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Worlds Without End Blog

Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee Posted at 4:25 PM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

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.

Yoon Ha Lee

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.

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