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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.

Forays into Fantasy: Pulp Fantasy and A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar Posted at 10:49 AM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

Scott Lazerus is a Professor of Economics at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado, and has been a science fiction fan since the 1970s. The Forays into Fantasy series is an exploration of the various threads of fantastic literature that have led to the wide variety of fantasy found today, from the perspective of an SF fan newly exploring the fantasy landscape. FiF will examine some of the most interesting landmark books of the past, along with a few of today’s most acclaimed fantasies, building up an understanding of the connections between fantasy’s origins, its touchstones, and its many strands of influence.


The Ship of IshtarThe 1920s saw a peak in interest in fantasy among “literary” writers. Modernist writers like James Joyce (Ulysses, 1922) and T. S. Eliot (The Waste Land, 1922), looking for universal themes among the technological, political, and social upheavals of the early twentieth century, increasingly incorporated mythology into their writing. Other literary writers of the decade took the further step of presenting mythological stories using all the tools of the modern novel. David Lindsay, Hope Mirrlees, Virginia Woolf, David Garnett, E. R. Eddison, Franz Kafka, Lord Dunsany, and James Branch Cabell all produced works that attempted to novelize the fantastic and the mythological.

While this literary strain of fantasy never entirely died out, it waned in subsequent years, as the second main strain of fantasy—that appearing in the pulp magazines—increased its dominance. The appeal to escapism and sensationalism associated with pulp fantasy and science fiction (as well as some atrocious writing) may have helped make the genre increasingly unacceptable to the literati, but the literary accomplishments of the 1920s are an indicator of what might have been, if the potential audience for these works had not been turned against the literary potential of fantasy by the reputation of the pulps, especially once the specialized genre pulps Weird Tales and Amazing Stories appeared with much success in the late 1920s.

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RYO Review: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein Posted at 8:20 AM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

Double StarRYO_headerTo begin with a digression, I was never much of a Robert A. Heinlein fan. Growing up as a science fiction kid in the 1970s, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, but back then, being indifferent to Heinlein made me question my tastes. Everybody seemed to love Heinlein. He was one of the “big three” (and I was a fan of the other two—Asimov and Clarke). So I kept giving him a try. I quite liked The Past Through Tomorrow—the collection of his mostly early-career future history stories. I can definitely see that he was writing some of the best short fiction of the Forties. But the novels—The Puppet Masters, Starship Troopers, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land—I thought they were okay, but just okay. It’s difficult to explain, but there always seemed to be something about each of his novels that rubbed my teenage self the wrong way. Then, in 1980, the first new (in my reading lifetime) Heinlein novel came out so, like all good SF fans in 1980, I made the mistake of reading The Number of the Beast, and swore off Heinlein forever. Based on what I’ve learned since, post-1960 Heinlein increasingly allowed his libertarian politics and “interesting” views regarding sexuality to overwhelm his storytelling (which could explain my half-remembered uneasy reaction to those novels), and most of the novels I tried were from this later period, so I’ve been meaning to take a look at an earlier novel at some point.

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Scott Lazerus came to Worlds Without End looking for a good list of books. He found David Pringle’s Best 100 Science Fiction Novels to his liking and is currently working his way through the list. He has posted many fine reviews for WWEnd including several for last year’s GMRC. Be sure to check out Scott’s excellent blog series Forays into Fantasy too!

Forays into Fantasy: Arabian Fantasy and G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen Posted at 6:30 PM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

Scott Lazerus is a Professor of Economics at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado, and has been a science fiction fan since the 1970s. The Forays into Fantasy series is an exploration of the various threads of fantastic literature that have led to the wide variety of fantasy found today, from the perspective of an SF fan newly exploring the fantasy landscape. FiF examines some of the most interesting landmark books of the past, along with a few of today’s most acclaimed fantasies, building an understanding of the connections between fantasy’s origins, its touchstones, and its many strands of influence.

Editor’s Note: This post counts as a WoGF review for purposes of the December review poll.


Alif the UnseenSo far, these Forays into Fantasy have mostly ranged from the late nineteenth through the first half of the twentieth century. I’d previously read other seventeenth and eighteenth century fantasies recommended by Moorcock and Cawthorn in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, a few of which are discussed in this post on the Gothic origins of modern fantasy. My goal for this reading project (along with, hopefully, reading some great books) has been to explore the history of the fantasy genre before beginning to review more modern fantasies, in order to give some historical context to what today’s fantasists are doing. This post will be my first step into the landscape of modern fantasy, with a look at G. Willow Wilson‘s World Fantasy Award-winner Alif the Unseen (2012). A big part of the appeal and originality of this novel is its engagement with current issues in the Middle East. It seems that Wilson, while writing Alif, anticipated the events of the Arab Spring, and the role of computers and social media in those uprisings. But the story also partakes of a fantasy tradition that stretches back to one of the eighteenth century roots of the modern genre—the development of Arabian fantasy subsequent to the appearance of translations of the stories that came to be known as the Arabian Nights. This review may also be the first to make a connection between G. Willow Wilson and L. Ron Hubbard (though I’d love to know if anyone got there before me!).

