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.


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

  1. Pingback: The Hugo Awards 2017 Finalists: Best Novels – Book Reviews & Reading Guides

  2. Pingback: RAVEN STRATAGEM – Yoon Ha Lee (2017) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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