In my last post I come to the conclusion that Yoon Ha Lee’s MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE is finally disappointing, in that it does not live up to its promise of an innovative military sf space opera that is both entertaining and challenging. Despite its genre-bending style the result is just as ideological as the militaristic totalitarian fantasy it tries to subvert, so it does not go beyond the contemporary Zeitgeist of bodies and their pleasures and worlds and their languages.
In response, Bart Bormgans, who maintains a prolific and interesting blog reviewing his reading (much of it science fiction), asked: « What would be a move beyond that? How to write beyond bodies? »
That is a fair question, and probably the most honest answer is « I don’t know ». However, I will try to do a little better than that. My reply is addressed personally to Bart, but it may have more general interest.
First I will have to reformulate your question. If you follow the terms of the post, the question should be: how to write beyond bodies and language games? that is, how to write beyond relativism?
The post alludes to French philosopher Alain Badiou’s idea that contemporary ideology hides behind the idea that we have no ideology, that we accept or at least « tolerate » all beliefs and practices that do not harm, impede or diminish other beliefs and practices. This is surely a good thing as far as it goes, but it leaves something out, it embodies a flattening that may itself be harmful.
Badiou sums up the problem by saying that ideology today is based on the axiom that « There are only bodies and languages ». In that case the question becomes: how to write beyond ideology?
Badiou’s own answer is to accept contemporary ideology, as one can’t think outside all ideologies or presuppositions, but to push it further, finding something generated inside it that goes beyond it. His counter-axiom is « There are only bodies and languages, except that there are truths ».
Now, I don’t subscribe to Badiou’s system, but I find he sets up the problem quite well. I have spent a lot of time discussing Badiou’s ideas on this blog, and I have expressed a similar idea, that things are more multiple and plastic than we used to believe but that something more than « anything goes » is necessary if we are to get to grips with the real world in some way.
I know you replied to the Shadow Clarkes that entertainment has its rights, and that political correctness is in danger of imposing a new totalitarian ideology on our thoughts and practices, and I agree with you. But entertainment is more enriching if it doesn’t stick to just re-arranging diverse stereotypes, and occasionally inverting or deforming them.
Badiou’s answer is a little dogmatic, but if we can relate to it freely it is quite suggestive. He affirms that there are four types of « truth-procedures » that can go beyond ideology from the inside, immanently: science (principally mathematics), art (principally poetry), politics, and love. I see no inevitability or completeness in this list, but taking it as a rule of thumb can sometimes help clarify impressions.
In the case of each of these four procedures I think we can say that the MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE has promising creative elements, but that it falls back into familiar ground. Over and over in the interviews with Yoon Ha Lee I have read and in his blog pieces he says on different subjects: I could have done it like this but I chose not to, because it was… X (too geeky, too personal, too disconcerting, too preachy). In each case I want to reply: no, you should have done that, but not in the way that you imagine, something else was possible but you threw out the baby with the bathwater.
In the case of the scientific framework, Yoon Ha Lee takes mathematics as the underlying science, which is still the exception, especially in military sf space opera. The speculative premise of the psycho-socio-cosmological calendars and of the exotic effects they allow is innovative, producing a powerful sense of wonder and of cognitive estrangement in the opening chapter of NINEFOX GAMBIT, but it rapidly fades into hand-waving. It boils back down to monsters and magical powers from the fourth dimension (« gate space »).
In the case of politics, and this was the weak point that the Shadow Clarke jury pointed out, there is a disconnect between the drive toward a different sort of democracy (even in the military: the Kell soldiers obey orders only if they want to under the new calendar) and a fixation on « exceptional » individuals. The stereotype of Jedao as the best general of all time (shades of Ender) is disappointing, and even at this level little is done to fill it out.
This is not a silly plot device in itself. However, the idea that a seventeen year old Jedao who has no idea of political and technological evolution for the last four hundred years could still be an amazing strategist, able to hold his own against a much vaster and more experienced adversary boils down to his firing a surprise weapon, the « shear cannon », once and winning the battle. This aspect is not up to the thankfully more detailed and poignant depiction of both old and young Jedao’s inner turmoil and political motivations.
This brings us to « love ». The third volume is most explicit in this regard, but it oscillates between aestheticisation (falling in love because of the incredible beauty of the lover), jocularity (“Fox and hound,” Jedao said involuntarily, “people do that to each other?” Was he flexible enough to do those things?), and a sprinkling of BDSM. This sort of assembly of aesthetic, humoristic and sexual machinic components may still be the exception in the genre, but it not fundamentally game-changing.
In this regard Yoon Ha Lee talks about how the characterisation of Jedao’s relation to Cheris contains autobiographical elements, but he affirms that it would have been too painful to come closer to his own experience of being trans. He recognises that there is no need to resort to a direct use of personal life, as the device of a male mind inhabiting a woman’s body and sharing it with Cheris’ female mind is a useful metaphor that allows him to talk of his own experience indirectly.
Perhaps greater use of the metaphorical exploration of a wider spectrum of sexualities could have replaced some of the aesthetico-sexual stereotyping of characters.
Finally, for the artistic procedure, one can note the oscillation between a poetic use of unfamiliar language at the beginning of the first volume, where one had to plunge into the universe and the descent into more conventional « info dumps » in the third volume.
Anyhow, that is a long-winded response to your question and I don’t know if I have really answered it. I place no particular stock in the Badiousian system as such, but it gives me a useful framework to force me to articulate my ideas on several points. In a nutshell, to write « beyond » bodies and languages does not mean going outside them (wherever that would be) but doing something different and more individuated within them.
I have indicated how Yoon Ha Lee goes far enough in that direction to make his trilogy an entertaining and stimulating read, but on several levels disappoints us.
For Badiou on bodies and languages see: http://www.lacan.com/badbodies.htm
For Yoon Ha Lee « on being trans »: https://www.thebooksmugglers.com/2016/06/sff-in-conversation-yoon-ha-lee-on-being-trans.html