Thursday, July 13, 2017

Review - Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Short review: Tasked with putting down a heretical rebellion within the Hexarchate that has caused calendrical rot, Kel Cheris convinces her superiors to revive the insane dead General Jedao. If that sounds kind of incomprehensible to you, be warned that reading the book only makes it a little bit clearer.

Calendrical math
Makes exotic things happen

Full review: Ninefox Gambit is a work of military science fiction in which the science fiction is almost incomprehensible, and the military actions are only slightly less so. That said, it is a beautiful book that is not really hampered by the weirdly exotic world that it drops the reader into, and this weirdness is handled so well that by the end, it almost feels natural. Despite the alien strangeness of the setting, the story told in the book is fundamentally almost ordinary, and that manages to root the book in such a way that even with exotic calendar based math warping reality, there is enough that is familiar to hold onto that the story doesn't dissolve into impenetrability. One of the fine lines that science fiction authors have to walk is the balance between presenting a world in which technology and culture are different enough from ours that it feels at least somewhat alien, but not so different that the fictional reality has ranged so far from the familiar that it is effectively unintelligible for the reader. In Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee flirts with this line, standing right at the border where the setting would become entirely baffling, and occasionally stepping across for just a little bit, but for the most part remaining just shy of mystifying.

The central conceit of the novel is a brand of mathematics exists called "calendrical math", and by using it one can determine which collection of variables need to be controlled in order to change the way physics works, allowing for a variety of "exotic" technologies that are dependent upon this shared belief system. The government under which the various characters in the book live is the "Hexarchate" and it enforces a rigid calendrical orthodoxy of festivals, remembrances, and torture sessions to power the technologies that underpin the authority of the ruling Hexarchs. Deviations from the calendrical observances are treated as heresies and ruthlessly stamped out. Technology that does not depend upon calendrical math is called "invariant" technology, and is represented as generally being less effective than the calendrically powered "exotic" technologies - and with one notable exception none of the "invariant" technologies are ever really described. The "exotic" technologies are only described in slightly more detail than that: We get names like "Amputation Gun", and "Threshold Winnower", and "Carrion Gun", and a couple of dozen descriptions of various battle formations, but with the exception of the obvious effects some of them have, the technology is never really given any substantial definition.

Some have said that Ninefox Gambit is about calendrical math, but that does not seem to be entirely accurate. There are lots of references to calendrical math in the book, with discussions of people doing computations and the effects of maintaining or not maintaining the calendar, but there is no actual math in the book. To a certain extent this is to be expected - after all, if Lee knew how to do calculations that would reshape the laws of physics, he would be publishing ground-breaking academic papers, not writing fiction. On the other hand, when science fiction authors introduce heretofore unknown technologies into their stories, they usually try to give the reader some general idea of the parameters under which those technologies operate. Calendrical math, however, seems to have no limitation at all, which I suppose might be the point, because once you posit a particular technology that can alter the very fundamental elements of reality, all bets would seem to be off. This gives the book a pervasive sense of unreality, as the central conflict involves putting down a heretical faction that has cropped up and instituted their own calendar with an associated competing set of technologies. Since what is possible with calendrical math is never really explained, the reader really has no grounding in what is possible in this conflict, and as a result, must be content with simply gliding along as the various interested parties explain what is happening as it happens and satisfied with never really understanding exactly why.

One thing that is certain is that the political structure that makes up the Hexarchate are both instrumental to and supported by the maintenance of the orthodox calendrical arrangements. The nation is divided into six factions, each with a defined role within society. The Kel are the soldiers, and are imbued with "formation instinct", which causes them to reflexively follow orders. The Shuos are spies, assassins, and information brokers. The Nirai are mathematicians and creators of the exotic technologies that flow from the calendrical math used by the Hexarchate. The Rahal are the magistrates and judges, charged with enforcing civil order. And so on. Each faction has its place in society, and each member of a faction has a defined role to play. The incomprehensibility of the technology is almost entirely irrelevant to the book. While it is weird to read a book that is basically military science fiction in which none of the actions taken by the various forces involved make any sense because the technology they are using relied upon odd patterns of behavior and geometrical configurations that are never given any more detail than a fanciful name, the simple fact is that all of this exotic technology is just a way to explain the existence of a society that is so rigid that the deadliest heresy is allowing people to have choices.

