Best Novel Nominees: Ninefox Gambit

I have to admit, it has been a while since I’ve read Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit – longer, I think, than any of the other Hugo-nominated novels.  But I still remember the feeling I had reading it – an awed fascination with the weird, exotic technology and the fictional science underlying it, and rapt interest at the dangerous intrigue driving the plot.  Ninefox Gambit is one of the most imaginative works of science fiction I’ve read in years.

When I attended the University of Michigan as a computer science student, I still had to satisfy the university’s base requirements in some non-compsci topics, including literature.  Luckily, the university offered a course on science fiction, taught by Prof. Eric Rabkin.  He also ran a research group, the Genre Evolution Project, which sought to quantify the ways in which science fiction had developed over the past eighty years.  I owe to that course and that project a certain portion of the vocabulary I use to talk about science fiction, as well as the development of my “critical eye” in reading stories.  One of the most important concepts I learned – or, rather, learned to discuss – was the idea of the novum: a thing that a science fiction story introduced to distinguish it from the real world we knew.  Science fiction, and more broadly speculative fiction, is defined by that concept; the essence of the genre is that there is something important about the world of the story that isn’t true about the world of the reader.

The reason I bring this up is that the novum of Ninefox Gambit is one of the most compelling parts of the story.  In the world of the Hexarchate – ruled by six factions, which as a set have that same Sorting-Hat-like aspect as the Hives of Terra Ignota or the Houses of Dragaera – there are two distinct varieties of technology.  Conventional tech works everywhere in that predictable way our own civilization relies upon.  But exotic technology is dependent on the beliefs and behaviors of the people in the vicinity of the tech, and most strongly on the calendar that they use.  The Hexarchate relies on a calendar whose fundamental number is six, resulting in a six-day week among other things, and that fact plus the particular configuration of its feasts and holidays can be leveraged to enable seemingly supernatural effects from specially-built weapons.  But because of that reliance on the calendar, their technology – and their rule – is vulnerable to “calendrical rot”, as people start observing different holidays and maybe even different lengths of the week; take a weapon built for the Hexarchate calendar into a place where a different calendar rules, and that weapon isn’t going to work in the way you expect anymore, if at all.  So maintaining control over the calendar is vital to maintaining technological superiority, and by extension military and political power.  And as with many other belief systems underlying power structures, defiance of the dominant calendar is defined as “heresy” and considered to be one of the most serious and dangerous crimes possible.  In addition to being a deep and complex metaphor for the interrelationship of cultural and political hegemony, that novum of belief-driven technology also provides some classic “sensawunda” sci-fi writing.

(For the sake of completeness, and to illustrate the dizzying complexity of the fictional science of Ninefox Gambit, I want to highlight that the calendar isn’t the only thing involved in powering exotic tech.  The main character, Cheris, belongs to the Kel faction, whose military strength is underpinned by the “formation instinct” of its soldiers – psychological conditioning that makes it nearly impossible to disobey orders from one’s commanding officers.  Those officers can direct their troops into formations to create exotic effects as well, but the formation required to accomplish a given effect depends mathematically on the prevailing calendar, which means that an officer fighting calendrical heresy has to be constantly doing math on the fly in order to figure out how to most effectively deploy their troops.)

That unique and new science-fictional concept – that novum – was already enough to make me sit up and pay attention.  Dropped into that world, the reader spends some time bewildered and lost before beginning to grasp the rules that guide the story, and that experience of figuring out just what the hell is going on here, anyway? is an absolute joy to a certain type of reader.  (If you enjoyed Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief or M. John Harrison’s Light, you’re probably going to enjoy Ninefox Gambit too.)  But layered on top of that is a complex web of political intrigue among the six factions, in which Kel Cheris is forced to entangle herself in order to salvage her career, and which has been destablized by a rebellion’s calendrical heresy.  And that’s not the only thing she becomes entangled with; she has to work with the ghost/spirit/mind of Shuos Jedao, a legendarily clever but treasonously unstable general.  Even having Jedao anywhere on the same battlefield as you is already a risky proposition; trying to work directly with him is like wielding a three-edged sword made of snakes.

The politics and intrigue of the Hexarchate and the narrative of the story itself is also shot through with the idea that games, and the careful and intentional design of games, can change the world.  As an aspiring game designer and a serious player of games of all kinds, the role that game-playing and game design holds in this world – a tool for not only entertainment but also pedagogy and propaganda – utterly delighted me.  Even when the story isn’t specifically focused on games, the feeling of everyone in the world being pieces on a multi-dimensional chessboard never goes away; Cheris is aware from the beginning that accepting the assignment entails stepping onto that game board.  But both Cheris and Jedao create their own games too, and each wields them with devastating effectiveness.

Between her canniness, her mathematical genius, her love of games, and a dash of idealism that the world can be better than what the Hexarchate has made of it, Cheris is a character I felt instant and abiding sympathy for.  Jedao was more of a cipher, naturally, but as I learned more of his story I came to care about him quite a bit as well.  And the way the author took cerebral, abstract concepts like game design and complex math and turned them into forces of great import within the story made me feel at times like the story was targeted incredibly specifically at me as a reader.

As far as I’m concerned, Ninefox Gambit marks Yoon Ha Lee as one of the breakout stars of science fiction.  It’s been years since I’ve read something that grabbed me by the brain like this did.  I imagine this was what readers in the 60s felt like when they encountered Dune for the first time, or picked up Ringworld in the 70s, or Neuromancer, or The Diamond Age…  I suspect we’ll be seeing the influence of this novel, and its sequels, reverberating throughout the genre for years to come.  In a fantastic year for the genre, and among some very strong competition, I think Ninefox Gambit is the best novel of 2016.

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