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REVIEW — Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit (2015)

June 6, 2017

Having now finished reviewing the six books I nominated as part of my personal shortlist, I turn my attention to the books that made it onto the official Arthur C. Clarke Award short-list.

Yoon Ha Lee’s debut novel Ninefox Gambit took me quite a long time to write about. My reluctance was in part due to the fact that I have been going back and forth on this novel since I first read it last year: On the one hand, the novel contains some interesting ideas and a bit of thematic heft. On the other side, the themes are poorly articulated and the book really doesn’t work as a novel. The downsides were particularly difficult to articulate as I’m aware that my tolerance for ‘core’ SF has effectively disappeared and I doubt whether anyone could write a military science fiction novel that I’d enjoy. My piece about the book tries to thread the needle by explaining what didn’t work for me whilst also making it clear where my preferences lies There’s also quite a lot of discussion in the comments but I personally find them disappointingly regressive on a number of different levels.

The novel is set in a universe where the local laws of physics are determined by the shape of your social structures. As a result of this quirk in natural law, government has assumed a form that allows all kinds of futuristic technologies as long as everyone keeps behaving in a very specific way. Unsurprisingly, people keep wanting to live their own lives and so the government has little or no function beyond the violent suppression of dissent. Into this universe is born a mathematically gifted young woman who is sent off to put down an uprising with the help of a disembodied general who once butchered thousands of his own men: On the one hand, the book is a military space opera in which fleets of space ships use mathematical formulae to defeat each other. On the other hand, it’s a psychodrama in which a loyal young officer is brought to rebel against her own tyrannical government. My problem with the novel is that, both in terms of action and drama, the novel tends to stop short of engaging with its own subject matter. Everything is kept at a safe emotional distance and so the book works neither as a drama, nor as a human drama:

 

Lee’s tendency to use abstraction as a means of glossing over complex details also serves to undermine the novel’s numerous action scenes as the need to inhabit Kel Cheris’ morally-compromised worldview means that the novel is forever downplaying the suffering caused by her actions. Like the Cold War strategists who once took the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, Kel Cheris views warfare as a series of abstract mathematical problems with right and wrong answers. While abstracting away from Cheris’ skilful deployment of state violence does serve to retain the audience’s sympathies, it also serves to deprive every action scene of both tension and consequence. It is often said that cyberpunk never caught on as a cinematic genre because so many of the books cut to someone sat in front of a computer typing. Now imagine a film that cuts to someone desperately solving equations and you’ll begin to understand why so many of Ninefox Gambit’s action sequences feel abstract and distant when they should be visceral and exciting.

 

In fairness to Lee, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed this book even if it had engaged with the horrors it depicts… At the end of the day, this is a novel about space Nazis coming to realise the error of their ways and I’m not sure whether my interest and my capacity for empathy actually extend that far. Particularly at a time when fascism seems to be on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic.

Back in June 1968, readers of Galaxy magazine were confronted by a pair of paid advertisements from groups of authors who either supported or opposed the Vietnam war. While the names of the writers who were supportive of the war will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with their fiction, it is interesting to note that 1960s genre culture was still fairly relaxed about the idea of the American government waging a brutal war of aggression against an impoverished country that had only just managed to free itself from colonial oppression and begun expressing its hard-won political agency. Six years after those adverts appeared, genre culture was in a position to produce works like Haldeman’s The Forever War and Harrison’s Centauri Device; works that recognised and took issue with the fascistic tendencies of military science fiction in particular and space opera in general.

Genre culture has never been a political mono-culture and while many readers recoiled from the genre’s most fascistic story-forms, readers continued to yearn for books in which the world could be made a better place with a few well-placed artillery strikes. As time passed and the politics of genre culture continued to evolve, authors and publishers went in search ways to appeal to both sides of the political aisle at the same time.

The most commercially successful strategy turned out to be writing a series of novels that opens on a relatively ambiguous power fantasy that softens into a rather hand-wavy critique of imperialism over the course of several novels. I am tempted to refer to this strategy as the Scalzi Gambit in honour of his Old Man’s War series but regardless of what we choose to call it, the strategy has proved remarkably effective as it has allowed genre culture to continue championing the kinds of novels that were already viewed as being a bit right wing over fifty years ago.

1970s science fiction deconstructed the space opera in the hope of breaking genre culture’s addiction to reactionary story-forms. However, rather than provoking social change and unlocking creativity, the limited self-awareness that was born of America’s reaction to the horrors of the Vietnam war appears to have been channelled into coming up with excuses for people to enjoy reading violently reactionary power fantasies. We have entered the age of the woke space opera where war crimes and mass slaughter are perfectly acceptable as long as they form part of a journey towards redemption and self-improvement.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2017 1:08 am

    Yeah, the comment thread wasn’t particularly productive, was it? I’m confused even by what the one person was demanding of you?

