Thoughts on A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

Stories like this where some kind of emissary or ambassador is on an alien planet provide a way to explore big ideas. The Left Hand of Darkness, Embassytown and to a lesser degree The Sparrow have a similar structure and explore big ideas about personal identity and broader culture.

Towards the end of the book I was reminded of the divide between the United States and the American South. In the book this would be Teixcalaan and Lsel Station respectively. One is large in terms of geography, population and drives the culture. The other is smaller and lives within the same cultural milieu despite feeling independent of it.

The idea of Lsel Station as representative of the South hit me with the way they preserve their family line. Mahit, the Lsel Station ambassador to Teixcalaan, carries an imago machine in her brain that gives her near perfect recall of every owner of the image machine before her. It puts constraints on what she’s allowed to do in her life. That generational memory reminds me of Faulkner and the way the sins of the father flow to the children.

The Teixcalaan don’t have an implant to perfectly preserve their generational history. Instead they rely on their culture. It’s not individual like what Mahit has. The broad strokes survive but the details are flexible in the current moment. Both sides find the other side to be on the wrong side of this. Mahit unambiguously sees the imago machine as a boon to her and her people and the Teixcalaan are horrified by that idea.

I doubt Arkady Martine intended any of this, but it gave me a way to understand Mahit and her difficulty reconciling her time in both worlds. It made me think about my time growing up in the South and then living in the West and the positives and negatives both have brought.