At one point Mallory, the protagonist of The Hydraulic Emperor, describes an artistic influence ‘unfurling’, and it struck me that this is the perfect word to describe the story itself. Arkady Martine has written a slow-burning story, which uses the focus and fascination of the narrator to lull the reader into a state of curious contentment. I, for one, was happy to follow as this story slowly stretched itself in interesting directions.
The Hydraulic Emperor is powered by the attraction of a Macguffin; in this case a ‘Qath puzzlebox’. Kinesis Industrial One engage film collector Mallory Iheji to acquire the box. In return, they offer her the chance to finally view The Hydraulic Emperor by obscure filmmaker Aglaé Skemety. Neither the film or the puzzlebox are important on their own, although Martine skilfully makes it feel as if they are both extremely significant. Instead, The Hydraulic Emperor is all about the journey. The crucial quest’s the thing in this story.
As Mallory journeys towards the defining point in her collecting career, Martin unspools a languid meditation on sacrifice, anticipation, completion, and enticing art. In some ways its themes and structure bear comparison to Moby Dick, although in this story film occupies the space religious themes take up in Melville’s work. Martine complements these thematic strands with smart world-building, an original plot, and interesting hints about Mallory’s past life.
Sadly, for a story which often delivers a slow, lush examination which rewards the reader’s attention, the ending of this story left me a little bit unsatisfied. I wanted a little bit more closure when it came to the relationship between Averill and Mallory. I also really wanted to know what happened to Mallory’s bidding partner, Julie, after Mallory was awarded the puzzlebox. What happens to her when she is left without the puzzlebox or her precious Old Earth sacrifices? Unlike the unanswered questions Mallory is left with by the end of The Hydraulic Emperor, my unanswered questions feel like untidy, loose strands, and I’d have loved to see a fuller conclusion.