MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE AND ITS SHADOW: mixed feelings on Yoon Ha Lee’s trilogy

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:

For Yoon Ha Lee “on being trans”:

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7 Responses to MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE AND ITS SHADOW: mixed feelings on Yoon Ha Lee’s trilogy

  1. bormgans says:

    I’ve read too much of Rorty to take systems like the one Badiou tries to set up really seriously. It’s interesting that the framework indeed does not really offer an answer, beside an answer that could also be easily given without it: to go beyond the Zeitgeit is to try something different, individual.

    Then again, recognizing that bodies and language games are important is not to be brushed aside as old hat or unimportant (not saying you do, btw). As it is my firm conviction that a significant part of our society’s problems are people stuck inside older ideologies, ideologies not recognizing the body as a result of context and previous bodies, and instead voting for politicians that try to put policies in place that only reaffirm meritocratic moral systems, and by doing so not acknowledge luck, context, bodies. While doing so they often refer to a lot of other so called truths, but hardly to the Truth of the Body, so to say.

    I’m not sure the current Zeitgeist is one of bodies & language games: the dominant ideology in much of the world still thinks the poor are poor because they chose to be poor, criminals are criminals because they chose to be criminals, addicts are addicts because they chose to become addicts, migrants are migrants because they chose to become migrants.

    The current focus on identity in a part of the Left indeed recognizes bodies (and language games as far as gender neutral pronouns go) partly, but the emphasis on gender, sexuality, disability, race, etc. by a part of the population imo doesn’t make the contemporary Zeitgeist one of “bodies and their pleasures and worlds and their languages” as even these progressive voices keep on morally shaming conservatives, racists, etc, believing they are racists, sexists, conservatives, etc. because they choose to be so. (The fact that some progressives think racists, sexists, etc are morally wrong indicates they think it is a free choice, and as such, they deny the fact that their ideological opponents are trapped in a body too. It’s rather ironic.)

    According to Rorty the thing we can all agree on is that we should avoid people suffering. That should be enough truth to start the conversations, and imo it’s a good enough alternative for “anything goes”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • terenceblake says:

      I too have read too much Rorty to take Badiou’s ideas systematically, but I do take them seriously. I give a rortyean or pragmatist reading of Badiou. A pragmatist reading means transforming systematics or dogmatics into heuristics, useful rules of thumb for re-visioning things. It by no means involves just throwing all the ideas away when you jettison the system.

      When I talk about “bodies and their pleasures” I of course include the lack thereof and the negative (suffering). Here we must distinguish ideology as lived relation to the world (and not just its intellectualisation) and social and economic relations. Those who suffer from exploitation and oppression did not choose it, and they want it to stop, bodily and mentally, in this material world,

      Even the moralists want to regiment bodies in accordance with their principles. Hedonism and asceticism, moralism and transgression, are equally regimes of bodies, obverse and inverse of the same system. This is why psychoanalytically influenced thinkers (such as Deleuze, Badiou, Zizek) affirm that the perversion of the norm (whether theoretical or sexual) is not its subversion. So it is no surprise that Leftist moralism exists, and is just as addicted to the use of oppressive affects (guilt and shame) to enforce its permissive edicts. As you say, the incoherence is patent.

      The moralists want to regiment our thoughts and beliefs too. Despite insisting on moral values, they are often the most adept at cynically propounding the “facts” that suit them and at ignoring, persecuting, or eliminating the rest. They are the shadow side of the post-truth episteme.

      On a rortyean reading, “language games” are not just localised affairs such as gender pronouns, but also whole worldviews, Kuhnian paradigms, theoretical vocabularies. So the different calendrical systems in Yoon Ha Lee’s MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE trilogy are good correlates for the differing regimes of bodies and languages in our world. That is why I think that his trilogy is more an updating of the underpinnings of space opera than its subversion.

      You accuse me of promoting a conceptual framework that gives no answer to the question of how to go beyond bodies and languages other than what can be found elsewhere. You describe that answer as “try something different, individual”. In fact, I explicitly reject that as insufficient.

      Sticking to the terms of my two posts, the answer I give is: situate yourself inside several different “truth procedures” (understood in pragmatist terms as the most generic, least personal paradigms you can invent or invest) and do something different enough within each to put into movement your individual apprehensions within these procedures. That is why I talk about procedures and individuation rather than the individual or personal.

      This answer still sounds very abstract, but less so than your summing up. I give it more concrete content by spelling out in a little more detail what this general advice means in the specific case of my ongoing review of Yoon Ha Lee’s trilogy. I have spent so much time on this work because the trilogy was initially so promising, and ultimately disappointing, despite much stimulating and enjoyable stuff, that I wanted to figure out what got me excited and what dissatisfied me. I looked at four procedures where Lee was innovative in part, but only superficially so: language, mathematics, love and sexuality, and politics. For each I indicated the trilogy’s strengths and weaknesses. So despite my rejection of the Shadow Clarke Jury’s verdict, my mixed feelings continue and have been borne out by REVENANT GUN.

      Liked by 1 person

      • bormgans says:

        Thanks for that thorough answer, it clarifies things a lot. I think I agree with you on all accounts. I guess what I wanted to stress is something in the line of the fact that contemporary ideology – as far as we can generalize enough to make such a statement – is not very good at hiding behind the fact that there is no so called ideology.

        On a sidenote, I often have the impression a lot of people that dismiss the relevance of left and right today – and take that dismissal to dismiss ideology as a whole – actually only want to say that the 20th century communist totalitarian stateform is not politically relevant anymore, and because of that they have trouble with finding another clearcut real-world axis-system to pinpoint their own location. I guess Fukuyama fell in the same trap, and maybe even popularized it.

        Badious statement of there being only bodies and language games as you describe it is in itself so broad it can indeed be interpreted to encompass moralists et al, but I’m wondering if – because of its generality – it does anything more than discard with the religious idea of soul, and then it begs the question whether others have not pointed that out already long ago? (But maybe I should not have written this last paragraph before reading that link you provided.)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. landzek says:

    Chine Lui “the three body problem” was quite philosophically interesting I thought. I haven’t continued with the series because I thought the first book ended kind of weak.


    I feel like Im always insulting you and then asking you for help. lol

    I want to start using . I have a profile and I think I may have something on there from awhile ago, but I want to use it more often
    and more professionally.

    I am returning to school in August for my masters in councilling. Hopefully to learn how to get along more smoothly with people Ha! lol. But at least Ill learn the format for writing academic papers.

    In the meantime; would you mind helping me maybe with a very quick and general guide to format papers, just so I can start to put some up on Aca…edu and look like I know a little bit? at least in appearance? :))


  3. landzek says:

    I suppose I can just go look at one of yours. 😛


  4. Pingback: SEQUEL AS REVENANT: Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gun | Xeno Swarm

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