I read the start of The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey and quite liked it but for some reason I set it down and never got back to it. After seeing this trailer I think I’ll have to pick it up again. This looks really intense.
Yeah, this looks wicked cool to me. The Michael Crichton book has not gotten a lot of love here but I remember the 1973 Yul Brynner movie with some fondness and this HBO mini-series is obviously going to have better production values. And you can’t complain about the cast with the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris in the mix. I’m not usually one for re-makes but HBO does good work and this isn’t a movie that I care a great deal about so I’m OK with this one. What do you think?
Back in 1964, when I first read Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein, I decided my goal in life was to get to Mars. I was 12. When Mariner 4 whizzed by Mars taking crude images in July 1965, showing the red planet was more like the Moon than science fiction, I was disappointed, but I still wanted to go. I grew up with Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Sputnik flew the month after I started first grade, and Apollo 11 landed the month after I finished the twelfth grade. I assumed Americans would be on Mars before 1980, and colonization would start before I was too old to go. I don’t think I was alone having this dream. It was impossible for me to imagine in 1972 that humans would never leave Earth orbit for decades.
A warm day on Mars is what we’d call cold here on Earth, and a cold day on Mars is what we’d call hell. We’re now all afraid of getting too many X-rays, but living on Mars would cook our gonads in constant radiation. And only a geologist could admire the scenery of the fourth planet. So why do so many dream of going to Mars?
NASA just announced a series of posters advertising for jobs on Mars. There seems to be more excitement in the 2010s about Mars than anytime since the 1960s. Elon Musk has become the D. D. Harriman of Heinlein’s imagination, the man who is selling Mars. The Martian by Andy Weir and its movie version has inspired millions to daydream about adventures on Mars even though Mark Watney had one wretched experience after another. Like Dorothy in Oz, he just wanted to go home. Thousands of people applied to join Mars One, a proposed Martian colonization scheme that involves one-way trips. What is so alluring about Mars that some people are willing to give up everything?
For those of us who dream of moving to Mars, have you ever analyzed why you want to go? Looking back to my twelve-year-old self, I have to say reading Heinlein was my first motivation, but is fiction really a good justification? And if I had known about the details of how the astronauts of Project Gemini ate and shat in space for two-weeks, I would have given up my ambition back then. If I’m honest with myself, I know I never had the Right Stuff.
I think all adolescents want to escape their situations, and mine included alcoholic parents who dragged my sister and I around the country in their own restless search for greener pastures. It’s no wonder I would have gladly gone all the way to Mars to find a life of my own. Science fiction was my escape, my positive therapy for what should have been a psychologically damaged childhood. Science fiction and rock & roll were my trip to Mars, converting an adolescence I should have suppressed to a time I nostalgically cherish.
When Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson came out in 1993, my Mars mania reignited. Then when The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin showed up a few years later, with a very practical plan for getting to Mars, I got even more excited. By then I had given up any naïve dream of going to Mars myself, but I finally had hope again that humans would go. That was twenty years ago, and we’re still doing endless 90-minute laps around the home world.
I believe Elon Musk is an unrealistic optimistic about how to get to Mars, but I hope I’m wrong. I know the Mars One people are clueless, but I wish them well. There’s a practicality that comes with getting old. I’m glad the young aren’t infected. We need foolish people to do impossible things. But I’ve reached an age where I now question the value of going to Mars. I’m not sure space is suited for humans, but it is perfect for machines.
And, if we do want to adapt humans to space, I think our starting place should be the Moon, not Mars. The Moon is three days away, and a perfect place to construct the self-sufficient industrial city to launch human space exploration of the solar system and beyond. If Homo sapiens can’t adapt to living on the Moon, going to Mars will be pointless. But if we can thrive on the Moon, Mars will be easy.
There’s one very important factor about those posters from NASA – they’re promoting jobs that involve long term stays. Going to Mars, or the Moon, can’t be about planting the flag. I didn’t understand the value of work as a kid. Space travel was a thrill. Living in space really means working in space. I just wanted to hop a rocket and escape into fictional fantasies. The people who truly want to live in space need twenty years of relentless preparation, and then will work 15-hour days on the final frontier. Pioneers don’t waste much time reading science fiction, playing video games, or enjoying VR.