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WoGF Review: The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent Posted at 8:15 AM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

WWEnd Grand Master Reading ChallengeScott Lazerus came to Worlds Without End looking for a good list of books. He found David Pringle’s Best 100 Science Fiction Novels to his liking and is currently working his way through the list. He has posted many fine reviews for WWEnd including several for last year’s GMRC. Be sure to check out Scott’s excellent blog series Forays into Fantasy too!


The Shore of WomenCenturies from now, having survived worldwide nuclear devastation in underground shelters, people began returning to the surface as the Earth again became habitable. As the men and infertile women went out to explore, those women who remained behind in the shelters took on the responsibility of repopulation, making use only of men determined to be genetically undamaged. Believing that the destruction of the world was the result of male aggression, these women eventually moved inland and built new cities, protected from the outside by walls and force fields, and developed a matriarchal lesbian culture that maintained science and technology. Men were forced to remain outside in a primitive state, living in small bands and prevented from moving beyond Stone Age technology, having forgotten the truth of their own past, brought to the cities only to fulfill their role in in vitro fertilization. The women built a set of Shrines throughout the areas around the cities, where men could go to worship the “Lady”—their Goddess. In these shrines, men put on circlets that linked them telepathically to women in the city, who sometimes fed their minds erotic fantasies, and occasionally called them to the city for a “Blessing”—more virtual sex for the purpose of sperm “donation”.

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Forays into Fantasy: Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife and the Beginnings of Urban Fantasy Posted at 12:44 PM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

Scott Lazerus is a Professor of Economics at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado, and has been a science fiction fan since the 1970s. The Forays into Fantasy series is an exploration of the various threads of fantastic literature that have led to the wide variety of fantasy found today, from the perspective of an SF fan newly exploring the fantasy landscape. FiF examines some of the most interesting landmark books of the past, along with a few of today’s most acclaimed fantasies, building an understanding of the connections between fantasy’s origins, its touchstones, and its many strands of influence.


Conjur WifeFritz Leiber (1910–1992) is indisputably one of the most important science fiction and fantasy writers of the twentieth century, recipient of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Grand Master Award and the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, as well as six Hugos and four Nebulas. His science fiction is some of the best of its era, including Gather, Darkness (1943), Hugo winner The Big Time (1958), and a series of great short stories for Galaxy during the 1950s. Despite his achievements in SF, he is better known today for his fantasy, due primarily to his sword and sorcery sequence featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, which began with “Two Sought Adventure” (aka “The Jewels in the Forest”) in 1939, and continued throughout his long career (and which should be the subject for a future post in this series).

Leiber may also have been more comfortable writing fantasy, turning to science fiction at least in part due to the lack of fantasy publishing outlets following the demise of John W. Campbell’s Unknown magazine in 1943, after which science fiction would dominate the genre magazine (and eventually the book publishing) landscape until the 1970s. Due to Unknown’s market for sophisticated fantasy, the years 1939 to 1943 produced a disproportionate amount of great fantasy, much of which is still read today. Last year I wrote about three of these—Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de Camp’s Enchanter stories, Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think, and A. E. Van Vogt’s The Book of Ptath—and as I return to this period in the history of fantasy, several additional Unknown stories will be looked at. Along with the first five Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, Fritz Leiber’s contributions to Unknown include the classic “Smoke Ghost” (1941) and the novel Conjure Wife (1943), which was first published in book form, slightly revised and updated, in 1952 as part of the omnibus Witches Three.

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Hell Is Adaptations: The Innocents Posted at 11:23 AM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself . . . and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.

—Henry James, 1908 Preface to the New York Edition of The Turn of the Screw

In considering which genre film adaptations to take a look at for WWEnd’s new blog series, I thought I’d begin with that most unusual case—a successful film adaptation of one of my favorite novels; one that manages to respect the original story while using the tools of cinema to elucidate that story in ways not possible on the printed page. Instead of nitpicking the alterations from print to screen and wondering what in the world the filmmakers were thinking (which, unfortunately, tends to be my response to film adaptation of novels I admire, more often than not), upon re-watching The Innocents, the 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, I found myself admiring the ways in which the filmmakers had added their own touches to the story, indicating a real understanding of the essential ambiguity that defines The Turn of the Screw, while not merely giving the audience a slavish recreation of the original.

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WoGF Review: The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett Posted at 6:40 PM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

WWEnd Grand Master Reading ChallengeScott Lazerus came to Worlds Without End looking for a good list of books. He found David Pringle’s Best 100 Science Fiction Novels to his liking and is currently working his way through the list. He has posted many fine reviews for WWEnd including several for last year’s GMRC. Be sure to check out Scott’s excellent blog series Forays into Fantasy too!


