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.