forefront in a first-contact scenario with the aliens, whose seemingly-incomprehensible noises are an affront to the Teixalaanli, with their rich and poetic language. It is only a major revelation about the aliens that sheds light on how they truly communicate, raising questions about the very nature of thought and language, and the relationship between them.

As for the aliens themselves, the buildup from Memory pays off! They’re delightfully eerie and at times downright disturbing. Yet ultimately, they possess a deeply organic and poignant sense of personhood that will only resonate deeper when our protagonists discover the truth about them, and just how far — or close — they are from humanity, after all.

I only had a few issues with this book, one being that the insertion of two protagonists from the previous book — Mahit and Three Seagrass — into the situation seemed slightly arbitrary. An attempt at justification is made within the book, but it’s not clear to me why they — rather than anyone else — would have to be there as the sole negotiators, other than for the desire to continue their stories and to have some familiar faces in the book. These, to be fair, are perfectly valid reasons for the author to include their points of view, so I’m not terribly bothered by it. 

Another concern was the lack of a satisfying resolution for these same characters — or at least for Mahit. I was expecting her ending to go in an entirely different direction, so the one she did get seemed somewhat underwhelming. However, it’s not always possible for even protagonists to receive perfect closure, and perhaps the ending she got was more fitting for her character.

Reading this book, I was briefly reminded of the 2016 film Arrival, wherein a human linguist must establish first-contact with aliens that have landed on Earth, but can only do so through understanding the aliens’ unique perception of reality. Readers who enjoy such scenarios will no doubt take to Desolation, though it would be helpful to first read A Memory Called Empire.

So if you’re interested in high-tech space battles, themes of culture and identity, LGBTQ+ romance or elaboration on worldbuilding from the previous book — then this book might be for you!

Amy Wang is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at saw289@cornell.edu.