Yoon Ha Lee – Ninefox Gambit (2016)

Ninefox Gambit

  • Genre: Science fiction / space opera
  • Series: Machineries of Empire 1
  • Pages: 317
  • My rating: 8.5/10

When I casually jumped into this novel, it kicked me in the nuts and flung me right out again. The first chapter was like an exercise in cryptography. I knew I was reading about a battlefield in which a captain named Cheris was trying to lead her platoon forward, but other than that every sentence generated new questions. The thing with Ninefox Gambit is that Yoon Ha Lee gives us a fully realized alternate reality and immerses his readers without explaining anything up front. You just have to have the faith – and Lee expects you to have the faith – that it will all become clear to you in due time.

It was clear to me that I had to sit down and show this book what’s what. An hour of quality reading time helped a lot to capture this reader, and before soon I looked forward to every new chapter. But this novel is meant for experienced science fiction readers; I suspect that new people to the genre would only be confused.

The most succinct way to explain the setup – without spoiling much – is to say that this is a far-future war story, and it is set in a reality where human belief, human society and human science are so strongly intertwined that euhhh…. Well. It influences reality and what kind of technology is workable. The whole system is called a “calendar”. Naturally, people who believe that another societal system works better are branded “heretics”, but fighting them is really hard, because your technology doesn’t work around them.

When a particularly bad case of heresy breaks out, disgraced commander Cheris is given the task to solve it. She is saddled with her own suggestion: to revive the successful general and mass murderer Shuos Jedao to help out. Unfortunately, Cheris has to carry the mind of Jedao around inside her own mind, while Jedao gives her advice.

So, is this science fantasy, instead of science fiction? I ask this because the marriage between science and belief in this novel troubles me. If belief influences the very fabric of reality, then your science only ‘counts’ under the current belief system. On the other hand, if there is a scientific explanation of why this belief system influences which technology can be used, then why would this society make itself so dependent on what people believe? It is never clear in this novel whether the futuristic science works because ‘it is possible under this strange belief system’ or whether Lee’s ideas are extrapolations of our own ideas of physics. That takes away some of the sense of wonder for me.

In any case, people who dare to think differently become a danger to the use of technology; but would it even be possible that every person believes exactly the same way? Religions have a tendency to fracture. Throughout history, the connection between humanity and the transcendent keeps getting reinterpreted differently. Any society that makes itself extremely dependent on unity of belief amongst its people makes itself very vulnerable. In this novel, technology should work slightly differently even between individuals. Or, maybe only the most rigidly believing people survive in this universe.

I don’t think this future would be possible in our reality.

Highlight of the novel is the dance – figuratively – between Cheris and Jedao. Both are complex characters who learn from one another. They are stuck, frequently fight, and Jedao remains a mystery with many deeper layers. Interestingly, since this novel is about a woman who is carrying a man’s mind around, writer Yoon Ha Lee is a trans man. What didn’t really work for me was the frequent changing of points-of-view to random soldiers in the latter half. And I would have liked to get a better sense of location. Other than that, Ninefox Gambit is a very fresh and exciting space opera.

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2 Responses to Yoon Ha Lee – Ninefox Gambit (2016)

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Thanks for all the info about this. I’ve been seeing this mentioned around but never sought out any reviews…

    Liked by 1 person

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