I will be using a book review of Yoon Ha Lee’s REVENANT GUN to help me articulate my ambivalent reaction to the novel, and to the trilogy it completes. The review is by Nicasio Andres Reed, and it was published in the online speculative fiction magazine STRANGE HORIZONS.
This is a very clear and interesting review, that I can recommend reading, but I can only half agree with it. It certainly goes a long way to explaining the appeal of the book, and of the trilogy MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE, but it also indirectly illuminates its weak points.
Reed is surely right to emphasise that the trilogy asks us to dive into its world , as if we were learning a radically new language. « Fluency » in the language of the book and in its subtended world is constructed by immersion rather than translation. But the deferral of the explanations is over-extended, taking a full two years. The first volume in the trilogy, NINEFOX GAMBIT, was published in June 2016, RAVEN STRATAGEM a year later in June 2017, and REVENANT GUN in June 2018. This is a long time to wait to get an explanation of such basic terms as the mothships and the remembrances.
So this first strong point (the privileging of fluency over info-dumping) is correlated with a corresponding weakness. The incipit introduces us to an ambitious demanding work. It is handled very well in that we understand presentationally what is happening, despite not getting clear representations of what is causing it or of how it works. We feel as if we have been thrown in at the deep end, and many readers, including me, like the feeling -if the book delivers on its promise to reward the initial effort at comprehension.
Thus the trilogy begins with an immersion in wonder, but after two years it ends with a belated explanations and a rather banal sf trope of creatures from the fourth dimension. The arc of the trilogy proceeds from estrangement through vagueness to familiarity. We are satisfied at the end, but also a little disappointed. The manner of filling us in is also a little clumsy and hackneyed. We have two viewpoint characters beset by ignorance: an amnesiac protagonist (young Jedao) and a robot servitor (Hemiola) from an isolated post on the periphery of the empire. Thanks to their need to catch up the deferred info-dumps can finally take place.
This deferral of explanation, or even of description, accounts for why NINEFOX GAMBIT begins like demanding sf but veers quickly into the facilities of fantasy. One suspects that the explanations were not given at the start as they had not yet been invented, but that they were later appended in reply to criticisms, as an ad hoc supplement.
It is as if Frank Herbert’s DUNE had been released over a period of two years, and that the glossary was conceived as an afterthought and published only at the end, as a fix-up in response to criticism. Instead of an integral world-building and backstory giving depth to the story from the beginning, a post-produced back end.
The world-building’s coming before or along with the world can give a story depth, but world-building coming after the world is potentially trying to give a cosmetic supplement to a superficial « I hope this makes sense » approach.
My idea here is that the world-building underlying the trilogy can be compared to the heuristic core of a research programme in Popper’s and Lakatos’s sense. Too much of volume three in Lee’s trilogy seems to be composed of ad hoc supplements to ward of criticism, which is certainly not the case of DUNE’s glossary.
Taking the trilogy as a whole one can say that despite its immersive beginning it avoids cognitive overload in favour of developing empathy. As Nicasio Reed affirms:
« By the time you arrive at Revenant Gun, you’re fluent, and what you’re left with is really, really, really caring ».
In Lee’s rhetorical strategy, delayed cognition leads to increased fluency and caring. In REVENANT GUN we care about the main point of view characters: Brezan, young Jedao and Hemiola. The recounting of their personal journeys of discovery and their emotional and ethical conflicts is engrossing reading. However, we have no access to Cheris-Jedao’s thoughts and feelings, and I think we cannot really care about her, so the narrative that concludes with her final life choice is unsatisfying. Also the encounter between young Jedao and Cheris-Jedao, which could have made us care more for both, is an anti-climax.
So cognitive estrangement cedes to pragmatic fluency, and also to empathy and caring. But what sort of empathy? Here I agree with Nicasio Reed that one of the achievements of the book is to get us to care about sorts of characters that are unusual in traditional space opera. It can be said that it is a major feature of the trilogy Lee has accomplished a much needed updating of space opera’s social explorations.
In the MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE speculative wonder and empathic enjoyment go hand in hand. Lee’s queering and de-colonialising of the genre are important potentially game-changing contributions.
However, empathic enjoyment should not be reduced to simple identification. We need to identify a little, or the narrative will have no appeal, get no hold on us. We also need some speculative distance and othering, or else the reading experience can become too literal, and we may gain only narcissistic gratification. We are capable of resonating with other people’s existential quandaries and emotional intensities even when we do not or cannot identify with their tastes, experiences, or choices. Yon Ha Lee extends and varies the spectrum of possible identifications, and this is a positive achievement.
The potential drawback of such an updated space opera would be catering to an identity politics’ revamping of the genre. I think Lee mostly avoids this pitfall, although the BDSM sex scene in REVENANT GUN stands out from the rest of the trilogy’s narration. It serves as perhaps an identitarian supplement of sexual politics.
In sum, Yoon Ha Lee’s MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE trilogy is an ambitious and enjoyable work of military space opera, and REVENANT GUN is a well-wrought conclusion to the series. Lee’s stylistic choices do much to enhance the initial impact of immersion in the narrative, but they comport a number of flaws that weaken the whole.
Delayed cognition leads to lexical fluency (without clear semantics), but such superficial fluency privileges magic in both style and content. Word magic and magical technologies dilute cognition in favour of caring for and empathy with the principal characters. The primacy of empathy allows increased participation but also can encourage identification.
Yoon Ha Lee has responded to an inherent contradiction in the genres of military sf and space opera, with their futuristic technologies and regressive social and sexual politics. He has produced an excellent corrective to this contradiction, updating and revamping the genres. However, his solution is itself riven by a contradiction between the demands of speculative estrangement and tropal familiarity.
So I too am eager for more, but not more of the same.