MILITANT CRITIQUE OF MILITARY SF: the case of Ninefox Gambit and the Shadow Clarke Effect

Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT is an innovative and dazzling science fiction novel in the genre of military space opera. It has produced contrasted reactions due to different perspectives based on differing perceptions of the speculative and ethical dimensions of the genre.

The novel has been criticised for being fantasy disguised as sf, because the “exotic” effects invoked are indistinguishable from magic, having no “hard” scientific basis. My response is that the scientific basis is there, only its not physics but (pure and applied) mathematics.

“Magic” in sf is seen as furthering the agenda of “correlationism”, the relativist idea that reality is automatically correlated to thought, that thinking it so can magically make it so. NINEFOX GAMBIT is in fact anti-correlationist, as it is based on the idea that any such correlations are local, limited in number, and very difficult to produce.

The different systems of physical law in 9FG’s universe are constrained by the nature of reality, both mathematical and physical. There is more plasticity than we currently think (e.g. “exotic” effects such as faster than light travel) but reality has the rigidity to impose coherence and order.

Thus NINEFOX GAMBIT is fully a work of science fiction, and falls under the category of “immanent Platonism”, alongside Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM and Greg Egan’s works.

A second critique of NINEFOX GAMBIT is ideological and ethico-political. It concerns the plot as conforming to the tropes of military science fiction, of glorifying the spectacle of hyperbolic violence and massive death as narrative prop to the story of a protagonist’s political and ethical Bildung.

Military sf of this type and trope is seen as fundamentally flawed Bildungsroman. The hero’s journey of individuation combines the hubris of the narcissistic enjoyment of the beautiful soul and the catharsis of its obscene underside of faceless sacrifice and death.

The example of DUNE shows that the critique of the ideology impregnating the formative conventions and familiar tropes of military space opera is in continual development within the genre. In DUNE the hero’s journey of Paul Atreides leads to his becoming a political tyrant and ethical monster.

In NINEFOX GAMBIT the correlations producing exotic effects are maintained with great difficulty, at the price of pitiless indoctrination and cruel discipline and  of the relentless eradication of all dissidence and extermination of all “heresy”.

State power operates by synchronisation and actively suppresses diachronic innovation and change. This idea underlies what Bernard Stiegler has been teaching us for years, which has lead him to develop the notion of “calendarity”. For Stiegler a major exercise of power is the establishing and enforcing of a specific calendar. This idea of calendarity and its system of cruelty is embodied in the world-building of NINEFOX GAMBIT.

Thus NINEFOX GAMBIT’s ethical thrust cannot be reduced to a formulaic condemnation of state violence, rather it expresses a strong idea of the systemic violence inherent to the imposition and maintenance of a state.

The novel’s focus is ethical from the beginning. Deep horror at the carnage of war and compassion for her fellow soldiers predominate in the protagonist Kel Cheris’ mind. Her character develops further as she transcends her Kel mindset and fights to overthrow the calendrical system.

NINEFOX GAMBIT combines poetic wonder, cognitive estrangement and ethical intensity in a work of military sf. Its genre is speculative space opera, at the antipode to the sort of politically correct, naturalistic drama that the Shadow Clarke jury recommends as the best form for ideological critique and ethical struggle.

However, NINEFOX GAMBIT is not some monstrous hybrid of cerebral speculation and ascetic moralism (as perhaps the Shadow Clarke jury would favour). It is entertaining (as Bormgans has emphasised). High estrangement and lowbrow entertainment are totally compatible, and used together they can be conducive to ethical exploration.

An interesting feature of Bormgans’ post is the suggestion that the Shadow Clarke jury’s critique could easily be subject to retorsion, as their own discourse is constituted by the bellicose conventions and tropes of “progressive infighting”.

One could easily retort that Bormgans’ and my own commentaries are themselves cases of “progressive infighting”. Or they could be seen as attempts at thoughtful dialogue.


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SHADOW BOXING: ideological gambits and rhetorical stratagems in reviewing Yoon Ha Lee’s military space operas

via RAVEN STRATAGEM – Yoon Ha Lee (2017)

This is a very clear and very well argued post.

Even if we suppose that there are ideological presuppositions ingrained into the tropes and conventions of military space opera I think that NINEFOX GAMBIT does a better job of critiquing and subverting them from inside than the Shadow Clarke Jury does from without.

Given that Yoon Ha Lee is not actually arguing in favour of mass murder as motivational background to élite individuals’ life choices, I don’t think that there is any significative moral difference between him and the Shadow Clarke jury. The difference is stylistic and rhetorical rather than moral. SF tropes are not meant literally, and if you do take them literally, as the Sharkes do, then you can generate facile but wrong-headed critical readings.

