I was a bit afraid to start this book. I craved some new, cutting edge space opera. But it looked liked one of the basic plot premises seemed like magic. The calendrical system people use determines what kind of technology – weapons included – works in a particular region?? Could be unbelievable & probably is prone to plot holes. I don’t like fantasy that dresses up as SF (exhibit Dark Orbit), but I decided to give it a go.
Ninefox Gambit is the debut novel of Yoon Ha Lee – famous short story writer. It’s also the first book in a trilogy, The Machineries Of Empire. While the basic story in this volume concludes nicely in 317 fast paced pages, the big story is only just beginning. Nothing new there.
How about that fear?
Well, Ninefox Gambit isn’t hard SF. But it’s not magic either. The technology simply isn’t the focus, or at least not in the hard SF sense. Hannu Rajaniemie speaks of “poetry” in his praise, and that’s not far of the mark: a lot of the concepts and technology exist mainly as names – very few things are described – and those names indeed have a kind of surreal, poetic quality. It makes the first couple of chapters difficult: as a reader you have to keep guessing to interpret the shadowy world building. It’s not bad writing, on the contrary: it’s part of the novel’s charm. Yoon Ha Lee has found quite a distinct voice. On top of that, Lee drops us in the action, and nothing is explained.
Early on I had the hunch those “calendrics” are more or less a metaphorical name too. Lots of the technology is named with similes: giant warships are dubbed “cindermoths”. The calendrics seem software parameters of some sort. That doesn’t explain everything, but it goes a long way, and it sufficed to get a grip on the story. Their calendar might be a religion to the novel’s populace, but that’s not unlike technology on Gene Wolfe’s Urth.
Fresh as Ninefox Gambit is, it’s not all new and shiny. Characterization is quite standard. Brilliant yet eccentric general, someone? Or a whole faction of ultra loyal soldiers? Nothing new, yet at the same time Lee uses these characters – and other standard SF stuff (hive minds, mind uploads, space warfare) – with an ease & confidence that’s hard to match. Yoon Ha Lee isn’t a try-hard – he just writes as if nothing special is going on. Great choice – lesser writers would have added 150 extra pages just to explain stuff, explain stuff, explain stuff. And not just explain, but show off too. Lee could’ve showed off easily: there’s lots of cool ideas here.
A big chunk of the book’s themes – political organization, the human cost of empires, loyalty – aren’t new either. YHL doesn’t add anything to the discussion. That might change in the next volumes, but I doubt it. It doesn’t seem like this book was written as a political manifest, unlike books as The Fifth Season or The Book Of Phoenix. I do not think this is a problem – again, on the contrary, it’s a strength. Lee touches political themes, but doesn’t let those overshadow the narrative. This may be best illustrated by the gender dimension Ninefox Gambit has. Yoon Ha Lee is a trans man, and that fact infuses the book: the male protagonist occupies the body of the female protagonist. But it doesn’t turn into cheap & predictable identity politics. A reader that would not know about Lee’s gender status probably wouldn’t even notice it – not even in the one instance when this dimension is explicitly sexualized. Hats off to Yoon Ha Lee, and hats off to Solaris for not making it the marketing angle.
So – concluding thoughts? Easy. This is excellent SF for those that don’t like their setting spoon-fed. The plot or the politics aren’t groundbreaking, but Yoon Ha Lee has a distinct, confident voice. Fresh, yes. Poetic, yes. Space opera, yes. Those that need some more info before they’ll decide to take the plunge, there’s an excellent overview of the world and the onset of the story on Worlds Without End. Be sure to check that if I haven’t managed to convince you this might be for you.
The second book of The Machineries Of Empire, Raven Stratagem, is planned for release in june 2017. I’m preordering a copy.
UPDATE: As part of the Shadow Clarke Jury, Jonathan McCalmont wrote a critical, thought-provoking review on the politics of 9FG. It’s also here, on his site Ruthless Culture, with some discussion in the comments of myself, Terence Blake (Xeno Swarm) and others. Nina Allen and Megan AM (Couch To Moon) also wrote critical reviews as jurors.
They all raise interesting points, but what I believe they understate is the novel’s poetic qualities, a domain in which I feel this novel achieves something rarely (if ever) seen in space opera, and which opens up the ‘science/technology’ part of this novel to interpretation and dreamy speculation. The technobabble of old is replaced by something much more artful.