Of course, such gritty self-evaluation makes me wonder about why I read science fiction. It’s still escapism. It’s now nostalgia. But it’s also a kind of hoping that humans will adapt to living in space. Where does that desire come from? Why is it important that our species go to Mars? Species have habitats. Why should we create new habitats for ourselves? Especially ones so tremendously ill-suited for our biology? What if fish wanted to live on land? Wait, some did.
The finalists for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science-fiction novel have been announced by the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. The awards will be presented on Thursday, August 18, as part of the Campbell Conference held annually at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
The finalists are:
- The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit/Knopf)
- Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson (Rebellion)
- Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman (The Permanent)
- Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (Gollancz/Tor)
- Galapagos Regained by James Morrow (St. Martin’s)
- Going Dark by Linda Nagata (Mythic Island/Saga)
- The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW)
- Where by Kit Reed (Tor)
- The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
- Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)
- Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow/Harper Collins)
Our congrats to all the finalists! What do you think of this lineup?
Every time I have read one of Patricia A. McKillip‘s novels, I have been struck by her poetic language and the vibrancy of her fantastical worlds. Therefore, I was delighted to have a chance to read and review an advance review copy of her latest collection of short fiction, Dreams of Distant Shores (to be published June 14, 2016). The book collects seven works of short fiction, one essay by McKillip, and a warm and insightful afterword by Peter S. Beagle. McKillip’s essay is about her style of writing high fantasy, which involves simultaneously following and breaking the rules of the genre. I enjoyed the glimpse into her writing process, and I think the balance between tradition and originality that she describes is one of the things that has kept drawing me back to her fiction.
The short fiction in Dreams of Distant Shores, though, is far from traditional high fantasy. There are no queens, courts and heroes, and the stories take place in worlds not unlike our own. I thought the title itself was a remarkably accurate description of the contents within, since each tale felt like a dream permeated by a different style of magic. The vein of strangeness that runs through every work ties the collection of stories together.
The book opens with the confusing and surreal “Weird”. A man and a woman are locked in a bathroom with a gourmet food basket, while someone or something attempts to break in. The two of them seem oddly calm, and the woman recounts the weirdest things that have happened in her life. It’s a strange slice of a story, and reading it feels like falling into a fragment of someone else’s nightmare. The story “Edith and Henry Go Motoring” (original to the collection) also feels like a peek into someone else’s dream, though a more peaceful one. Edith and Henry go on an aimless journey in the English countryside, crossing a bridge with an unusual toll to an unexpected destination. I felt that these two stories were the most subtle and elusive of the collection, and I ended up reading them multiple times to try to gain a better understanding.
“Alien” (original to this collection) is another calm tale, and one that feels more grounded in a mundane reality. It features an elderly woman who claims to be visited by aliens, though her family fears she’s losing her mind. It’s a lovely and quiet story about growing old, familial relationships, loneliness, and wonder. Also, I think it must be the most positive alien abduction experience I have ever read.
Moving to the lighter side of the collection, “Mer” (original to the collection) and “Which Witch” are humorous stories with very different takes on the subject of witchcraft. “Mer” follows an immortal, form-changing witch who just wants to settle down into something comfortable and rest. In the process, she spends some time as a goddess and a wooden mermaid, and gets involved in an unusual local religion. The story is much less about the witch herself, who just wants a long nap, than it is about the ordinary people with whom she winds up getting entangled. The vagueness of the magic system works well within the story, since a lot of the humor comes from the characters’ exasperation with the confusing events happening around them.
Rather than the ancient, formless, sleepy witch in “Mer”, “Which Witch” follows a fashionable young woman in a witchy rock band. She’s proud to have recently acquired a crow familiar, but the two of them are having issues with communication. Unfortunately, what the crow is failing to communicate at the beginning of the story is, “You are in terrible danger!” The magic in this story is tied up in music, something that I think is pretty hard to pull off in a written story. I thought the music as magic sections were pretty fun in this case, though I’m not convinced the musicians would have put on a decent performance!
Moving into the longer fiction, “Gorgon in the Cupboard” was my favorite of the collection. The story involves a community of Victorian painters and models, and the kinds of relationships that exist between them. A middling painter searching for inspiration finds his muse in Medusa, whose spirit manifests in his unfinished painting of Persephone. Medusa directs him to search for a model, and he looks for someone who will stop him in his tracks and elevate his work. However, that model is more than a symbol or a mythological figure, but a human woman with her own griefs, thoughts, and dreams. What follows is an emotional story about how people are shaped by their experiences, and the value of seeing others as they truly are.