Nor do they disagree over the politics (war is bad, democracy is good, masochistic “remembrances” are bad, free conscience is good). Given the large terrain of agreement, Bormgans’ diagnosis of “infighting” hits the mark.

The defining tropes and conventions of the Sharke Jury seem to be flawed in that it is set up as a form of bad conscience, judging both the original jury and its selected works in the name of moral dicta and political criteria.

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I find Ian Hunter’s work on Badiou very interesting and useful, but I see no problem or uniqueness in the need for conversion that Hunter finds present in Badiou’s discourse, as it is a common requirement for any general philosophical research programme. Thomas Kuhn has argued that such processes are at work even in science.

If there is a contradiction in Badiou, it is not between the conflicting requirements of conversion and of philosophical thought, but between the creation of a philosophical élite of Platonic initiates or guardians and his insistence that anyone can become subject by entering into at least one truth process.

The correspondence with Christian theology is another problem. Badiou systematically downplays the force and influence of religion in his concrete analyses and this attitude is reflected in his refusal to grant religion the status of a fifth condition. The result is that there is a pervasive atmosphere of religiosity in Badiou’s works.

The question of empirical testability is another crucial problem, and despite talking in terms of “hypotheses (e.g. the communist hypothesis) Badiou uses the empirical world as a source of examples and illustrations, not of tests.

This raises the problem of the role of examples in Badiou’s text. Empirical examples are not the only possible form of test. Badiou can consider that his configuration of a space of compossibility for the truth procedures that are themselves testable is “test enough”.

It may be that Badiou considers that the network of correspondences he finds between the productions of different truth procedures is “test enough”. Privileging “Truths” over “facts” can be seen as the application of a hypothetico-deductive method (as against an inductive method).

The problem is not proceeding hypothetico-deductively but whether Badiou makes use of this method to stimulate critical discussion or to close it off.

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READING “READING MARX” (4): OOO’s twofold supplementation

In sum, Zizek sees object-oriented ontology as attempting to supplement or replace the ontology of modern science with its own ontology of real objects and relations.

“The problem with OOO is that its ontological premises seek either to supplement or to replace modern science with a premodern form of how things really are in themselves” (READING MARX, 141).

This ontological supplement, OOO’s real objective ontology, being hyper-abstract, itself needs supplementing by a second unreal subjective ontology, that of sensual objects and relations. This sensual supplement is necessary to give an illusory effect of “reality”, that the real ontology is incapable of giving.

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READING “READING MARX” (3): Althusser un-Marxed

In the discussion of the possible relation between politics and ontology, how are we to distinguish extension theories, based on re-imagined reading and creative repetition of Marx, from replacement theories? What criteria can we use?

THE APOPHATIC VEIL: withdrawal and the last instance

A first response can come from the comparison of Louis Althusser’s thought with that of Graham Harman. Both distinguish the real object from the illusory ideological objects of common sense and of the humanities, both distinguish the real object from the scientific object as product of theoretical work (Althusser’s “theoretical object). The resemblance at this level is so striking that one is entitled to ask: what corresponds to Althusser’s notion of “determination in the last instance” in OOO’s problematic? The answer is “withdrawal”.

We can describe François Laruelle’s non-philosophy as a variant within the problematic of post-Althusserian thought that maintains intact key Althusserian notions such as the distinction between the real object and the theoretical object, and determination in the last instance. Laruelle shares Althusser’s scientism, and acknowledges Marx as influence.

Graham Harman’s OOO is similarly a variant of the post-Althusserian problematic, only de-scientised and de-Marxed. OOO’s doctrine of the real object corresponds to what Zizek calls “full objectivization”. For Harman what really exists in the last instance, behind the apophatic veil of withdrawal, is the real object, the rest is “sensual”, mere sham, illusion.


In contrast to non-philosophy’s doctrine of determination in the last instance and OOO’s de-Marxed equivalent of withdrawal Zizek deploys the notion of “overdetermined” to resist the homogenization imposed by these doctrines. A fully withdrawn real object can never be subject, it is brute substance, pure posit of the non-dialectical imagination, and the same can be said for Laruelle’s withdrawn One.

Given that we are confronted with both a scientistic (Laruelle’s non-philosophy) and a non-scientistic (Harman’s object-oriented ontology) version of replacement theories, it is apparent that the question of scientism is only a surface phenomenon, the symptom of some deeper problem. Following an indication from Deleuze and Guattari we could say that extension theories are committed to the idea that “before Being there is politics” (cf. (A THOUSAND PLATEAUS, 203). Replacement theories in contrast place Being (or in the case of Laruelle the Real) before politics.

