NINEFOX GAMBIT: the actual novel and its virtual shadow

I have been giving a generous or charitable reading of Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT. I don’t read much Space Opera, for precisely the reasons that many give for its personally and politically problematic, and so less enjoyable for me, nature.

I was enthusiastic about 9FG because it tied into my exploration of a turn towards an immanent or pluralist Platonism not just in philosophy but also in SF. I discussed Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM from this point of view ( and was looking for other examples. Greg Egan’s PERMUTATION CITY seems to fit this trend, as does 9FG. In my post on ANATHEM I make a disinction between pluralism (ideas are testable, reality resists) and relativism (ideas are uncriticisable, reality is plastic). Relativism (what some call “post-modernism” falls under this category) is ultimately a form of magical thinking, pluralism lets reality have the last word.

This is where my interest in 9FG comes from. I did not agree with the popular reaction that it was fantasy disguised as SF, because a science fiction novel based on maths as the hard science rather than physics or biology necessarily projects a more plastic view of reality. So I am not totally satisfied with the notion that its world works on “alt-physics”, which seems to me to be a compromise solution to categorising its world-building. However, maths as basic science leads easily to multiple physics, so “alt-physics” may be a founded description in that sense.

I agree that the political analysis is not the books strong point, but this criterion is perhaps overly demanding, and would lead to exluding almost all science fiction (and not just space opera) from our speculative consideration. Nonetheless, the political analysis that is present goes in the sense of undermining the stereotypes of the genre. Obviously the hexarchate is an inexistent empire designed to strike us as “evil”, and so criticism of it comes cheap, but perhaps there are structural analogies with our own regime.

We know that given the choice between a demanding book where mathematics played an even greater role and a more ommercial book where maths was treated as just “magic”, Yoon Ha Lee chose the latter option. So I may be reacting to the book as if it were that first option, the virtual or shadow version of the actual book, but most books do not have a virtual version accompanying them. Still, this would constitute a good internal critique of the novel: that it does not live up to the expectations that it creates for itself. Perhaps this split between the virtual and the actual book explains the “torn” feeling that some reviewers (including me) have in accounting for their reactions to the book: it should have been more game-changing than it actually is.

I think that Yoon Ha Lee does achieve complexity of a sort, but it is at the price of privileging abstraction over description and of violating the precept “show don’t say”. His precept seems to be “when in doubt, say”. This is coupled with a tendency to employ an exotic vocabulary in a way that emphasises functionality over denotation. People seem to find the beginning of the book “difficult”, but the difficulty is more an artefact of this vagueness about denotation and description. The disappointing aspect of this procedure is that the abstraction promises more than it delivers.

But it does deliver. The political critique that people are looking for liess in the form of what Slavoj Zizek would call “ideological critique”, in particular of highlighting certain structural features of ideology rather than criticising any particular ideology. The novel displays just how deep ideology penetrates into our lives without it being a question of conscious ideas.

The notions of calendrical synchronisation of populations, in their religious and mass media applications, are pertinent to today’s theme of the “clash of civilisations” and the exclusion or persecution of those who live by different national narratives, or even just by different calendars. Their “remembrances” (here we can think of 9/11 or of “I am Charlie”) are not the same, and the “exotic” effects attained are different (drone warfare vs suicide bombings).

This is not psychology in the place of politics, but constitutes an interesting speculative take on an important psycho-political dimension of ideology. However, this dimension is abstracted out from the larger picture, hence the conrasted feeling of impressive world-building and simplistic plot and characters. Paradoxically, this abstraction is what has led to its appeal, and to the surplus enjoyment of having read a “difficult” book.

IS SPACE OPERA EVIL?: Ninefox Gambit and The Shadow Consensus

Three reviews take Yoon Ha Lee’s recent NINEFOX GAMBIT to task for its conformity to Manichean, individualist, élitist, anti-democratic, violence-banalising space opera tropes. All three reviews are from a shadowy institution calling itself the “shadow” Clarkes. There is a noteworthy convergence of views in the three posts, condemning the novel for its lack of political relevance (read “correctness”).

This unanimity is rather amusing given that the reviewers are commenting on a novel based on the dangers of convergence (the calendrical system is a synchronous regime of convergence and consensus) and of the over-riding imperative of political correctness.

NINEFOX GAMBIT is itself in part a critique of the genre of space opera and of the sort of narcissistically satisfying identification with the hero that it may encourage. Until proven otherwise by the sequels it seems to favour dis-identification rather than identification.

The idea of the calendar and the calendrical regime is a very Stieglerian idea: power operates by synchronisation. This calendarity plus the hexarchate’s six “factions” is a way of highlighting the stereotyping often present in the genre and of displaying its political and military enforcement.

On the question of the privileged focus on certain individuals to the detriment of the mass of real people, it is true the forward movement of the plot is driven by a small number of individuals. However, these are presented as both belonging within the stereotypes and as exceptions in the sense of not fully corresponding to their official type. So complexity is present in the diversification of the stereotypes (seven factions are involved) and in the undermining of those stereotypes by showing their inability to prevent exceptions being generated.

