[Book Review] Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

My latest review for the Shadow Clarke is up at the CSFFAnglia site.

Ninefox Gambit is a nice book. Fans of conflict-in-vacuum will enjoy it, and it does some neat things. But there is so much better stuff out there to read. Maybe someone will do something cool with space opera again, but this isn’t the book to revive my interest.

–Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I am much more tolerant about this sort of narrative on screen. I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch it–because I don’t go out of my way to watch anything anymore–but if I happened to sit in front of a TV that was showing this, I think I’d be more interested. Possibly because I expect less out of commercial television and movies, and it’s a shorter commitment.

I don’t have much to say about the comments, other than to acknowledge the gulf between some of us. I mean, I’m still pretty limber, but I’m not going to do backbends to find something intellectual and positive to say about another insulated military space opera.

*****

In other news, I have completed my last reviews for the Sharke project. I am done! (That’s what my last cryptic post was about, by they way.) These final reviews will thematically pair a Clarke book with a Sharke book, and compare the experiences. I won’t be around when they post, but I hope you find them interesting, even if you disagree.

With my obligations to the Sharke done, I’m off to read books I’ve been fantasizing about for the past six months: Paul Beatty, Angela Carter, and M John Harrison, here I come!

*****

Also in other news, if you’d like to listen to me blather on about books while two, far more interesting people provide actual cogent commentary, Cabbages&Kings episode 48 was just released. I join Maureen K. Speller and Jonah Sutton-Morse to talk about The Stone BoatmenWatership Down, and my book club choice, Unbearable Splendor. What fun! I love these two people! (And who doesn’t like rabbits?) (Jonah, seriously, I do like rabbits.)

*****

It’s space opera, you know?

One of last year’s most famous, most advertised, most-clearly-recognized-as-science-fiction novels, on a shortlist almost entirely of famous, advertised novels—especially in relation to the rest of the 86-title submissions list—the inclusion of Ninefox Gambit on the Clarke shortlist was inevitable. Its reputation as a challenging narrative, its loyalty to standard genre form, and the requisite spaceship on the cover have established its place in the science fiction book award Goldilocks zone. If things go as they did last year and in 2014, it’s also a likely winner.

Although I’ve already made it clear this is not the kind of book I would normally value or enjoy, the placement of Ninefox Gambit on the Clarke shortlist is something I asked for last year, though not in such direct terms:

Much as I complain about personality-driven fan awards and nepotism-driven industry awards, juried award shortlists aren’t much better, but it does seem like [juries] are in a better position to provide a complete snapshot of what the genre is doing at the moment.

But if that were the case, one would expect more of the big splash or cult hit novels to be present on this list, but instead we get things from left field, and not even a hip or innovative left field.

There is certainly nothing from left field on this year’s Clarke shortlist, as every author recognized is well-advertised and/or has their own hip following. This isn’t a list half populated by uncool, barely heard of white guys awkwardly rehashing old space opera, fantasy, and YA, like we saw last year. Most of last year’s list was British-niche, and most of that niche inspired little more than furrowed brows from the rest of the world.

So what’s different for me now? Why am I so unhappy with this year’s shortlist when it’s doing exactly what I wanted last year? Answer: I read the submissions list. Reading, dissecting, and discussing this year’s subs list with the other Sharkes has made me more aware of the overlooked gems, overlooked talent, as well as the overlooked near-sameness of less famous submissions. Without this more holistic submissions-reading experience, I would probably welcome Ninefox Gambit to the table—not because it’s something I like, but because it’s something I recognize as a major moment in 2016 sci-fi.

But it’s not game-changing to SF, though. It’s not game-changing for space opera. It’s not even the mild update Ancillary Justice once was. In fact, it follows determinedly in the footsteps of that recent predecessor, which follows determinedly in the footsteps of many a sci-fi TV show. When will the tide come in?

Funny how military life permeates nothing but military life, and the Hexarchate of 9FG is a prime example of that. The plot turns on conniving factions of this oppressive government, while the populace has no role at all, as if nothing else exists in the world but the major players of the government, and the dead civilians left in their wake. One generalization I’m coming to make about milSF space operas is that the worlds presented in this subgenre are defined in such insulated ways—just the way I assume life is shaped on military bases—but they fail to do the job of truly engaging with the civilian world, the part that should matter more. Even one of the few milSF novels I approve of, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, is entirely focused on the traumatic experience of the soldier, not the civilian victims. Much like recent criticisms about women characters serving only as diving boards for male protagonist’s personal growth, the same could be said for genocide and soldier awakenings.

Fans of Ninefox Gambit will argue that the novel achieves new depths as the story’s psychological function works to teach lessons: Question authority. Don’t obey power. War is evil. But this is the same old lesson milSF has played out hundreds of times before: Mindless military drone suddenly feels bad about all the deaths. Mindless military drone suddenly wants to be an individual. If the lesson hasn’t been learned yet, are we merely putting on an act of righteousness only to perpetuate the fetishization of action and violence against faceless people? Isn’t the existence of this kind of literature simply proof that we live in a society that is entertained and/or unmoved by action and violence against others?

Not that the violence in 9FG is all that visceral, and it’s clear from the outset that Lee’s agenda is far from pro-military, blood-and-guts, winner-takes-all style fiction. The above criticisms apply more to the subgenre as a whole, than to anything Lee is attempting to do. In 9FG, most of the action happens off-scene, with the primary narrative tension working between the protagonist Kel Cheris and her foe/mind-occupant, the undead and notorious military tactician Shuos Jedao. It’s a back-and-forth, bickering kind of tension that drives the entire novel, but Cheris’ development is so limited, and Jedao’s positioning is so conspicuous, the conflict does little to promote much intrigue. Besides, it’s a common buddy-buddy, protagonist/antagonist arrangement that should feel familiar to anyone. The only reason narrative structures like these are successful is because they can “other” the real world, set it aside, and play out all these petty little trickeries and violences without coming to terms with the inhumanity of it all. Even when these stories try to address the inhumanity of what the characters are doing, it still comes off as a minor morality lesson, but it’s undermined by the fact that the story—the entire subgenre—hinges on the very thing it attempts to critique.