ANTAGONISM: the obstacle is the access

The question of whether one refers to Marx or not is of secondary importance. In Zizek’s eyes, Lacan’s thought belongs to the extension side of the divide, even if his mentions of Marx are few and far between. Similarly, Laruelle references Marx and Marxism, but his thought is on the replacement side.

The deeper division, according to Zizek, lies in the antagonistic conception of the barred One. It is not enough that access to the One is barred (last instance, withdrawal). The One is constitutively traversed and constituted by antagonism, distortion, and negativity.

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READING “READING MARX” (2): we have always been non-standard


I distinguish “extension” theories, such as those of Deleuze, Badiou, and Zizek (whatever one may think of their respective merits) from, adapting Zizek’s terms, “replacement” theories (Latour, Laruelle, Harman).


Zizek argues that OOO cannot explain the passage from substance to subject, and so has no room for the subject (except the illusory humanist subject). The same argument can be applied to non-philosophy. Laruelle’s unilateral duality constitutes an apophatic veil such that there is no science of man but only a science-man or man-science. Despite his talk about a stranger subject, Laruelle can only posit the subject as a supplement.

In conclusion Laruelle’s non-philosophy, like Harman’s OOO, has no means of getting from substance to subject except by tautological synonymic chains that do not lead where he claims they lead.

SOLIPSIST NON-METAPHYSICS: Laruelle’s uniqueness hypothesis

Despite his declarations to the contrary, Laruelle’s thought is metaphysical, unless you buy into his dishonest self-serving re-definition of metaphysics to include everyone but himself.

In my own analyses I do not accept Laruelle’s definition of metaphysics, I accept Popper’s concept of metaphysical research programmes. This subtracts Laruelle’s self-proclaimed uniqueness, and makes it possible to create useful comparisons and encounters between his views and those of others.

So I think Laruelle’s definition just creates an obstacle to research rather than allowing for or furthering progress.

NON-NEGATIVITY: place-holder for a future solution

The”non” of non-philosophy is the closest that Laruelle can get to productive negativity in his “non-philosophy” phase, an empty promise instead of the real thing. If we want to be charitable, we can call it the place-marker for a hoped for solution.

Laruelle eventually came to realise these problems with his position himself, and that his insistence on his being outside philosophy and of replacing it was an impossible utopian dream. This is why he moved on to “non-standard philosophy”, which comes much closer to a satisfactory formulation.

UNRELIABLE NARRATOR: non-philosophy as pseudo-science

Laruelle is often an unreliable narrator as to what he has in fact said. Here is a quotation from the introduction to A BIOGRAPHY OF ORDINARY MAN:

“the sketch, by way of an introduction, of the most general program of a rigorous science of man intended to replace philosophy and its avatars, the “Sciences of Man.” A transcendental science, which is to say a non-empirical science, but also not a “philosophical” one…”

Laruelle’s research programme here intends to replace philosophy, and it is unjustifiably called “science”, despite Laruelle declaring that it is “transcendental”, or “non-empirical”.

Laruelle’s constant recourse to this sort of word magic explains why we can never accept his definitions when evaluating his claims.


Do not take my word for any of this, only (re-)read for example Laruelle’s A BIOGRAPHY OF ORDINARY MAN with my comments in mind (there is no need to believe me) without automatically accepting his self-descriptions and self-evaluations, treating them not as posits to acquiesce to but as hypotheses to examine for their credibility, coherence and consequences, and you will be amazed.

Note: I am indebted to a discussion with Matt Barber for helping me to clarify my ideas on these topics.

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WHAT USE IS PHILOSOPHY?: peers or partisans

What use is philosophy? or non-philosophy? The honest answer is I don’t know, I have no idea. I am just a common man not a scholar or an expert, but I feel I am part of the larger philosophical community, of those that care about philosophy, even if I am not a professional philosopher.

How do I fit in? The answer is still ongoing, and this blog is part of it. What place is there for me? Precious little, just enough to go on. I don’t like party lines, cliques, tribunals, and exclusions.

I was banned from the Laruelle facebook page by the official Laruelleans because ignoring me and demanding that others do the same was not enough to reduce me to silence.

So I created my own space, once again, as I have always done, as I have seen this sort of behaviour before. Democracy is easier to talk about than to practice. People want simple answers.

This is why Bruno Latour’s emphasis on diplomacy and negotiation is a useful corrective. It reminds us that when anything worthwhile is at stake there are always several parties concerned, and that negotiation is our ordinary state.

This is what Paul Feyerabend calls an open exchange, and Deleuze and Guattari call an “arrangement”. “Agencement” is often translated as assemblage, but this may tinge it with a too mechanical connotation. It also means arrangement.

Full time professional or not, we are all peers, and our relations, insofar as they are democratic, are not imposed or fixed. We make our own arrangements. And I continue to make mine.

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