Some pairings are classic: wine and cheese, peanut butter and jelly. Arkady Martine, author of A Memory Called Empire, wants to add another pairing to that list: diplomatic thrillers and science fiction. Both genres involve encounters with beings and cultures that are sometimes quite different from what we know. Here, Martine discusses why these two genres go perfectly together.
The pleasure of the diplomatic thriller, for me, is the pleasure of the encounter. The diplomat, whatever their true loyalties, complex allegiances, and elaborate backstory might be, is thrust into close and necessary encounter with a mind that is almost understandable, almost comprehended, but never quite encompassed—that of the foreign culture, politics, place where the diplomat is stationed. Diplomatic thrillers are shot through with strangeness. All recognition and commonality is mediated: filtered through political rivalries, ideological secrets, the sheer otherness of being a representative of your own state while embedded in some other one. The diplomat is never quite sure where they stand, or how their loyalties will bend, or whether what they represent is possible to communicate—or if it should be communicated at all.
My favorite diplomatic thrillers include some classics: John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, for one, where Justin, serving as a member of the British High Commission in Nairobi, falls into a razor-wire web of corporate and government forces with their hands sunk deep into pharmaceutical testing and its profound unethical nature. Another I return to often is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which is of course a historical diplomatic thriller: Thomas Cromwell is a diplomat-politician extraordinaire, and his service to the throne of Henry VIII is mediated by his own desires for safety, success, and satisfaction… and a questionable sort of patriotic feeling, expressed more in accomplishment than in loyalty to some ideal.
But if you want to push the diplomatic thriller to its utter limit—to focus in on the pleasure of the encounter, the incomprehensible-that-must-be-comprehended—well, then you need some science fiction. What you need, in fact, are aliens.
Take for example China Miéville’s magisterial and disturbing Embassytown. The aliens on the planet Arieka speak a language which does not contain the possibility of falsehood. Their interaction with humanity is mediated on the one hand by genetically engineered human ambassadors who can speak to them in their own lieless tongue, and on the other by the use of humans in unwitting scenarios, rendering them into living similes which then become referents in the Ariekei’s speech. When a new ambassador named EzRA who can speak two mutually contradictory words at once arrives, the Ariekei begin to experiment with falsehood, and thus with addiction, taboo, and the nature of truth. This is the diplomacy thriller exploded: not only two human cultures in collision, but the nature of language and truth-telling itself disturbed by the encounter with foreignness. Mieville renders communication itself into something both transcendent and corrupting.
Or look at another classic, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness—which in addition to being a deep exploration of gender, religion, and politics, is a novel about being a stranger and bringing one culture to another place where it may not fit. It’s also about deciding what can be kept and what must be discarded in the process of trying to fit othernesses together. The universes of science fiction are exceptionally ripe for the diplomatic thriller’s questions to flourish, deepen, and become exquisitely sharp by taking the idea of an encounter with the foreign undertaken while representing a not-entirely-solid “home” to its extremes. And for this particular fan of both books about spies and books about aliens, the reoccurrence of diplomatic protagonists in science fiction is an absolute joy.
Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and a city planner. Under both names she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Arkady grew up in New York City and, after some time in Turkey, Canada, and Sweden, lives in Baltimore with her wife, the author Vivian Shaw. Find her online at arkadymartine.net or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.