REVENANT GUN: Diluted and Delayed Cognition for Enhanced Empathy

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 and only at the end, as a response to criticism. Instead of an integral world-building and backstory, a post-produced back end. The world-building’s coming before or along with the world gives the 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.

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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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Yoon Ha Lee’s MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE: an incomplete subversion

I have defended the idea that Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT was a genre-subverting military space opera that criticised the premises of military sf. This is why I opposed the Shadow Clarke Jury’s verdict that there was something wrong with the novel merely for belonging to that genre.

However, I agree with the Shadow Clarke verdict in that it is not subversive enough to undercut the familiar reductive stereotypes and authoritarian hierarchies by means of a pluralism of calendars and an advocacy of democracy.

Inversion is incomplete subversion.

This pluralism of calendrical laws of social organisation and of physics and the pluralism of genders and sex roles is not enough to subvert the genre but constitutes its updating to the regime of democratic materialism. The result is just as ideological as the militaristic totalitarian fantasy it tries to subvert.

Thus the real contribution of the MACHINERIES OF EMPIRE trilogy is to align military sf to contemporary ideology. Badiou describes “democratic materialism” as the idea that all that exists is bodies (and their pleasures) and language games (and worlds of appearing). Underneath the hierarchies of empire lie the political and sexual machineries that make it possible.

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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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