Review- Lee, “Ninefox Gambit”

Yoon Ha Lee, “Ninefox Gambit” (2016) (narrated by Emily Woo Zeller) – This is the first in trilogy of scifi novels that have been making the rounds- I think all three were nominated for the Hugo for best novel but none of them won. The main character, Cheris, is a mid-ranking space marine officer for an empire called the Hexarchate (used to be the Heptarchate, but they lost a faction). The Hexarchate runs things according to a calendar that not only orders the days but also, in some dimly-explained way, arrays energies or something in such a way as to make certain technologies, like faster-than-light travel, feasible. This extends to battle tactics- the space marines get in these formations that allow for the use of “variant weapons” that do various freaky things, like “amputation cannons” (more or less what it sounds like) and “threshold winnowers” (sound a lot like directional neutron bombs?). If you get the math wrong on a formation or in your calendar, stuff doesn’t work right, and so “heretics” — those who want a different calendar — are brutally punished by space marines like Cheris. Heretics take over an important space base, “The Fortress of Scattered Needles” (“Ninefox Gambit” is full of names like that, from the title on down- Cheris is from “The City of Ravens Feasting”). Cheris is appointed to meld her mind with the preserved brain of a four-hundred-year-dead general, Jedao, who had previously murdered his entire command but who had never lost a battle, in order to go get the space base back.

Gotta say, this one didn’t really do it for me. I didn’t hate it, and maybe I would have liked it better in text, though the narrator does a fine job and puts some mustard on the dramatic moments. It feels unfair to put it this way, but the worldbuilding struck me as both overdone and underbaked. It’s overdone in that there’s a lot of it. The Hexarchate, for instance, is made up of six different factions, all with different attributes (kind of like Harry Potter houses in some respects). Cheris is from one, Jedao is another, the big bad behind the betrayals is from a third, etc. It’s underbaked in that a lot of it doesn’t make immediate sense. The formation/calendar stuff is not clear in my mind. Maybe it’s not supposed to be! I entertained the notion that this takes place in such a far future that everyone’s brains are uploaded onto a computer, and so it’s all an elaborate video game and the formations are part of the game, but Lee seems to make pretty clear there’s a lot of blood and physical-impact weaponry like guns around, though I guess that could all be simulated, too. It feels unfair because I’m not sure how Lee could explain all this stuff without even more worldbuilding. It’s a dilemma.

The conventional literary aspects of the book again weren’t awful but again didn’t move me. There’s some big reveals at the end but Jedao’s motivations are still foggy to me, and a lot of it seemed more about setting up the sequels than anything else. The characters are mostly stock scifi characters, which is fine, but doesn’t help amp up the book and get me past the parts I found confusing or otherwise didn’t like.

I’ve read a few of the big names in recent scifi, not enough to really say I “keep up” but some — Jemisin’s “The Fifth Season,” Leckie’s “Ancillary Justice,” and now “Ninefox Gambit” — and I’ll be honest, none of them have bowled me over or, for me, earned the high praise I’ve seen them get. I haven’t hated any of them but I haven’t loved any of them. Maybe I’m just getting old- I will say I notice how much of these works seem to be influenced by anime, gaming, and frankly, the specter of Harry Potter, and while that’s understandable and even possibly commendable (the first two influences at least), it does tend to freeze me out a little. I get the dispiriting picture of something like our national political divide in the world of scifi, with the Jemisins, Leckies, and Lees of the world, plus their boosters, taking the role of the Democrats and the various “Puppy” factions — scifi reactionaries of (somewhat) differing stripes — taking the role of the Republicans. I know which I prefer- “Puppy” writers like Larry Correia and Ted “Vox Day” Beale are just garbage, as writers and as people, and increasingly they and their fan base are proud and defiant in their garbage-ness, not unlike what you see on the contemporary right more broadly. The metaphor breaks down, of course, and the stakes are radically different. It does look like the fan culture behind the “Democrats” in this scenario are better-organized than the real life ones- there seems to be real enthusiasm behind both repudiating the “Puppies” and embracing the works of standard-bearers like Jemisin, et al. I just can’t really get into either one. It’s a good time for scifi in terms of popularity and genre acceptance, but I wonder if it’s really a good time for the genre in terms of really pushing the envelope and exploring possibilities. ***

Review- Lee, “Ninefox Gambit”

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