Beyond my own personal hang-ups with military SF, I have little more to say. Comments on Jonathan McCalmont’s recent review of Ninefox Gambit suggest that no proper review of the novel would be complete without consideration of the influence of Korean myth, but I tend to avoid making comments about the extent of influence from a writer’s cultural heritage (unless the blurbs explicitly acknowledge such an influence), especially when I lack the knowledge to properly identify those influences, and especially when a novel is based on tropes from Western SF, as Ninefox Gambit clearly is. (And especially when that author is from my own state, which, in terms of cultural background, could mean anything.) However, the comments did trip me up enough to seek out the internet’s abundance of Yoon Ha Lee interviews and the evidence points to the contrary: this Reddit AMA thread being the most clarifying article about the superficial and, at times, tenuous influence of Korean mythology on Ninefox Gambit. More interestingly, Lee welcomes the idea of a possible subconscious influence of culture shock due to traveling back-and-forth from Texas to Korea in his lifetime.

While it’s often wise to remove the author’s intentions from a critical assessment, I think that AMA thread provides an interesting lens into Lee’s approach to the novel, explaining the heavy mil-Fantasy influence, the lack of visual description (a plus in my book!), and the occasional moments of Zelazny-like prose.

Moreover, it’s just as informative to note that fans of Lee’s short fiction are not typically fans of this novel, while fans of this novel are not typically familiar with his short fiction. This fan/format mismatch leads me to conclude that I’m more likely to appreciate Lee’s short fiction, and I should look forward to his future novels (with the hope that, after the success of this series, major genre publishers will be willing to take a risk on something more original, challenging, and interesting from this writer). The fan/format mismatch also leads me to conclude that some well-meaning, supportive fans might see more in this novel than is actually there—a habit we’ve all been guilty of when hoping for the commercial success of a fave author—despite the likelihood that Lee and his publisher purposely put out a more basic, palatable novel, in order to lure a more typical genre audience. It worked.

It is a nice book. For what it does. I would recommend it to any milSF fan and any readers with a budding interest in the subgenre. It is not, however, original, revolutionary, or award-worthy, nor do I feel compelled to welcome yet another novel that fixates on military characters and ignores the real people. This is a novel that falls in line with tradition, while its fog of elusive world-building and unexplained neologisms serve to feign complexity, while its narrow focus on the bickering of two characters prevents Lee from attempting a greater and more global and internal sense of social intricacy.

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7 thoughts on “[Book Review] Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

  1. bormgans says:

    I quickly started reading this as a language book, not a content one.

    Like

  2. PhilRM says:

    “Comments on Jonathan McCalmont’s recent review of Ninefox Gambit suggest that no proper review of the novel would be complete without consideration of the influence of Korean myth…”
    Somehow I overlooked that sentence when I read the Sharke-posted version.

    Reader, I sprayed coffee through my nose.

    Like

  3. Hestia says:

    I just finished this one, and I’m a bit lukewarm on it myself. It focused too much on the two main characters to the exclusion of anyone else for my taste — that’s something I’m seeing in a lot of recent books for some reason. It was also a bit too handwavy with the details of what was going on and how things actually worked. I get that there’s a balance between infodumps and readabiity, but I needed a little bit more, though what was there was pretty interesting.

    There’s also that weird vibe created with the unnaturally submissive female main character. I get that there was a whole backstory to this, but I see it way too often. (Asaro’s Nebula-winning The Quantum Rose comes to mind. Ick.) This is a character feature I could really live without seeing again.

    Also, the pacing was a little wonky.

    Still, I always like to see some weird, out-there space opera happening, and there were some inventive ideas here.

    (For some reason, this review reminded me of The Hunger Games, where the author chose a sensational setting for its excitement factor, then proceeded to beat the reader over the head with how killing! kids! is! wrong!. Um, yeah, I’ve always thought so.)

    Like

    • Seems like we’re fairly aligned on this, but the submissive female character take is interesting because I started to get those vibes in the beginning, but dismissed them midway, I guess because this IS the military and submission to higher ranks is an expected behavior, but it’s a good point, especially because she does act passive and insecure around her subordinates, too.

      Your observation about pacing is really interesting because I honestly can’t remember if it was wonky or not. I was working so hard to just get through it, that I forced my own pace on the book and probably speed-read to the detriment of the book’s natural pacing. I did listen to some of it though, and it seemed appropriate during those parts.

      Sorry if this review came off as preachy about anti-militarism and genocide, etc. I guess that’s more in response to the book, which also makes it’s own strong, yet obvious anti-militarism argument without really covering any new ground on the issue. So yeah, I was a lot like you were with The Hunger Games: “Um, yeah, I always thought so.”

      Like

      • Hestia says:

        I think I put it poorly — I didn’t think your review was preachy, your reaction to the book just reminded me of my reaction to Hunger Games. (And I don’t think you can ever preach too much against genocide, right?)

        Regarding pacing, it reminded me a little bit of Stross’s Singularity Sky, where things that I think were supposed to be exciting were sort of buried or off-screen.

        Rereading my comment, it sounds much more negative than I meant it, though. I did like the book, and I think I will read the sequels.

        Like

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