The final novella in the collection, “Something Rich and Strange” is a lyrical and imaginative story that carries an overt environmental message. A couple that lives by the coast have a stable life together, until supernatural forces slowly begin to tear it apart. The man is drawn inexorably to the water by a siren’s call, while the woman begins to see strange things in the familiar coastline. It is not long before the situation begins to get really out of hand. The story is beautifully written, and it had some pretty funny moments without losing its fundamental sincerity and gravity. I’m usually not a fan of including blatant messages in fiction, but the ocean really is in a sad state (though there are some signs of hope). Altogether, it is a haunting story of a relationship stretched to the breaking point, as well as a call to take responsibility for environmental damage.
In closing, this was an excellent collection of short fiction by Patricia A. McKillip. Each of the stories takes place in a different world, with a different tone and approach to the supernatural. With such a range, from the surreality of “Weird” to the Victorian painters of “Gorgon in the Cupboard”, I expect it will please fantasy fans with a variety of tastes. As for me, I have enjoyed visiting each of McKillip’s Dreams of Distant Shores.
I have to thank Aqueduct Press (“Bringing Challenging Feminist Science Fiction to the Demanding Reader”) for publishing The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism by Judith Merril. If you have sufficient years reading science fiction you’ll remember the annual SF collections of best short stories Judith Merril edited back in the 1950s and 1960s. What Ritch Calvin has done is collect all her introductions and summaries from those 1956-1969 annual anthologies, 38 book review columns from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1965-1969), and a few additional essays from Extrapolation, a journal devoted to studying science fiction. For ebook readers, he also includes the introductions to all the short stories from all the anthologies. That’s 622 pages (ebook) or 360 pages (paperback) of commentary on science fiction, a goldmine of insight into old science fiction. Both editions are available from Amazon or the publisher, and hopefully your local bookstore.
Judith Merril was an exceptionally well-read reviewer, not only referencing a detailed knowledge science fiction and its history, but literary works and science books. She was also pithy, funny and to the point. Here’s her 1965 review of PKD’s latest, where at the end of a previous book review had stated, “Philip Dick did it better three years ago, in The Man in the High Castle.” She then continues…
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Philip K. Dick, Doubleday, $4.95, 278 pp.
I don’t mean, this time, that his new book is similar in theme or treatment. Rather, that I wish it were more so, at least in characterizations and structure. Phil Dick is, one might say, the best writer s-f has produced, on every third Tuesday. In between times, he ranges wildly from unforgivable carelessness to craftsman-like high competence. In the case of Palmer Eldritch, I would guess he did his thinking on those odd Tuesdays, or rather on one of them, and the actual writing in every possible minute before another Good Tuesday came on him. Here is a riotous profusion of ideas, enough for a dozen novels, or one really good one; but the stuff is unsorted, frequently incompleted, seldom even clearly stated. The style is alternately dream-slow-surreal and fast-action-pulp. Thematically, he at least approaches, and sometimes stops to consider, virtually every current crucial issue: drug addiction, sexual mores, over-population, the economic structure of society, the nature of the religious experience, parapsychology, the evolution of man — you name it, you’ll find it. The book, with all this, is inevitably colorful, provocative, and (frustratingly) readable. I wish I thought it possible that Dick might some time go back to this one, publication notwithstanding, and finish writing it.
One reason why I immediately hit the buy button for The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism is because I bought her anthologies a half-century ago, and started reading F&SF around that time too. For years now I’ve been meaning to order those anthologies used from ABEBooks, just so I could read the commentaries. To have Calvin throw in all the book reviews was too good to be true, but it is.
I’ve been hung up on my science fictional past, and this book is perfect for retracing steps I first took in 1965. Anyone who collects old SF from that era will find this volume to be a treasure chest of clues.