The core story involves Captain Kel Cheris, a member of the Kel faction of the Hexarchate, whose use of unorthodox formations in response to having heretical weapons deployed against her unit has called attention to herself, leading to the Shuos Hexarch selecting her for a team to evaluate the best way to suppress a heresy that is causing calendrical rot at the heart of one of the most important regions of the Hexarchate in the key position of the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Cheris' proposal is to revive the dead and insane Shuos General Jedao and have him plan the attack that will allow the Hexarchate to retake the fortress intact and reimpose the proper calendrical order. This is a daring and dangerous idea: Daring because when he was alive, Jedao never lost a battle, and dangerous because in his final engagement he killed off the enemy and then turned on his own troops, slaughtering them to a man. The part of the plan that Cheris was not really prepared for is that to revive Jedao, he has to be attached to someone living, and that someone turns out to be her, creating what amounts to private a dialogue between the long-dead General and the living Captain (who is pretty quickly breveted to General for the operation). One might think that such an intimate relationship would engender candor, but like pretty much everyone else in the Hexarchate, Jedao plays his cards extremely close to the chest, even with someone who is literally the only person who can hear him. One problem with books in which intrigue is a major part of the plot is that the author runs the risk of withholding too much information from the reader because the characters would withhold information from one another, resulting in a story in which, from the perspective of the reader, things seem to happen almost at random. Ninefox Gambit doesn't quite sink to that level, but it comes close, and when this is combined with the almost inscrutable nature of calendrical math, the events in the book frequently seem almost haphazard.

For all of the exotic trappings, the story itself is fairly ordinary, although it does have some interesting twists: Rebels rise up against what appears to be a fairly oppressively harsh regime, forces are sent to bring the heretics to heel, various players have their own personal agendas they are trying to advance, and there are a couple of betrayals and reversals to spice things up. The heresy at the center of the story is the revival of the Liozh, a seventh faction that used to exist when the Hexarchate was the Heptarchate before they experimented with democracy and the calendar was revised to remove them. It seems notable that both the Liozh heresy and the creation of Kel formation instinct didn't take place until after Jedao had died the first time, but like all things in this book with its ever shifting reality, this is only an impression and there isn't really anything concrete to base that upon. The one somewhat unique question that seems to loom large in the background, but which is only hinted at, is whether it is possible to have anything resembling what we would recognize as a free society in a world in which calendrical mathematics exists. One can only hope this will be addressed in a future installment of the series.

Ninefox Gambit is a fascinating, confusing, and ultimately frustrating book. In it, Lee posits a strange alien society based upon a technology that is fairly off-the-wall and uses this setting to tell a story that feels oddly comfortable. While Lee never quite reaches the point where the story dissolves into complete chaos, the combination of bizarre technology, an alien society that underpins that technology, and pervasive conspiratorial machinations definitely serves to bring it to the brink of anarchy. There is a lot to love in this book, but there is also a lot that seems to simply whirl about without much rhyme or reason. This seems like a book that people either find interesting, or find absolutely intolerable. The real difficulty is figuring out which kind of person one is, and there's really no way to do that short of trying to read the book. That said, I am the sort of person who found it interesting, and as a result, I think it is definitely worth picking up.

2016 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
2018 Locus Award Winner for Best First Novel: TBD

List of Locus Award Winners for Best First Novel

2017 Clarke Award Nominees
2017 Hugo Award Finalists
2017 Locus Award Nominees
2017 Nebula Award Nominees

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  1. Great review! I'm just getting into this one now, and like it, but also completely confused. You are right on with the normal elements anchoring an otherwise completely incomprehensible world. I keep waiting for ithe light bulb to go on, but it just isn't! Thanks for being part of my challenge!

    1. @Shauneasay: Thanks! It was a great book. I'm a little bogged down in my reading right now, but I'm hoping to read the sequel in the reasonably near future.