Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

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Layers. Layers on layers on layers, ploys on top of ploys, backstabbing all the way down. And somewhere, sandwiched between all those knives, a few people trying to make a tyrannical empire a better place despite itself.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series (of which I’ve read the first two books) feels like a reimagining of the fundamental critiques of Warhammer 40k—but instead of trapping his work beneath cynical satire and Poe’s Law, Yoon Ha Lee renders his critiques of empire transparently and with heart.

Ninefox Gambit is a new presentation of classic sci-fi military fiction, discarding the traditional fetish for the tools of war and replacing it with an exploration of the human cost of imposing and maintaining empire… and of resisting and rectifying it. It does this all with a setting in which the violent and malignant imposition of hegemony is part and parcel of the exotic technological base necessary for interstellar civilization, and in which heretical practice literally erodes the power and capabilities of the empire’s technologies; mathematical and spatial relations, punctuated by suffering and pain, form the bedrock of calendrical technology, and the embrace of this calendrical tech-base has trapped the Hexarchate in a never-ending cycle of violence and subjugation.

With the Hexarchate’s rulers a group of professionally inhumane paranoiacs, determined to retain their power and uphold the stability of their realm with no care for the cost in lives, it takes a very special kind of heretic to oppose them.

If you like science fiction, or military fiction, or anti-imperial explorations in uncomfortably familiar alien settings, this book is for you. If you want your books to explain everything to you and never leave you piecing together elements of a setting or story… I might suggest something else.

Also, if you’ve traditionally avoided sci-fi mil-fic because it’s one long paean to unquestioning support of cis-het male hegemony, don’t worry. This series radically normalizes queered gender and sexuality. I really appreciated that.

In case you couldn’t guess, I think this book (and series) is great. I don’t want to say more, because I want you to experience it for yourself. I strongly recommend Ninefox Gambit.

If you like this book, I’d also recommend Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant.

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Maelstrom, by Taylor Anderson

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Having just finished reading Maelstrom, I’m officially downgrading this series from “potentially profoundly interesting” to “some variety of popcorn lit.”  You know, the stuff that you’ll compulsively eat without thinking too hard about it: sometimes it’s exactly what you’re looking for, but more often it’s just there and you don’t bother to stop yourself.  This series is alt-history tech-bootstrapping military fiction with a very particular set of idealized social dynamics, and as of now it doesn’t look like it will stretch beyond that.  I’m not saying that it’s bad; popcorn lit is definitionally good enough that I’ll pick it up and breeze through it simply for the pleasure of reading it, provided I’m in the right mood.  But it also hasn’t lived up to my hopes of offering more introspection on any of its various conflicts, or breaking further from its genre precedents in an interesting fashion.

I should note that it’s hard for most novels to make it past my popcorn lit category, and the category itself encompasses an almost unhelpfully wide spread of books; furthermore, I can’t pretend to be better than that myself, as I doubt any of my own short stories would qualify as anything but popcorn lit.

I won’t say that the series can’t ever be anything but popcorn lit.  Some of the future books may deliver answers to the niggling contentions I’m sharing with you here.  But thus far my hopes for what I’ll call “deeper” material have not been met.  Specifically, I want Anderson to go deeper into examining the cultural conflicts inherent between the Americans and their various allies, and I especially want him to include the perspective of Lemurians who truly don’t have specified gender roles or gender/sex expectations.  It seems like he’s introduced the Lemurians (the cat-/lemur-like creatures with whom the Americans allied in the first book) as being without specific gender roles, but when we’re treated to the perspective of a Lemurian there are a number of basic social operating assumptions that appear to be based in a society more similar to our own, one which certainly embraces a number of implicitly gender- or sex-based values.  If Anderson wants to write the human perspectives in his book with those value assumptions in place, that’s ok by me, even if I don’t like it.  But much like my love for and disappointment with the use of Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, I find it frustrating that Anderson should introduce an ostensibly gender- and sex- blind culture and then not do them the justice of writing from a gender- and sex-blind perspective.  I have to give Taylor Anderson credit for trying, and it seems like he might not be aware of how he’s failing to deliver here, but that doesn’t make it un-frustrating.

More after the break.

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