Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee
I’m currently reading Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee.
I can’t spoil the ending, as I haven’t got there yet. But here are some thoughts…
Kel Cheris is a mathematical prodigy who, by implication, has a not-so-great relationship with her family. That relationship seems to have impacted her career choices. Given her mathematical skills, she should have been a shoe-in candidate for the Nirai faction. Instead of a promising career as a calendrical researcher, she’s found her way into the Kel faction, who mostly occupy an equivalent socioeconomic role close to what we’d call the military. She hopes to use her mathematical skills in the service of the greater good; unfortunately for Cheris, she’s a little bit too free-thinking for the powers that be. Fortunately for Cheris, she’s living in a time of out-of-control heresy, and consequently, her free-thinking style might just make her useful enough to keep alive (at least for now).
You see, the world Cheris lives in is almost as strange as her career choices.
The state, nation and social ideology that Cheris lives inside of calls itself the hexarchate. ‘Hexarchate’ is also the term for the governing oligarchy. The hexarchate is populated by humans and sentient servitor machines – the servitors, it quickly emerges, are a lot smarter than the humans give them credit for, and also have a lot more agency.
(Note that this is explicitly not a “robot rebellion”-type setting. Rather, the servitors seem to regard the hexarchate’s human citizens as something along the lines of an exasperating but much-loved family pet. While Jasper the Dog may well keep chewing the furniture and pooping over in that corner, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get rid of him just yet! By the same principle, the servitors put up with the humans’ nonsense.)
The hexarchate is interstellar in scale, and centuries in age. It was established after the discovery/invention of the so-called ‘high calendar’.
The hexarchate’s world appears to be at least partly a consensus reality. Exotic – or perhaps esoteric – physics bends to belief. The high calendar acts to enforce the beliefs and social structures that the hexarchical regime finds convenient – these being the sorts of beliefs that make some hexarchs functionally-immortal, permit fast interstellar travel, and give their agents access to a wide range of exotic weapons.
Basically the hexarchate have made the same discovery as the Technocracy from Mage: the Ascension – with appropriate doses of propaganda, a consensus reality can be weaponised.
Unfortunately, the hexarchate’s ideal society is something of a moral horror-show. The high calendar is enforced through censorship, mass brainwashing and the public torture of heretics. And yes, this is a feature, not a bug – the ‘remembrances’ appear to be necessary rituals, required to maintain public faith in the calendrical physics.
And here the system has outsmarted itself. Because, you see, the calendar appears to need a certain level of persistent heresy to make it work. (This appears to be along the same lines as to how the Party in Oceania can’t allow the Brotherhood to actually die – after all, what is the point of a dictatorship without an enemy within?)
((Also, one can’t help but think that the ideology behind Newspeak did have a certain calendrical sense to it, as well. Both are explicit attempts to manipulate the perception of reality, and the interaction of the masses with it.))
Unfortunately, it appears that keeping heresy to an appropriate level is a difficult exercise. And, it would appear, the hexarchs have buggered it up this time. The heretics have seized control of one of the nexus fortresses – the nexuses are vast, Citadel-style space habitats, and they’re also essential to broadcasting the high calendar across entire regions of space. Losing a nexus fortress is bad. But there’s worse. The heretics have derived their own high calendar, and seem hell-bent on enforcing it across the rest of the hexarchate.
The young woman has a proven capacity of being able to work with heretical exotic effects. That means she’s a borderline heretic herself – and thus utterly expendable. If Cheris fails to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles, no-one in power needs to care about her death. If she succeeds, then it’s happy hour in the hexarchate. Either way, the regime wins.
Or so they think.
Cheris has her own ideas about how to retake the Fortress, and they may not entirely overlap with Kel Command’s favoured methods…
What I liked
The hexarchate is weird, and rather alien. It’s nominally a human society, and it presumably has some connection to us, but that connection is evidently a distant one. I don’t think the word “Earth” has been mentioned even once. And a lot of things that we take for granted don’t even exist as concepts. (At one point, Jedao has to explain to Cheris what the word ‘democracy’ means, and even he doesn’t seem entirely sure about the concept too.)
Calendrical technology is fabulously weird, and also oddly compelling. Whilst this is probably as far from hard science as you can get, nonetheless it has a certain appealing consistency – I suppose it’s reliably-weird.
It also solves the ‘casual FTL’ problem. The mothdrive – one of the earliest exotic technologies derived from the high calendar – was what made the hexarchate possible in the first place.
Jedao and Cheris’s interactions are fascinating. The guy is the biggest (publically-acknowledged) monster the hexarchate has ever produced. (Well, aside from the ones who occupy senior roles in the government, that is. But of course they get better press.) However, he doesn’t come across as a complete monster. In fact he expresses considerable remorse for his own actions. It’s an interesting balance, and the two of them exhibit an intriguing experience/innocence, idealism/cynicism dynamic.
Also, the book is quite a page-turner. It’s kept me busy on the buses the last few days!
What could be problematic
First off, there is violence, and the book doesn’t shy away from bluntness about the costs of war. Cheris is an idealist, in her own way, but the hexarchate’s means are bloody. (Inconvenient consensus reality in an area? Simple – remove the consensus!)
The political economy of the hexarchate did have me lifting an eyebrow every now and then. The hexarchs don’t seem to do much of what we normally associate with any government. They don’t seem to proclaim laws, uphold a currency, raise budgets or any of the other usual administration stuff. There is, presumably, a currency, but we never learn its name. (The hexarchs seem to regard fratricidal plotting and scheming as full-time activities.)
Also, the book’s style is somewhat dry. Visual descriptions are fairly light – I couldn’t tell you what the Fortress of Scattered Needles looks like. I remember there was a description of what Cheris looks like, but it was brief and not emphasised.
If you’d like a vision of a fabulously-weird far-future society, then this could be one for you.
On the other hand, if you dislike fictional violence and want your reading anchored in hard science, this might be less appealing.