While I don’t really feel like it, I can’t but start this review with an opinion on a minor event in the blogosphere some time ago. If you have no interest in a discussion of ethics in SF, and just want my opinion on Raven Stratagem, scroll down to the actual review at the very end. The first part of the text might also be of interest to those who haven’t read any of Yoon Ha Lee’s books, as the discussion is much, much wider than that.
About a year ago, 3 people in the so-called Arthur C. Clarke Shadow Jury posted reviews about Ninefox Gambit, the first book of The Machineries Of Empire.
Contrary to popular opinion – 9FG won the Locus for Best First Novel – those reviews were essentially negative, on what are essentially moral grounds.
These three individuals are not marginal voices in SF fandom. Before most activity on her blog stopped – as she overdosed on commercially-hyped SF – Megan AM of From Couch To Moon was one the most respected and influential online reviewers of SF. Nina Allan is a speculative author herself: her most recent novel The Rift won the BSFA and the Red Tentacle. Jonathan McCalmont was shortlisted twice for the BSFA for best non-fiction writer, and writes for Strange Horizons and Interzone.
For starters, here are four quotes that capture the essence of the argument, with links to the original texts. Clicking the links is worth your while, as the original pieces are extremely well written, differ in their opinions on the book in crucial respects, and all have a number of valid, lucid insights. I have no intention to go into all arguments, and do not claim these quotes represent the texts in full. They do however show a convergence over at least one point of criticism, a point I do want to examine thoroughly.
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 [sic] 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. (McCalmont)
There is some talk along the lines of ‘war makes monsters of us all’, but given that the vast bulk of what passes for action in Ninefox Gambit results in the impersonal destruction of literally millions of people, I’d say not enough.
Even setting aside any moral objections, my main beef with this novel is that for a work of so-called military SF, it gives the reader next to zero insight as to what war actually entails. Civilians are simply ‘squirrels’, barely glimpsed running in a futile, disorganised and vaguely pitiable manner away from the theatre of battle. What’s it like to be a simple soldier in the armies of the hexarchate? Once again, we have no idea. (Allan)
Fans of Ninefox Gambit will argue that the novel achieves new depths as the story’s psychological function works to teach lessons: Question authority. Don’t obey power. War is evil. But this is the same old lesson milSF has played out hundreds of times before: Mindless military drone suddenly feels bad about all the deaths. Mindless military drone suddenly wants to be an individual. If the lesson hasn’t been learned yet, are we merely putting on an act of righteousness only to perpetuate the fetishization of action and violence against faceless people? Isn’t the existence of this kind of literature simply proof that we live in a society that is entertained and/or unmoved by action and violence against others? (Megan AM)
The only reason narrative structures like these are successful is because they can “other” the real world, set it aside, and play out all these petty little trickeries and violences without coming to terms with the inhumanity of it all. Even when these stories try to address the inhumanity of what the characters are doing, it still comes off as a minor morality lesson, but it’s undermined by the fact that the story—the entire subgenre—hinges on the very thing it attempts to critique. (Megan AM)
Tl;dr: According to these 3 writers, it’s (morally) problematic to write about violence by showing that violence without incorporating a focus on the suffering of the individual victims. It might even be (morally) problematic to enjoy such literature.
I’m not so sure about that.
Not that I don’t have strong opinions on ethics and literature. One of my reviews that still gets quite some hits is about Haldeman’s The Forever War. I wrote that book can be morally faulted because in it Haldeman not once accepts his own responsibility as a soldier in the Vietnam war – yet the book is often heralded as one of the most important novels written about Vietnam, and that’s including the non-SF books about Vietnam. I elaborate my views in a discussion in the comments as well.
There’s an obvious but important difference between Yoon Ha Lee’s novels and The Forever War: YHL himself didn’t participate in real life slaughter. Then again, both authors do have a stake in ethics: Haldeman by portraying himself as a victim of American empire too (sadly without acknowledging the suffering of the Vietnamese), and Yoon Ha Lee because he has explicitly stated his books are about military ethics, like in this fragment of an Ask Me Anything on Reddit.
I end up returning to the same themes over and over because they’re important to me, and I think readers can tell when something is close to your heart. I’m not actually sure why military ethics is something I care about enough to tell stories about it over and over, but there you have it–we are who we are. (Reddit)
Before we get to the core of the bold ethical statement, it’s also worth noting that the questions raised by McCalmont, Allan and AM are partly a matter of taste, and they all acknowledge in their reviews military SF is not really their cup of tea (anymore).
Having said all that, do Yoon Ha Lee and his readers have a moral problem?
I don’t think so. I think the real problem is the sanctimonious tone of these 3 members of the Thought Police. Who dares to say Yoon Ha Lee himself is “entertained and/or unmoved by action and violence against others” – to put a face to such a “faceless” denominator as “society” “we live in”?