Links to the reviews:

The three reviews condemn not just NINEFOX GAMBIT (a novel that I like a lot) but space opera in general as vicarious escapist power-fantasy representing, sublimating, and thus banalising, compassionless violence and legitimating it by means of its concentration on an individualistic quest for redemption on the backdrop of the perpetual reiteration of the war-machine. Real people are missing, only the actions, motivations, past history and personalities of the main characters count.

What is missing from this tableau is the element of speculation itself.

NINEFOX GAMBIT (3): the ambiguity of space opera

Guattari thought that fascist desire was in the service of some transcendence, a fixed supreme value in the name of which the fascistic order is imposed. Being woke, being aware of the semiotic machine and the power mechanisms driving that imposition of an order, is not enough, but it is a good beginning in the process of deterritorialisation (estrangement) that can lead to greater freedom.

In these terms NINEFOX GAMBIT is a critique of fascism rather than its sublimated (because fantasy) and hyper-sublimated (because “woke”) satisfaction. The universe is explicitly described as fascistic, and the attempt to bring back a heptarchy is a fight for religious freedom and democracy, i.e. a struggle against the transcendent régime of the hexarchate.

The whole world-system and plot of the novel are even more Guattarian than Jonathan McCalmont’s use of him implies. True all of this crystallises around one individual, but I do not think that we are invited to identify with him. Enough is done to keep us alienated from him up to the very end. We learn his motives and strategy, but we are not incited to say “Oh OK, that’s all right then”.

The overall movement is from mystery to understanding, but not from negative to positive, and Jedao remains a very ambiguous figure, with a huge amount of negativity attached to him. We attain noetic catharsis, in that we understand him, but we do not attain ethical catharsis, since mass slaughter as a means to social emancipation and individual salvation is not something we can identify with.

Awareness without ethics is a form of self-deceptive self-indulgence, but the novel seems to me to have an ethical thrust that does not coincide with the motivations of the “hero”. This critique of the hero and his quest is not new in space opera, but goes back at least to DUNE, where the hero, Paul, becomes even more despotic than his predecessor, a woke Despot building his reign on fanatical devotion and submission.

NINEFOX GAMBIT (2): power-fantasy or philo-fiction?

Jonathan McCalmont has published a couple of interesting reviews of Yoon Ha Lee’s NINEFOX GAMBIT (full review here, and later reflections on his personal blog).

I agree with everything that McCalmont says about the novel’s structural flaws, and in particular the problematic subordination of Yoon Ha Lee’s speculative inventivity and complexity to the fascistic, bellicose form of military science fiction. However, I don’t fully recognize the novel from McCalmont’s description.

1) The novel reads like both science fiction and fantasy, but there are many ways to blur or to undercut the distinction. In the case of NINEFOX GAMBIT I think that the “fantasy” aspect is only superficial. It is derived from the fact that the “hard” science underlying the story is not physics but mathematics. It has this structural feature in common with Neal Stephenson’s ANATHEM, which nonetheless is a very different sort of novel.

2) The speculative element of the Calendrical system is mathematical, religious, technological, and political all at once. I find this a stimulating extrapolation of recent philosophical attempts to cut across all these domains by means of a unified vision. In particular, the work of Bernard Stiegler gives central importance to the notion of “cardinality and calendarity” as regenting a society’s political imagination and technological projects. See for example:

“Calendarity and cardinality form the retentional systems that determine space and time relations and can thus never be separated from religious, spiritual and metaphysical questions. They inevitably refer to the origin and the end, to limits and boundaries, to the deepest perspectives of projection devices of all sorts. Today, calendarity and cardinality are profoundly disturbed. Night and day become interchangeable through artificial electric light and computer screens. The distance and the delay between circulating messages and information nullify each other and the behavioural programmes become correlatively globalised, which is experienced as a kind of cultural entropy, the destruction of life…people everywhere live their cultural singularity as proof of their vitality (of negentropy)”.

3) The fascistic backdrop is itself under criticism both inside the plot and within the world-building. The hexarchate is presented as totally unbalanced because it excluded and exterminated a seventh faction, the Liozh, the philosopher/ethicist caste eliminated for trying to introduce democracy and to free people from compulsory ritual observance of the “remembrances”. So the war is against the fascistic tendencies in favour of democracy and secularism, it is not just an unquestioned background for the hero’s quest for redemption that ends up getting legitimated by the protagonist’s process of individuation.

4) On this basis, but I may be completely wrong here and I may be very disappointed with the sequel, I don’t think that Jedao’s individualistic “the end justifies the means” approach is validated by the novel. He seems to think that slaughtering masses of his own people to get to be immortal in order to overthrow the system is ok, as long as it works. I think that the implication of the story is that Jedao underneath his simulated madness is really mad, because the system is mad, because it has excluded empathy, ethics, democracy.