Yoon Ha Lee’s CALENDRICAL ROT: Pluralist Platonism

According to a concise entry on Yoon Ha Lee’s blog “Calendrical Rot”, a short story set in the hexarchate/heptarchate universe, was originally intended as a prologue to his recent novel NINEFOX GAMBIT. It is published in”An Alphabet of Embers“, July 2016.

Yoon Ha Lee’s teaser summary is quite cryptic:

“when people go to war over calendars, weapons of assassination are not what they seem at first”.

My interest in this story is fired by my enthusiasm for the novel NINEFOX GAMBIT (cf. my review) and for the very interesting use of mathematics as the hard science on which the story’s technology and ideology are based.

I see the metaphysics underlying this fictional universe as participating in a more general tendency that I describe as the immanentising of Platonism. Instead of maintaining the splitting of the world into an absolute realm of unique and unchanging Truth and a relative world where everything is in flux and nothing is true, we can imagine a world where truth is local, constructed, dynamic and multiple, without being totally malleable.

Another example of this trend is ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson, which I review from this point of view here.

“Calendrical Rot” has the advantage of making explicit this pluralist element. It begins with a paragraph that announces this theme explicitly:

This is the way the hexarchate tells it, the one true clock, but they’re wrong….the whisper across the known worlds is not unity.

Truth, as expressed in the one true calendar, is constructed and imposed. Other truths are actively suppressed. Those who base their lives on another calendar are judged, and then re-conditioned (brainwashed), or eliminated. In the short story the action takes place on Nran, a “city-station”, whose criminal underworld dates its transactions with a calendar that is in conflict with the hexarchate’s high calendar. The city-station is to be judged and presumably to be brought into line with the high calendar, but the judge is assassinated.

Such a disparity, one that cannot simply be retranslated back by simple conversion into the terms of the high calendar but that embodies an irreducible divergence, cannot be tolerated. It is not a simple affair of local colour, but of active resistance. In the novel this will be called “heresy”.

This disparity is not just an ideological difference but has dramatic consequences for the technology of empire. For example, the hexarchate’s starships (“voidmoths”) depend for their functioning on the universal observance of the high calendar:

In regions where other calendars dominated, their stardrives were useless, inert.

Truth, once the violent imposition of the hexarchate’s hegemony has been overturned or at least briefly nullified, is local. The time of death of the hexarchate judge was rigorously determined. “All across Nran and its satellite tributaries this was true”. However, from the standpoint of the nearby system of Khaio, this time is uncertain. The narrator remarks

there should have been a single answer – and there was not

The dynamic aspect of truth is apprehended negatively by the hexarchate, in the guise of the fear that the prospect of real change inspires. Such change is an ever present danger to the status quo, and is violently suppressed under the name of “calendrical rot”

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