Thursday, May 18, 2017

Chicago Nerds- Ninefox Gambit

For the May meeting of the Chicago Nerds' book-club, we discussed Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. This was also our first meeting at our new spot—Volumes Bookcafe, just up the road from our old digs.

Ninefox Gambit is a weirdly inventive space opera, and in fact a lot of our discussion revolved around whether to think of it as science fiction or "fantasy in space". A fairly ruthless interstellar civilization, the Hexarchate, maintains its control through the use of "exotic" technologies, which in turn rely on the "calendar", a kind of consensus reality. When a group of heretics make a particularly daring secession, the Hexarchate pairs a low-ranking soldier with genius mathematical abilities—Kel Cheris—with the imprisoned immortal spirit of one of their greatest and most treacherous generals: Shuos Jedao.

This is a weird, surreal book, setting up a very bizarre world and then not explaining it very much. This is one of the things I like most about it, as I said in my review last year. At club, we had good debates about both how and whether different aspects of this novel work. Brief notes below:

This was a delightfully argumentative meeting, really—the book really got different reactions from different readers. Key points of diversion included:
  • Whether or not this ending is "really an ending". Some say yes, finding out what Jedao was up to, and knowing Cheris has a new purpose, is a good ending. Others thought it was way too cliff-hanger-y sequel-baiting.
  • Some thought Cheris's wandering through Jedao's memories was a bit too long, others thought it was the real climax/payoff of the novel.
  • "Like, but don't like" was the opinion of a few folks.
Noted a few different things about the writing style:
  • Very non-descriptive of a lot of its big nova—what does invariant ice look like? Or cindermoths?
  • Of course, I wound up comparing this to Cherryh's "third person intense internal" and the approach of not showing the reader anything that the viewpoint character wouldn't particularly pay attention to.
  • Noted that the main combat narrative has an odd relation to action—it's a lot of making strategies, and then revealing, often quite obliquely, how they played out, without showing the action itself.
  • Praised some "Moorcock-like turns of phrase", with brief digression on Moorcock's own genre uneasiness (or genre's Moorcock uneasiness, perhaps).
  • Also interesting that there's rarely two opposing forces visible at once—Cheris's force and the heretics don't especially know or care about each other, and we rarely see them in direct combat, just lots of planning, trap-setting, and aftermath. Felt very modern warfare in some ways, less "epic confrontation" as we're used to in fantasy & SF.
  • While Cheris gets the majority of textual space, some of us really liked the odd one-off "samples" of other (usually minor) character's perspectives, with the heretic emails being a few people's favorite part of the book.
  • Noted some interesting base-level gender-neutrality and queer acceptance, which is cool—led us to talk briefly about Too Like The Lightning, Ancillary Justice, and Scalzi's new Collapsing Empire.
  • The body-weirdness of Cheris reliving Jedao's memories as herself was very cool.
We noted that Cheris is carrying a literal Chekhov's Gun for most of the novel.

Much, much discussion of how all this technology works, and whether this is in fact science fiction or fantasy.
  • "Space pagans" and "magic lasers" both thrown around quite a bit.
  • Made the argument that this COULD still be science fiction, emphasizing some quantum woo and the and the fact that the exotic effects are "natural", though complex, not supernatural.
  • Comparisons made to Mieville's Bas-Lag novels, Greg Egan's Distress, and Stross's Laundry Files—all for (maybe) being science fiction despite diving into weird suppositions. Also talked about Jemisin's The Fifth Season and whether that's fantasy.
  • Massive difference in writing style between Ninefox Gambit and these other works, though; one thing particularly lamented was that it lacks the kind of strongly visual imagination that paints Perdido Street Station and others of Mieville's.
  • Lee's failure to describe how any of his stuff works compared to the way that modern mainstream writers usually don't take the time to have characters explain to the reader how, for instance, electricity works.
We really liked the servitors! And want to know what they're up to.

Some of us wished the belief mechanics had been more explicit or focused. Potential comparisons made to the last two seasons of Stargate, as well as American Gods.

Fun discussion! Ninefox Gambit is also a Hugo-shortlisted novel, so look for some discussion of that on Positron's next podcast.

For next time, we're reading The Prestige by Chrisopher Priest. We're picking books one month more in advance now, so Volumes has more of a lead time to get books for those as want'em; in July we'll be reading Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. Keep up with CNSC on their website and Facebook page.

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