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.


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