By Jonathan McCalmont
Ninefox Gambit — Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
It is hard to think of a work that does a better job of articulating the artistic tensions at work within contemporary literary science fiction than Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit. Set in the same universe as many of the shorter works that Lee has produced since first entering the field in 1999, his first novel speaks to what science fiction must become whilst paying excessive lip-service to what some would have it remain.
The novel opens with the brutal repression of a political uprising. Mathematically gifted but prone to moments of self-doubt, an ambitious Captain by the name of Kel Cheris uses a series of heretical tactics to slaughter a group of political dissidents whose political agenda is conspicuously absent from discussion. In the heat of the moment, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the term ‘heresy’ is nothing more than hyperbole designed to bolster the protagonist’s credentials as an unorthodox thinker but the more we learn about the world of the novel, the more apparent it becomes that ‘heresy’ is a word with a good deal of substance, both political and metaphysical.
Ninefox Gambit is set in and around an inter-stellar empire so impossibly brutal and suffocating that it makes Orwell’s Airstrip One look like the Gathering of the Juggalos. Known as the hexarchate, Kel Cheris’ government polices every aspect of its citizens’ daily lives using a combination of rigid social codes, complex cultural hierarchies and mandatory ritual observances. This authoritarianism is due to the fact that the novel treats physical reality as being at least partially a product of social reality. To put it another way, different social formations produce different laws of physics and any change in an existing social order runs the risk of provoking an associated change in the localised laws of physics. Terrified that even minor political progress might result in their losing access to futuristic military technology, the rulers of the hexarchate devote all of their energy and resources to the violent repression of heresy. As Lee puts it in the short story “The Battle of Candle Arc”:
Exotic technologies depended on the high calendar’s configurations: the numerical concordances, the feasts and remembrances, the associated system of belief. The mothdrive that permitted fast travel between star systems was an exotic technology. Few people advocated a switch in calendars. Too much would have to be given up, and invariant technologies, which worked under any calendar, never seemed to keep up. Besides, any new calendar would be subject to the same problem of lock-in.
Major heresies emerge when groups of people decide to break with the existing order and organise their lives in different ways. In the universe of the novel, the shape and structure of political reality is represented by the use of particular calendars and any deviation from the ‘official’ calendar of hexarchate rule is referred to by the wonderfully sinister term ‘calendrical rot’.
My reason for going into the background of the novel in such detail is that – aside from showing the originality of Lee’s world-building – I wanted to underline the extent to which this book demonstrates the absolute futility of genre classification: You can read this book as SF, you can read it as fantasy, or you can read it as a bit of both. Taxonomies require rigorous definitions and while most people have their own intuitions as to what might constitute science fiction, you cannot have a discussion about the boundaries between things that were never clearly-defined to begin with.
Rather than obsessing over the question of which literary tradition this book happens to fit into, it is better to look at what the book does and consider whether or not it is likely to be of interest. As suggested in the post explaining the choice of books that went into my personal Sharke shortlist, I am interested in works that encourage us to question our assumptions about what constitutes genre writing; on a stylistic level, I am drawn to the literary. On a formal level, I am drawn to the experimental. On the conceptual level, I am drawn to the radically different. I was drawn to Yoon Ha Lee’s debut novel because I see all of these things in his short fiction.
One particularly telling example of what Lee can achieve at shorter lengths is “Apocalypse Foxes” from 2015. The story is not just extremely short and densely-written; it is also referential to the point where it will most likely not make much sense to people who aren’t already familiar with Lee’s literary universe. Even once you’ve familiarised yourself with the story’s subject matter, there is a real risk that you’ll bounce straight off the opening line of the story:
At the end of the world, your grave is written not in bitter libations or raven words or elegies breathed across broken glass.
This is a form of evocative prose that recalls passages from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and, more recently, the work of Annie Proulx. Some forms of literary density absorb, while others repel and Lee’s short fiction is full of images and ideas that force you straight out of the text as you try to piece together what they might mean or represent; what are “raven words”, and what happens to an elegy when it is “breathed across broken glass”?
This type of writing has become increasingly popular in genre short-fiction in part because the assumptions that genre audiences carry in their heads serve to imbue those beautifully-turned phrases and eyeball-kicking images with a degree of metaphysical ambiguity. Raven words can just as easily be poetic descriptions of how things feel as literal descriptions of an alien world.