For let’s try to brake it down:
- Yoon Ha Lee indeed writes about state violence and its ethical problems. He is clearly opposed to imperialistic systems. All three reviewers acknowledge this.
- The beef is not with Lee’s goals.
- The beef is with the method.
- The method is partly entertainment: Yoon Ha Lee wrote a space opera, not a naturalistic account of a future space war.
- Is it immoral to be entertained by (fictional) violence, and use such entertainment to try and make readers think about certain ethical questions?
What’s the best method to change people’s minds? Does literature even have significant power in changing enough minds to make a noticeable difference in the real world? Save one life? To get people to vote differently? Who actually reads outside their own bubble? What’s the record for American literature as a whole on that matter in the last 5 decades? And who claims to have any sociological, scientific proof on the matter, aside from the best kind of argument in any debate: the hunch?
McCalmont, Allan and AM’s accusations are surly and heavy-handed with the veneer of those well-read and soft-spoken. Yoon Ha Lee does not “fetishize” violence: there is no excessive or irrational attention to violence in both books. Something is not excessive or irrational simply because the victims are faceless for the most part.
More importantly: it is not at all sure naturalistic, explicitly emphatic accounts of violence have more real world ethical effects than Lee’s approach.
On the contrary, in some cases they even might have less. I would think – as it is often in life – there are different roads to the same goal. Some people might be put off by the kind of books McCalmont, Allan and AM would prefer. Not every reader has the stomach to read about the emotional horrors of violence. “‘[H]uman’ covers a lot of ground” Yoon Ha Lee has Jedao say in Raven Stratagem.
For that matter, it could be just as easily argued that there are ethical problems with The Underground Railway too – a book that Megan AM and McCalmont reviewed positively (Allan did not review it for the Shadow Clarke jury).
Admittedly, Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem‘s main focus is not characters. They are more about systems than people; and people trapped in systems, rather than emotions trapped in people. In an ideal world, there is room for such diversity in literature.
My advice would be to stop the progressive infighting. This is just another example of the point made in a book I’ve read 15 years ago and that got a whole lot of new readers after Trump’s election. In Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America Richard Rorty argues the decline of the left is mainly do to infighting. McCalmont, Allan and AM are iterations of the priests of old that stress PURITY of thought.
Well, excuse me. I occasionally like exploding stuff, laser blasts and intricate assassination plots. I even like watching gruesome action scenes in movies about wars that really happened. I shouldn’t be morally shamed for that.
Entertainment is important, as it alleviates stress and replenishes the soul – even if it’s in a bath of violence. Entertainment helps me keep up my real life ethical praxis. I have no need for the moral guidance of a contemporary Index Librorum Prohibitorum to determine what books are worthy entertainment.
There is obviously a big difference between having some primal urges tickled by movies and books – wether it is abstract & dehumanized or wether it’s maxed out for character depth – and getting a kick out of the real deal of human suffering, let alone causing suffering.
This difference is so obvious that it is frankly baffling that what is essentially a matter of taste is confused with moral dictum. I suspect philosopher Terence Blake is right when he wrote of the political correctness of this entire matter in his defense of 9FG on his blog Xeno Swarm, with a follow up post here.
And finally, to turn the tables… It’s also a form of naive hubris, as if true suffering really can be represented by fiction. Really really. How much is enough? What percentage of the victim characters should be represented to be absolved? Readers should not believe writers have those kind of superpowers. Expecting so in effect downplays the suffering, and that’s a moral problem too. Or didn’t they read Adorno?
CODA: RAVEN STRATAGEM REVIEW
Not as good as the first book, but different enough to not just be a sequel. Still good though. More focus on political machinations.
There’s significantly less of the poetry I liked in 9FG.
There’s a lot more info on the world building. A form of ‘depth’, so you will.
Good pacing. Almost a page turner.
Lots of stuff on duty. Military ethics, indeed. But I agree with Megan AM: no spectacular new insights. Well constructed as a story though.
Fairly standard characterization. Can’t have both lots of plot/world depth and deep characters in 355 pages. Not super superficial however.
Again good on gender. Not in a superficial showy marketable way.
The entire story hinges on the underestimating of a lower/different/exploited class of ‘others’ by the dominant class. Is that enough as a moral lesson?
I’m eager to read Revenant Gun, the third and final book. It will come out on June 12th, that’s a week from now. It’s set a decade after the events in Raven Stratagem.
UPDATE 2018/6/13 — The Quill To Live blog just published an interview with YHL, of which his answer to the final question explicitely talks about his choice of focussing on depicting soldiers in this trilogy, and not other people. It’s here.