Merril, on occasion, had a lot to say about a book. She often read a book more than once to write a review. She was determined to understand science fiction at a level beyond what most readers ever try. Look at this review of Nova by Samuel R. Delany, one the more memorably SF books from the 1960s. I probably read this review at the time too. This is a great example of what Merril does when she goes long:
Leave your preconceptions behind, again, when you open Samuel Delany’s new Nova (Doubleday, $4.95). My own problem was the opposite of my friend’s with 2001: I came to this book with an anticipation keener than any I have brought to anything since — well, probably Vonnegut’s Rosewater — looking for (at least an approach to) the Great Novel I (still) expect from the author of Empire Star, Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, “The Star-Pit,” “Aye and Gomorrah,” and (now) Nova: and what I got instead was a first-rate jim-dandy solid provocative science-fiction novel.
It took me a while to realize I had no honest cause for complaint — a while longer to discover I damn well did have cause — longer yet to understand (first) why I was so irritated, and (eventually) the real reasons to be annoyed with the book.
Delany is in an almost unique position in s-f today: everybody loves him. The “solid core,” the casual readers, the literary dippers-in, the “new thing” crowd — Delany is all things to all readers. It is an untenable position — unless, of course, he gets as good as I think he will eventually be. Swift, Melville, Carroll, Twain, Conrad are all read by children as well as litterateurs, their plots are reducible to comic book format, while their themes are subtle and complex enough to sustain reading after delighted analytical reading.
Well, Delany is not Swift or Conrad — yet; but his seven previous novels and scattered shorter works have already placed him out of the judging in the transient-writer class; and as the work of an apprentice-great, Nova must be regarded as more of a fascinating exercise than a satisfactory achievement. But —
What is wrong with the book is simply that the author tried to do — not too much, but enough: he tried to write a modern novel on all the levels required (by the same standards I am applying) of a contemporary work: if he did not quite succeed, it is well to remember that neither has anyone else — yet; and few other attempts have managed to stand up meanwhile as, at least, solid entertainment.
Here is what I wrote after my first reading of the book:
Nova is a deceptive book in several ways. Don’t let the first page stop you; the book is not — except superficially — a Planet Stories superficiality. And don’t rush in to identify with anyone too soon; it may take a while to decide whose viewpoint you are using.
The protagonist, the hero, and the viewpoint character are (in order of appearance, not necessarily identity) a 19-year-old gypsy-born spacehand-and-minstrel named the Mouse; a cosmically wealthy and powerful space captain named Lorq Von Ray; and a wandering scholar and spacehand called Katin.
The book is intriguingly, but unnecessarily, complex — mostly written underwater, as it were; that is, under the surface of a (too) familiar space adventure plot, as warm and sparkling with the strange and rich biota of Delany’s inner world.
There is, for instance, the Mouse’s “sensory-syrynx,” an instrument which can produce a complete multi-media show — visual, musical, and olfactory display; a recurrent theme involving Tarot lore; a carefully constructed cultural context in which the 20th century serves as the classical period of a culture 1000 years older, whose technological and philosophic beginnings are rooted in the transitions of today. There are the Illyrion furnaces which have made whole planets habitable and space traversable, great glowing pits called Hell here, and Gold there — and tiny battery power packs primed by micrograms of the same stuff, which run the wondrous syrynx and Katin’s tiny recorder. There is a gorgeous physiological/astrophysical/political philosophic construct in parallels; and a sweep of action from Athens to the Pleiades, with fiery fights, drinking bouts, mosques and museums, diver-hunters and cyborg-spacemen — and with all this, the book is somehow lacking. I do not know what it lacks; perhaps if it had come after Empire Star and Babel-17, and before The Einstein Intersection, I should have found no lack, at all. But, just as I went on from the first banal page, simply because it was Delany, and I could be sure of finding the richness and excitement I did find, so I went on from history lesson to battle scene to gorgeous syrynx session to Tarot lore, hoping I could be equally sure of learning why they were all there together. I think an explanation was given to me in the last pages — and I do not think it satisfied me. But never mind: the fans will love it.
That was the first time around; I have now read the book — to be precise — two and a half times (the third time, only those passages marked the second time for re-examination), and when I started to retype that earlier comment, I thought the word unnecessarily must have been a typographical error. Alas, not so: the error was not mechanical, but (doubly) human — the reader’s and writer’s both.