What draws me to Lee’s writing is the fact that he never seems content with mere evocation. Lee understands that deliberately bouncing your readers out of the text can be an aesthetic end in its own right and that repeatedly shifting between magnetic and repulsive forms of density can create and effect not unlike that of diving deep below the surface of a lake only to wind up desperately breaking for the surface in search of air.
At its best, Lee’s prose conveys a sense of oppressive stillness that is perfectly attuned to the universe in which many of his stories take place. Reading Lee’s prose, I am always reminded of Zhang Yimou’s criminally under-rated Curse of the Golden Flower where the ritual observances and densely-layered etiquette of a Tang dynasty court invoke feelings of intense claustrophobia as passions surge and madness slowly builds. The density of Lee’s prose reflects the oppressive nature of his setting and that break for the surface is all about the possibility of psychological escape.
I purchased Ninefox Gambit hoping that it would take the brilliance of Lee’s short fiction and scale it to fit a much longer form. However, while the novel does sometimes drown you in beautiful images, revel in oppressive stillness, and builds to a moment of explosive moral and psychological liberation, the novel’s narrative structure is that of a conventional work of military science fiction, a form that does not play well to Lee’s strengths.
Despite only being a captain, Kel Cheris’ use of heretical battlefield tactics earns her the chance to ‘pitch’ for the command of a more important mission. I’m not entirely sure why a rigidly structured and socially oppressive military hierarchy would allow junior officers to pitch for missions several levels above their paygrade but the result is a sort of Dragon’s Den for space Nazis. Having secured the nod from Peter Jones and Duncan Bannatyne, Cheris has herself possessed by the ghost of a mad general.
Trained as an assassin but seconded to the military, Shuos Jedao spent decades earning himself a reputation for tactical subtlety until one brutal mission too many apparently caused him to go mad and turn his weapons on his own troops. Unwilling to waste such a valuable resource through vulgar execution, the hexarchate turned Jedao into a ghost who can be sent on missions by attaching him to the soul of a living officer.
Freshly implanted with the soul of a brilliant but duplicitous madman, Cheris is given command of an armada and sent off to recapture the heretical Fortress of Scattered Needles. Cue much angst as the young officer struggles both with the burdens of command and with the presence of thoughts and feelings that are recognisably not her own.
As someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy either military science fiction or space opera, my reading of Ninefox Gambit came to revolve around the relationship between the book’s two primary characters. Unfortunately for me, while the nature of the bond between Cheris and Jedao turns out to be one of the major pillars of the novel, it is also one of the book’s most frustrating weaknesses.
The root of the problem lies in the fundamental imbalance between the characters as while Jedao is a mysterious and charismatic figure whose love of misdirection and mind-games keeps both Cheris and the reader in a constant state of emotional unbalance, Cheris herself feels like little more than a blank slate.
Ambitious and brilliant but also naïve, self-conscious, and prone to fits of comic clumsiness, Cheris has no friends, no family, no lovers, and no history. In fact… she has little to no inner life beyond that allowing her to angst about her command of the mission. Lee does try to bulk out the character by stressing her interest in trash TV and competitive duelling but neither of these elements receive very much in the way of sustained attention and so wind up feeling like somewhat clunky attempts at making the character more relatable and giving her some skills that aren’t grounded in set theory.
Cheris’ lack of psychological depth is only accentuated by the way that Lee lavishes attention on Shuos Jedao. Unlike Cheris, Jedao gets a childhood he mines for anecdotes, a family he misses, a culture that has disappeared in the years since his death, a tragic love life, an academic career, and a sexual history filled with both joy and sorrow. While Cheris’s backstory feels thin and perfunctory, Jedao’s makes him not just a complete person but a complex character defined by all sorts of engaging contradictions.
The lack of balance in the book’s central relationship is frustrating as their relationship is clearly designed to serve a vital narrative function, namely that of guiding the reader from a place where they accept the hexarchate’s moral universe on its own terms to a place where they are rooting for its destruction. Lee propels us along this trajectory by having Cheris and Jedao engage in a series of set-piece arguments that feel a lot like an internal conflict and so wind up foreshadowing the end of the novel.
The problem is not just that Jedao is absolutely correct about the hexarchate being grotesquely evil, it’s that Cheris lacks anything approaching a developed moral sensibility and so the debate feels not just one-sided but a perfunctory waste of everyone’s time. The frustrating thing is that while I can imagine a story in which the pros and cons of imperialistic authoritarianism are intelligently and sensitively dissected by two people with opposing political views, the lack of balance between the two characters and their respective inner lives means that the novel winds up with nothing much to say beyond the obvious.
