Monday, October 24, 2016

Overclocking Clarke's Third: Yoon Ha Lee's "Ninefox Gambit"

An unusually inventive military SF novel, I found Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit very enjoyable in a very science-fictional way: I spent almost the entire novel building and revising this world in my head, and I'm still not entirely sure I've got it right. Like my last two reviews, I recommend it highly, with audience-specific caveats. Possible spoilers below.

I'll guiltily admit that I love the "this work is like a mix of these other authors" game. Ninefox Gambit struck me—forcefully—as a kind of hybrid between Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief (2010) and Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant (2015). Plot-wise, this is an intricate betrayal story running in the background of of a gore-drenched military campaign, à la Cormorant—and, while not as fully-drawn as Baru, if you liked Dickinson's pragmatic savant-general, vulnerabilities and all, you'll probably like Cheris, protagonist of Ninefox Gambit.

World-wise, I namedrop Rajaniemi because I can't think of another SF work that is both so deeply, inventively weird, that also goes 0% out of its way to explain itself. The world of Ninefox Gambit is (presumably though not explicitly) an extremely distant future, where technology, society, and basic physical rules are different. Lee has almost no expositional passages, no "as-you-know-Bob" moments to explain these deep, creative weirdnesses, which is not a failing of the novel, but rather one of its primary joys.

But, you say, you haven't read The Traitor Baru Cormorant or The Quantum Thief, so my above comparisons don't do much for you. Fair enough. Let's walk through this a bit.

Cheris, our protagonist, is a member of a soldier-caste in an empire called the Hexarchate. After demonstrating some strategic and tactical abilities unusual for her rank (she's a bit of a math prodigy), Cheris is paired with an infamous commander, Jedao, and sent on an extremely difficult mission: to retake a large and important fortress that has been taken over by heretics.

That sounds straightforward enough, yes? It's much weirder than that. Combat (and, presumably, other aspects of civilization) are here modified by a huge array of exotic effects dependent on physical geometry, on consensus reality, and, the concept you are most likely to take from this book, the calendar, with Cheris's main task being to root out the heretics who are causing a "calendrical rot"—a zone where the empire-sanctioned rules no longer apply.

And the effects here are very exotic indeed, with weaponized applications of almost whimsical brutality: "amputation guns" that remove all limbs in their area of effect, "threshhold winnowers" that cause doorways to belch lethal radiation, bombs that transform people into "carrion glass" in whose shards one can see their memories. There's a vivid surrealism to Lee's violence that reminds me of Miéville in the best way, and the unglamorous body horror of his war-scenes, along with a knack for catchy terminology, do an astonishingly good job of crafting a realistic feeling even while Lee steadfastly refuses to info-dump and explain in small words what's really going on here.

Take "formations", for instance. Never once laid out clearly for us, we piece together that the physical (and possibly intentional) arrangement of soldiers and starships have more-than-ordinary defensive and offensive effects, reliant on the local calendar, which is in turn upheld or created by, essentially, religion and bureaucracy—how time is recorded, what kind of celebrations and rituals are held. That is a freaking weird idea, and it works all the better because we as readers have to suss it out. Furthermore, this adds an intriguingly gamelike quality to the world—it reminds me of the strain of board & card games where rules can shift, where it's not only about the pieces in play but also their arrangement.

The exotic violence and stylized formations give Ninefox Violence a superficial appearance of magic, of weird but recognizable fantasy. This feeling is enhanced by Jedao's relationship with Cheris—he's an insubstantial entity "anchored" to her, rather like a possession or a haunting, visible only in reflections and in shadows. The characters of the Hexarchate also rely heavily on symbols and totems in their communication and identities, with each faction having a particular animal or icon; the book is alive with hallucinogenic images of the Kel's ash-hawk, the Shuos ninefox. Lee is assuming a whole suite of technologies—augmented and virtual reality, mind-to-computer linkages, quantum or dimension-warping effects—that run completely in the background, so what we're left with looks as much like magic as anything else.

But we know it's not magic, and, for me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of the Ninefox Gambit. Clarke's Third Law is almost always employed to excused SF-nal hand-waving: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." That's clever, and to some extent true, but, even ignoring the way it throws the scientific mindset under the bus, it's primarily employed so that a certain kind of SF writer (or fan) can have their cake, claim it's a balanced meal, and eat it too—people who really want a story about wizards and elves, but for some reason need them dressed up with laser-guns and jetpacks (or, conversely, who'd rather imagine computers as ineffable demons than complex but comprehensible artifacts).

Lee is running Clarke's Third so hard and fast it breaks. By layering on the weirdness, by hitting us with a constant barrage of fantastic concepts, Lee keeps us imagining magical visuals even as we know, intellectually, that this all scientifically explicable—but unexplained. It's a superb balancing act. The most magical moment of calendrical effects is juxtaposed with recognizable space opera tropes—a moment on a starship bridge, a gritty bit of urban combat. Before we've figured out what to make of the nine-eyed fox dancing in Cheris's shadow, we're grounded by some utterly mundane and realistic detail: a moment in the mess-hall. A childhood memory about geese on a family farm. One never gets the feeling that this is simply wizards in space, nor even that this is some fusion of magic and technology like Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter. Lee simultaneously invokes the kind of subversive, fantastic weirdness one gets in Miéville and the really critical, thought-puzzling wonder of hard SF writers like Egan or Baxter.

His style in pulling this off is quietly dazzling. Lee's using a tightly controlled point of view that reminds me of Cherryh's "third person intense internal": a third-person that's so close that it approaches first-person stream-of-consciousness. He directs the reader's attention only where the character's attention goes, so we don't see the nuts and bolts their familiarity blinds them to. We don't get helpful, unlikely "as you know" speeches about technology and history that the character takes for granted. It's utterly masterful, the key to the entire book's success, and all the more impressive when you think about it—Lee is purposefully not spelling out these deeply cool ideas he's constructed. He's leaving his shiniest toys wrapped up in the box, and just letting us shake them and guess.

Also, I can't help but notice that Lee uses the same name for his ritual-conscious soldier-caste as Cherryh did in her early and under-rated Faded Sun trilogy—the Kel.

In terms of world-building, this kind of perversion of Clarke's Third, this abnegation of venerable info-dump techniques, has an interesting effect: it overwhelms the principle of minimal departure. Usually, when reading any kind of fiction, we assume that the fictional world differs or departs from our own only as explicitly stated. These departures are trivial for "mundane" fiction, but even for SF/F the differences will be surprisingly bounded. The basic rules of physics, the history of the world prior to the story's events: we may have to make a few exceptions, but we assume they'll generally hold true. In Ninefox Gambit, so many rules are broken, so many terms flit by us unexplained, that we're thrown into a kind of world-building free-fall: we stop trusting that the rules we know will hold true, and grab for any bit of certainty that floats by. It adds poignancy and importance to every tiny snatch of comprehensible plot, and I find it utterly fascinating as a technique.

There's so much going on in this novel! I haven't even touched on the characterization, the intricate plot of betrayal and revenge, the hints of long and secret machinations by the servitors (the near-omnipresent AIs who have a friendly and apparently long-term & unusual relationship with Cheris). On the one hand, I hesitate recommending this—this is advanced SF, complex and challenging. But on the other—there is so much to recommend this, and to so many different tastes. This is absolutely top-notch military SF. It's also weird & magical enough that I think many fantasy lovers will respond to it, but it also stays true to the kind of richly-plotted, character-driven space opera that brought Leckie's Ancillary books so much praise. I can't wait to read the sequels.

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