There is nothing in this book that did not have to be there — from the blind drunk of the spacebars to the wicked gorgeous Princess, Ruby Red; from the syntax-inversion of the Pleiades speech-pattern to Katin’s erudite lectures; from the cool halls of the Alkane Institute to the hole in the stellar doughnut. The problem is rather that some elements are so compressed as to be almost invisible, and I question whether any reader who lacks the responsibility of recording his opinion will work as hard as I did to find, and put together, all the pieces in a book so readily readable and pleasingly paced on the surface that there is no real cause to wonder how deep the channels underneath may flow — and small sign of their turbulence.
These are (at least some of) the ways you can read Nova: as a fast-action far-flung interstellar adventure; as archetypal mystical/mythical allegory (in which the Tarot and the Grail both figure prominently); as modern-myth told in the s-f idiom with powerful symbols built on solid science fiction clichés; as a futuristic vehicle for a philosophic complex of political/historical/economic/sociological ideas; as an experimental approach to literary criticism.
Among other things, the book examines: the nature and value of scholarship, mysticism, “progress,” and the varieties of the creative experience; the significance of the “instinct for workmanship” (the quote is from Veblen, not Delany) and the alienation phenomena of the industrial and (current) electronic revolutions; the relationships between the psychophysiology of the individual and the ecology of the body politic. Each of the three central characters (or the three aspects of the character?) suffers a variant form of alienation, rooted in different combinations of social, economic, geophysical, cultural, intellectual, and physiological factors. Through one or another of these viewpoints, the reader observes, recollects, or participates in a range of personal human experience including violent pain and disfigurement, sensory deprivation and overload, man-machine communion, the drug experience, the creative experience — and interpersonal relationships which include incest and assassination, father-son, leader-follower, human-pet, and lots more.
The economy of Delany’s writing is both maddening and delightful — and almost accomplishes what he seems to have been trying to do. (For instance, the culture-vista opened up when the Lunar scholar, Katin, says to the gypsy Mouse: “If somebody had told me I’d be working in the same crew, today in the 31st century, with somebody who could honestly be skeptical about the Tarot, I don’t think I would have believed it. You’re really from Earth?”) But even 279 closely written, richly embroidered, tautly thought pages are not enough: it is too much of too many, and too little of each: and — add odd complaints — it is too easy to read, on the easiest level.
If you let yourself go, it will run away with you; since the author failed to set up stop signs, the reader must either make his own (put the book down and pace the room once between chapters?) or plan on a second, slower reading after the fun of the first. Or settle, of course, for a good read, and never mind mining out the gold.
For two writers so disparately individual in concept, mood, style, background, and viewpoint Delany and R. A. Lafferty have certain startling distinctions in common. There are other notable stylists and fine prose writers in s-f today; but — in very different modes — Lafferty and Delany are currently the two outstanding poetic writers (language both lyrical and precise; images exact and evocative). There are other evolving new concepts and working out appropriate new techniques for contemporary multiplexities; and there are many others writing action-adventure yarns in the s-f idiom; but I can think of no others who so frequently manage to combine these apparently contradictory efforts.
But their greatest similarity also contains their most symptomatic difference. Among the characters in both men’s stories, a strange breed of children appear repeatedly: hardheaded/mystical creatures with electric personalities and powerful capacities. In Delany’s stories they are most often young teenagers whose essentially heroic proportions and proclivities (like almost all Delany characters) are dramatically flawed, or defective, or incurably disadvantaged, in some one area. Lafferty’s children are mostly prepubescent, and perfectly normal — except for a total lack of (parental or personal) inhibition; and a sort of amplification — of reality which permits them to act out archetypal childish fantasies on a grand-opera heroic scale.
By the way, Nova, as well as Babel-17 and Dhalgren have been recently produced for audio, and are available at Audible.com. I waited over a decade for Delany to come to audio, and the wait was well worth it, because hearing Delany read by a professional makes his rich narrative come alive in myriads of ways my own inner voice fails to find. I beg the audiobook producer gods to please come out with Distant Stars and Aye, and Gomorrah: And Other Stories next. They contain the short novel and novella, Empire Star and “The Star Pit” which are my absolute favorite science fiction stories form the 1960s.
If you’re the kind of science fiction fan I am, old and looking backwards, analyzing a lifetime of reading, The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism is a book you won’t want to miss. The ebook is a real convenience, letting us read a few reviews on our phones whenever a free moment pops up.