The Long TomorrowOne possible definition of science fiction is that SF is about the potential effects of technology on humanity and the human environment. The potential of technology can create the “sense of wonder” that SF readers are often looking for, but technology can also be seen as a potential danger. Out of hand or out of our control, technology can become the source of our destruction—thus the cautionary dystopias of nuclear apocalypse and climate change that appear alongside more hopeful stories of space exploration and other wonders of the future.

Leigh Brackett plays with this dichotomy masterfully in The Long Tomorrow (1955), the story of two teenage cousins brought up in Piper’s Run—a community of “New Mennonites” in Ohio eighty years after a nuclear war destroyed most U.S. cities. (The details of the war itself are not presented, but apparently the U.S. “won”, for whatever it’s worth.) In the aftermath of the Destruction, as the nuclear devastation has come to be known, fundamentalist religious groups have gained political power, enforcing, with popular support, an anti-technological society supported by the Thirtieth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the growth of any town’s population beyond one thousand people, or the number of buildings beyond two hundred per square mile. The cultural mores of the Amish and the Mennonites dominate America, and more violent anti-technology sects threaten death by stoning for anyone caught with illegal technology—“the terror brought the great boiling up of faith that birthed new sects and strengthened the old ones.”

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Forays into Fantasy: David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus Posted at 3:02 PM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

Scott Lazerus is a Professor of Economics at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado, and has been a science fiction fan since the 1970s. The Forays into Fantasy series is an exploration of the various threads of fantastic literature that have led to the wide variety of fantasy found today, from the perspective of an SF fan newly exploring the fantasy landscape. FiF examines some of the most interesting landmark books of the past, along with a few of today’s most acclaimed fantasies, building an understanding of the connections between fantasy’s origins, its touchstones, and its many strands of influence.


A Voyage to ArcturusDavid Lindsay (1876-1945), born in Scotland and relocated to London, was successful in the insurance industry prior to World War I, in which he served, despite being forty years old upon enlistment. The effect of the unprecedented suffering and destruction of the Great War on those who served in it, and on European society, was profound. Whether or not his wartime experience was the impetus, Lindsay decided after the war, despite his age and previous business success, to attempt a full-time writing career, publishing his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, in 1920, at which time it was nearly ignored, selling a grand total of 596 copies before slipping into obscurity. His subsequent novels also sold poorly, and he was unable to publish anything after 1932, dying in 1945 as the result of an abscess related to dental neglect.

A Voyage to Arcturus, however, was not entirely forgotten, and the novel gained influential proponents, especially C. S. Lewis, who credited the novel as a major inspiration for Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and its two sequels, which picked up on Lindsay’s use of a foreign planet as a setting for metaphysical speculation. It was reprinted in the United Kingdom in 1946, finally receiving a U.S. publication in 1963, followed by a Ballantine paperback reissue in 1968 as part of that publisher’s effort to capitalize on the huge success of the paperback publication of The Lord of the Rings by reprinting other older fantasy works. It has remained in print ever since, being chosen by James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock as one of the hundred best fantasy novels for their 1991 book, and entering the Fantasy Masterworks collection in 2003. In fact, it shows up on just about every critical list of important fantasy novels. It is now in the public domain, and so easily available, including by way of free electronic editions, a good example of which can be found here.

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Forays into Fantasy: Gertrude Barrows Bennett’s The Citadel of Fear Posted at 9:40 PM by Scott Lazerus

Scott Laz

Scott Lazerus is a Professor of Economics at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado, and has been a science fiction fan since the 1970s. The Forays into Fantasy series is an exploration of the various threads of fantastic literature that have led to the wide variety of fantasy found today, from the perspective of an SF fan newly exploring the fantasy landscape. FiF will examine some of the most interesting landmark books of the past, along with a few of today’s most acclaimed fantasies, building an understanding of the connections between fantasy’s origins, its touchstones, and its many strands of influence.


The Citadel of FearIn the midst of the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge, I’d like to direct your attention to Gertrude Barrows Bennett—possibly the most important female writer of speculative fiction that you’ve probably never heard of. Her sustained run of fantasy fiction published between 1917 and 1923—around a dozen stories, including five novels—have led to a growing acceptance of her importance to the history of the genre, following decades of neglect.

Bennett (1884–1948) turned to writing when her journalist/explorer husband died while on an expedition, soon followed by her father, leaving her with a newborn daughter and invalid mother to support. She seems to have stopped writing after her mother’s death. Following her disappearance from public view, and prior to the idea being debunked in 1952, it was quite widely believed that Francis Stevens—the pseudonym under which Bennett’s work was published—was actually a penname of A. Merritt, probably the most popular and influential fantasy writer of the first third of the twentieth century (though much less well-known today). It turns out; however, that the similarities of their writings, which led readers to assume “Stevens” was Merritt, were quite likely the result of Bennett’s own influence on Merritt, who acknowledged his admiration for her works, and the inspiration he received from them. (Mention has also been made of H. P. Lovecraft’s endorsement of her work, but this story seems to have been apocryphal.)

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