    I’m intrigued by this, Jonathan:
    “opens on a relatively ambiguous power fantasy that softens into a rather hand-wavy critique of imperialism over the course of several novels”

    At the risk of turning this into pop psych 101, do you think genre readers’ yearnings for fascistic power fantasies are rooted in their perceived “outsider” social status, as nerds or what have you? Or do you think it’s more to do with the individual’s political impotency? The decreased political “value” of our votes in the face of a ruthless system of lobbyists swaying seats? A frustration of impotency expressed or perhaps sublimated through fascistic power fantasies in which individual might conquers all? Or the intricate complexity of diplomacy or practical impossibility of dismantling capitalism is dismissed with “a few well-placed artillery strikes”?

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  2. June 10, 2017 6:37 am

    I just think he had very clear ideas as to what should be said about the work of particular people. It’s like the Gene Wolfe fans who start getting antsy when you suggest that his books are narcissistic authorial power trips rather than profound spiritual allegories… It’s been way too lomg since he wrote a review of his own :-)

    I’m reminded of my boy Felix Guattari who pointed out that

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  3. June 10, 2017 6:49 am

    (oops)

    Everybody wants to be a fascist because fascism invites us to erotic play with the death drive :-) In practice, I think we all have moments when we want to crush opposition, humiliate our enemies, and impose our chosen order on the world. Video games are fantastic at tapping in to that instinct but popular novels are full of it too.

    The problem is that while it feels good to let your death drive off the leash, it can be quite upsetting to be confronted with the stuff your mind produces so a lot of contemporary media tries to strike a balance between providing fantasies of slaughter and allowing people to maintain a positive self-image.

    I think woke space opera is just another variation on this old cultural standard. You give people the dirty thrill of identifying with a brutal war criminal but then you walk that joy back to frame it as something thoughtful and positive rather than ugly and libidinous.

    Grimdark is basically in the same business but the strategy is different. Rather than saying ‘oh actually you can be a good war criminal’ it says ‘everyone’s a complete piece if shit anyway… Who is to say what’s right or wrong?’

    I think that’s part of it.

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  4. June 14, 2017 2:08 pm

    Guattari thought that fascist desire was in the service of some transcendence, a fixed supreme value in the name of which the fascistic order is imposed. Being woke, being aware of the semiotic machine and the power mechanisms driving that imposition of an order, is not enough, but it is a good beginning in the process of deterritorialisation (estrangement) that can lead to greater freedom. In these terms NINEFOX GAMBIT is a critique of fascism rather than its sublimated (because fantasy) and hyper-sublimated (because “woke”) satisfaction. The universe is explicitly described as fascistic, and the attempt to bring back a heptarchy is a fight for religious freedom and democracy, i.e. a struggle against the transcendent régime of the hexarchate. The whole world-system and plot of the novel are even more Guattarian than your use of him implies. True all of this crystallises around one individual, but I do not think that we are invited to identify with him. Enough is done to keep us alienated from him up to the very end. We learn his motives and strategy, but we are not incited to say “Oh OK, that’s all right then”. The overall movement is from mystery to understanding, but not from negative to positive, and Jedao remains a very ambiguous figure, with a huge amount of negativity attached to him. We attain noetic catharsis, in that we understand him, but we do not attain ethical catharsis, since mass slaughter as a means to social emancipation and individual salvation is not something we can identify with. Awareness without ethics is a form of self-deceptive self-indulgence, but the novel seems to me to have an ethical thrust that does not coincide with the motivations of the “hero”. This critique of the hero and his quest is not new to space opera, but goes back at least to DUNE, where the hero, Paul, becomes even more despotic than his predecessor, a woke Despot building his reign on fanatical devotion and submission.

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  5. June 19, 2017 8:22 am

    Hi Terence —
    I see what you’re saying but I think you’re being over-generous. 9FG is a house of cards… It creates a fictitious political ideology that exists purely so that it can be knocked down.

    A) this is not a substatial critique because said political formation does not exist in the real world and the relationship to any real-world formation is deliberately downplayed.

    B) this is not a substantial critique of anything as 9FG’s sole argument against the status quo is that its continued existence requires the brutal slaughter of all dissidents. There’s moral outrage here but no political analysis.

    C) this is not a substantial critique as the only alternative the book offers to the status quo is vague talk of ‘democracy’ as though democracy were somehow incompatible with fascism, colonialism, and brutal repression of dissent.

    This is politics as psychology but the psychology is thin and under-developed.

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  6. June 22, 2017 5:20 pm

    Along with The Centauri Device and The Forever War (which I shift back and forth debating whether it is earnest or not) I’d add Norman Spinrad’s searing The Iron Dream (1972).

    Fascinating review — considering I read so little newer SF as of late it’s intriguing seeing how these past debates are playing out.

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Trackbacks

  1. NINEFOX GAMBIT: power-fantasy or philo-fiction? | Xeno Swarm
  2. “We have entered the age of the woke space opera” | I am reading therefore I am
  3. NINEFOX GAMBIT (3): the ambiguity of space opera | Xeno Swarm

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