Judith Merril also wrote science fiction, not much, but enough to make her one of the pioneer women writers of science fiction starting in 1948 with her classic short story, “That Only a Mother” appearing in Astounding. She wrote two novels on her own, Shadow on the Hearth (1950) and The Tomorrow People (1960), and two novels with C. M. Kornbluth as Cyril Judd, Gunner Cade (1952) and Outpost Mars (1952). Shadow on the Hearth and the two Cyril Judd novels have been collected by NESFA Press as Space Out: Three Novels of Tomorrow by Judith Merril and C. M. Kornbluth. The Tomorrow People is currently in print from Armchair Fiction, a company that reprints a great deal of forgotten science fiction.
Merril produced several short story collections: Out of Bounds (1960), Daughters of Earth (1968), and Survival Ship and Other Stories (1974), each of which has been repackaged a number of times, but all her stories are currently available as Homecalling and Other Stories: The Compete Solo Short SF of Judith Merril (2005), again from NESFA Press.
I hope both the NESFA books come to audio.
The British Fantasy Society has released the shortlists for the 2016 British Fantasy Awards.
2016 August Derleth Award Shortlist (Horror):
- A Cold Silence by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)
- The Death House by Sarah Pinborough (Gollancz)
- Lost Girl by Adam Nevill (Pan Books)
- Rawblood by Catriona Ward (Weidenfeld & Nicholson)
- The Silence by Tim Lebbon (Titan Books)
- Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (Orbit)
2016 Robert Holdstock Award Shortlist (Fantasy):
- Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)
- Half a War by Joe Abercrombie (HarperVoyager)
- The Iron Ghost by Jen Williams (Headline)
- Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris)
- Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (Macmillan)
- Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Macmillan)
Our congrats to all the nominees. You can see the complete list of nominees in all categories on the official press release.
What do you think of the lineups for these 2 awards?
Yoon Ha Lee—a familiar name to short fiction readers—has published over forty stories since 1999 in most of the major venues, receiving several award nominations and numerous appearances in Year’s Best anthologies along the way. With Ninefox Gambit, Lee has made the transition to the novel (and thus to the possibility of a much larger audience) in a major way, with the first volume in a promised trilogy collectively titled The Machineries of Empire. A highly inventive far future military space opera filled with complex political intrigue and strange technologies, it may take an greater-than-usual amount of the reader’s patience and attention to come into focus, but the effort pays off as we are ultimately rewarded with a trip into a unique future setting for the story of a soldier who gradually discovers her role in a series of power machinations between an authoritarian status quo and a rebellion with the potential to move humanity (as well as some sentient robots) toward a more individualistic and democratic future. The same heavy use of specialized jargon and unfamiliar technologies that make the novel a challenging, fascinating and rewarding read also make it somewhat difficult to summarize and review, but here we go…
The ruling Hexarchate of numerous worlds is made up of six factions, each with a specialized role within the governing structure. Kel Cheris, whose mathematical abilities would have suited her for the math-based Narai faction, chose instead to join the Kel military faction. The Kel are known for their unwavering loyalty and obedience to the hierarchy they are part of, a loyalty ensured by their artificially instilled “formation instinct”. Like many of the concepts in Ninefox Gambit, the precise nature of this “instinct” is not entirely clear, though its effects are plain enough. For the Kel, instant obedience to orders is necessary for their military success, which is based on the use of mathematically derived soldier formations adapted to the particular circumstances of battle. Cheris’s mathematical talents allow her to rise within the Kel ranks, as her ability to quickly calculate these formations is highly valuable to the Kel and thus to the Hexarchate.
Prior to the events in the novel, the Hexarchate had been a Heptarchate, but the seventh faction—the Liozh (the philosophers and leaders) broke away in a rebellion, and Cheris has been recruited to lead the forces being sent to counter this latest turn in the rebellion. The Liozh have captured a strategic “nexus fortress”, and the Hexarchate desperately wants it back. In the world of the novel, rebellion against the Hexarchate takes on the character of religious heresy, as the stability of the Hexarchate, echoed in a sense by the stability of the Kel military formations, is dependent not just on each faction and each individual maintaining a proper role within it, but by the maintenance of belief in this system, based on a mathematical “high calendar”: “consensus mechanics meant the high calendar’s exotic technologies would only work if everyone observed the remembrances and adhered to the social order,” and the more important these technologies become to the Hexarchate, the more rigid the social system must be. Social rigidity, however, inevitably leads to rebellion, and deviation from orthodoxy leads to “calendrical rot.” (I may be reading too much into the mathematical aspects of the story, but I found the pattern of the Hexarchate reminiscent of a fractal pattern, and the concept of the numerical stability of Kel formations similar to electron shells in physics. In any case, math fans will find much of interest in this novel!)