The book ends with the protagonists’ ship being targeted with a weapon that magically causes Jedao’s memories to materialise around Cheris. This effectively brings all of Jedao’s secrets out into the open and forces Cheris to re-live the most painful and formative experiences of Jedao’s life including love, loss, triumph, betrayal, trauma, and the decision to seek vengeance on your friendly neighbourhood space Nazis.
Lee handles Cheris’ journey through Jedao’s unconscious using some Ancillary Justice-style pronoun swapping that allows a queer female character to experience the life of a queer man. These passages are gloriously rendered and positively drip with delicious melodrama but they’re not a good remedy for the flawed debate-like structure that drives the novel’s central relationship. In fact, they actually wind up making things far worse as they wind up compounding imbalance with crippling indecision.
Once the dust settles on the book’s climax, a character that identifies themselves as Cheris sets their jaw and heads off into the sunset in search of the book’s sequel but it is never made clear who or what is sat inside Cheris’ head working the controls:
I’m dead, she thought, very clearly, as I wanted to be, but I’m alive enough to carry on the war.
Read some of the interviews that Lee has given and it’s possible to piece together why he might have felt uncomfortable engaging with the emotional and psychological dynamics at work in the novel’s climax. Obviously, I am sympathetic and I fully expect that the fate of Kel Cheris will be dealt with in full at some later point in the series but Ninefox Gambit is a novel that builds towards a moment of moral and psychological liberation and Lee’s decision to flinch from his own conclusion means that that moment never actually comes.
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, he does try to ground the battle scenes in some kind of realism by cutting to these little vignettes in which people get gunned down whilst trying to go about their daily lives inside the fortress but these vignettes are poorly integrated into the novel and wind up feeling more like a series of jarring disconnections than the dose of humanity suffering that the narrative required.
The one exception to the novel’s mishandling of its own action sequences is the moment where Lee ventures back into the kind of social spaces that define so much his short fiction. With two vast armadas squaring off against each other in the depths of space and violence about to erupt at minute, Jedao and the rules of the Fortress of Scattered Needles engage in a game of bluff and brinksmanship in which they try to strike a balance between presenting themselves as allies and not letting their guard down for even a second. The scene rumbles on for a while as the professions of friendship grow ever-more elaborate and unbelievable but then someone starts shooting and the spell is broken.
I admit that I am not the intended audience for this particular novel… The older I get and the more books I read, the more I find myself getting uncomfortable around cathartic fantasies of righteous slaughter. These days even stories that use war as a backdrop to personal flourishing strike me as not just deluded but morally abhorrent. At a time when fascism is rising on both sides of the Atlantic and the West’s on-going armed intervention in the Middle-East continues to claim the lives of entire families, do we really need another book that treats war as the crucible of personhood?
The great novelist and critic Chinua Achebe once said of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that it reduced the population of Africa to props in a story about the collapse of a single European mind. If Achebe was right to be sceptical of Conrad’s dehumanising abstraction then what are we to make of the people who needed to die so that Kel Cheris could finally begin questioning the morality of governments murdering thousands of their own citizens? What are we to make of the tens-of-thousands who died as a result of Chuos Jedao’s absurdly long-winded plan to overthrow his own government? Different readers are going to approach the novel with different tastes and while many will be less sensitive to the book’s simplistic depictions of state violence, I suspect most people will happily root for the protagonists and not be overly bothered by a novel that treats human lives as nothing more than plot coupons that the characters dutifully collect on their way to acquiring a conscience.
I think what most disappointed me about this novel was the fact that it was written in the first place. Seek out Lee’s short-fiction and you will find a beautifully-conceived and realised universe that is defined by its oppressive social spaces. Unfortunately, while Lee’s stories are full of complexity and literary panache, his step up to novel appears to have involved a failed attempt to strike a balance between his own unique sensibility and that of a load of reactionary white guys writing fifty years ago.
When I read the short fiction of Yoon Ha Lee, I see the future of science fiction. When I read his first novel I saw that beautiful future being choked to death by the ghosts of the past.
Jonathan McCalmont is a film critic, fan writer, and columnist for Interzone magazine. One-time Londoner and low-level academic drone, he has now surrendered to the forces of entropy and taken up residence in a wood.