Cheris, then, is tasked with taking back nexus Fortress of Scattered Needles from the heretics—a station/fortress that is itself a “microcosm of the Hexarchate,” and one of whose functions is to “project calendrical stability throughout the region. If it had fallen to calendrical rot, the Hexarchate’s exotic weapons would be of limited use there. The Hexarchate lagged in invariate technology, which could be used under any calendrical regime. In particular, too close to rot the voidmoths’ [spaceships’]primary stardrives would fail. Without the voidmoths to connect the Hexarchate’s worlds, the realm would unravel. If the heretics converted the Fortress to their own calendrical system, the problem became critical. The Hexarchate would have to contend with a rival power at the heart of its richest systems.”
One of the exotic technologies available to the Hexarchate is the “black cradle”—a device that stores an uploaded mind, conferring a sort of immortality on the chosen individual. The black cradle is rarely used, however, since living bodies are required to bring the stored personalities back to life, not to mention the tendency of its use to lead to violent madness in its subjects. The importance of Cheris’s mission is thus indicated by the decision to retrieve the mind of the legendary general Shuos Jedao to help with the mission. Jedao’s mind is removed from the black cradle and moved directly into Cheris’s mind, where the two personalities must co-exist for the duration of the mission. Jedao has been dead for four-hundred years, executed for treason after purposely destroying his own forces in a crucial battle against heretics—an action attributed to madness. His mind is preserved for its strategic brilliance, however, since he never lost a battle during his military career. Cheris, then, must try to make use of Jedao’s advice on military strategy, while keeping her own personality intact against the possible onslaught of Jedao’s madness.
The combination of Jedao’s strategic knowledge and experience and Cheris’s mathematical talent and adaptability make them a formidable combination, as she/he/they approach the Fortress of Shattered Needles, where the spread of calendrical rot makes their technologies unreliable. Computational attacks, kaleidoscope bombs, invariant ice shields, logic grenades, threshold winnowers, carrion bombs: these are just some of the “exotic technologies” that come into play in this calendrical war.
As the battle unfolds, Lee gradually reveals some of the politics that underlie this “game between competing sets of rules.” At one point, the nature of the Liozh heresy is suggested: “’An obscure experimental form of government where citizens choose their own leaders or policies by voting on them.’ Cheris tried to imagine this and failed. How could you form a stable regime this way? Wouldn’t it destroy the reliability of the calendar and all its associated technology?” The readers’ sympathies are with Cheris, but we have to wonder from the start about the cause she fights for, and the means used by the Hexarchate to maintain their power. (The too-easy sacrifice of individuals for the good of the group is a recurring theme, for example.) Judgment must be reserved, however, as the underlying motivations of those involved in both sides of this war are not fully revealed, and I suspect that the readers’ tendency to choose democracy over authoritarianism (or, in the context of the novel, heresy over orthodoxy) may be too simple a judgment. Setting up questions and doubts about the players and politics involved in the story, though, is clearly one of Lee’s goals in Ninefox Gambit, whetting the reader’s appetite for the rest of the trilogy. In the sequels, which I’m definitely anticipating, I’ll be looking for how Lee resolves this underlying theme of the balancing of the benefits of social cohesion and the rewards of individualism.
Much as I enjoy speculating about the political implications of science fictional futures, then, judgment must be reserved in the case of Ninefox Gambit, as much will be determined by the direction of the sequels. This opening novel is well worth reading, though, for its intriguing setup of a unique space opera setting, a taste of which I have tried to give in this review, and for the Cheris/Jedao character arc. Not much can be said about the specifics without spoiling the story, but the nature of his/her/their relationship evolves unexpectedly with events. Cheris learns things about Jedao that were not in her history books, and that shed light on the longer-term conflict between the Hexarchate and the heretics, while the mechanics and psychological implications of the two personalities in a single mind/body are interesting in themselves. This strange relationship does reach a resolution within the novel, but this conclusion, in the best trilogy tradition, also serves to raise the urgent question of where the story and our combined protagonist will go next.
Based on this opening gambit, there’s a good chance that this series will be seen as an important addition to the space opera resurgence of recent years. While Lee has developed a singular combination of military SF, mathematical elegance, and futuristic strangeness (as Gareth Powell puts it in a cover blurb: “As if Cordwainer Smith had written a Warhammer novel”), readers may note echoes of or similarities to Iain M. Banks, Hannu Rajaniemi, C. J. Cherryh, Ann Leckie (and, yes, Cordwainer Smith). Admirers of these authors, or anyone interested in state-of-the-art space opera, ought to give Ninefox Gambit a try.
Yoon Ha Lee is a Korean-American SFF writer. He has published short fiction in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed Magazine and elsewhere. Three of his stories have been reprinted in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies. Yoon’s new novel Nine Fox Gambit is out now from Solaris.
My first exposure to Tarot was through science fiction, specifically Piers Anthony’s books. I can’t remember which one–I think he used the imagery in a number of his novels–but I liked playing cards and I was fascinated by the symbolism. It wasn’t until I got my hands on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, however, that my interest in Tarot really took off–and it wasn’t just the novels, it was Erick Wujcik’s Amber Diceless Roleplaying.
In Zelazny’s books, the royal family of Amber can be called upon by their Trumps or portrait cards. Even better, Amber Diceless Roleplaying wrote up Zelazny’s major characters as potential non-player characters (NPCs) and included beautiful black-and-white illustrations of their Trumps by Michael Kucharski. (I have a crush on Corwin’s portrait.) The idea of having characters represented by cards never left me.
Over the years I have amassed a very small collection of Tarot decks, from the grunge-flavored Darkana Tarot (the Wheel of Fortune is a revolver, and it has an extra card, the Badass) to Nathan Never’s science-fiction-themed Tarocchi del Futuro, and even a Tarot Ambre (a gift). At some point in the future I’m hoping to treat myself to a copy of Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s Shadowscapes Tarot as well. When I’m stuck on a story, sometimes I dig one out and do a Tarot spread to help myself brainstorm.
One might consider this a very advanced form of fox-waxing. My favorite way to do this is to focus on a character so that I can get a sense of their story arc, especially in a longer work. Half the fun is poring over the set of cards and deciding what card should serve as the character’s significator. For example, when I was working on the first two hexarchate books, I thought of General Shuos Jedao as the Knight of Swords. Of course, then I went on to do a reading for him using an app where you don’t choose the significator, it just shuffles the whole spread, and freaked out when the Knight of Swords turned up in the “self” position anyway. I try not to be superstitious, but this doesn’t help!
I play pretty fast and loose with the spread, but sometimes the cards that look the most counterintuitive are the ones that make me think the hardest. Sometimes I reject what the spread tells me and go with something else. I mean, who’s going to stop me? Still, having a randomized source of archetypes to apply to my plots gives me a starting point.
As you can tell, I am not a Tarot expert; I do my best not to apply this stuff to real life. I often have to look up the meanings of the cards. But sometimes even that isn’t necessary–the pictures on the cards are enough to suggest to me what I want to do with my characters. It’s one of the reasons I collect different decks, because the art is different on all of them, and suggests different things to me.
I use a variant of this with collectible card game (CCG) cards, largely because my husband and I are sitting on a collection of them. (Misspent youth.) I pulled the ones with pretty, evocative art and put them in those plastic binder pages, arranging them to create a sort of associational portrait of the character. Here are some examples, mostly Legend of the Five Rings with a side of Shadowfist. Legend of the Five Rings works for me because it was one of the inspirations for the hexarchate setting, but you could probably find something out there for anything.
Other repurposed CCGs I have lying around include Blood Wars, Star of the Guardians, and Babylon-5 Wars. I imagine that if you write fantasy, you could get a lot of mileage out of Magic: The Gathering. My local game store sells old commons and uncommons for fifty cents apiece, and the beautiful thing about nabbing cards for the art rather than their play value is it’s not hard to find old, cheap commons that will do the job!