Fantasist & Futurist
- Nov 23, 2002
This book is different.
The basic plot is that Cheris, an infantry captain, is tasked to command an attack on an impenetrable fortress - under the guidance of a general who not only has never lost a battle, but is also considered psychotic.
And that's just the start.
The opening chapters contain so many unfamiliar terms that at first I wondered if the author wasn't simply making it all up as he went along. However, the strong character voice pushes the story forward, and it soon becomes clear there's some clever world-building here.
This is both the potential strength and the weakness of the story.
The basic setting is of a far future where all humanity is ruled by an oppressive theocracy, which sends its glorious armies to crush all opposing heresy.
But that's as familiar as it gets.
Every action of society is defined by mathematical order, which in itself follows orthodox principles. Although these are never described, it underlines everything that happens.
Battle formations must observe these. As do their unusually-named weapons and their strange, exotic effects.
It can all seem very Fantastical, and definitely not Science Fiction - with capital letters.
And yet... the more I thought about it, the more it seemed I was reading a work of genius.
Imagine, for example, that instead of thinking in Western reductionist terms, that your frame of reference is Taoist. So the over-riding principles are whether your strategies are harmonic according to the observation of that belief.
But isn't Taoism best regarded as mythology? The idea of unseen energies whose principles guide everything just isn't scientific, right?
And yet, electromagnetic and gravitational fields surround us and obey mathematical principles. If a far-future society found a way to directly manipulate these far more readily than we do now, then wouldn't that fundamentally change how people experience the world - in both peace, and war? And how they conduct themselves in both?
What about if we invoke the established idea of multiple dimensions wrapped in on themselves, hidden from our reality - somehow tapped into?
Perhaps it's all or none of these - perhaps nothing more than an acknowledgement that the universe is constructed on complex mathematics, so the ability to directly manipulate these will result in a very different way of thinking.
It's all potentially plausible. At least, that's what I took from this book - a unique world-view that challenges perceptions of reality, yet somehow manages to do so in a way that remains consistent, but without resorting to technical terms.
As Yoon Ha Lee is an American Korean with a masters degree in maths - along with a string of credits in all the major SF magazines - I'm going to presume that's all intentional.
The story itself is entertaining and packed with voice and nuance. Some of the characters even stand out: the heretical commander especially adds a priceless streak of dark humour.
It all adds up to a cracking read.
It's not all positive, though: some minor scenes outside of Cheris's experience I didn't think worked so well, but they were only short - intended to provide context - and frankly a minor niggle anyway.
Overall, this is a Science Fiction novel with a difference - elements of Grant Morrison strangeness, with a sprinkling of The Silence of the Lambs pathology, and centered around a unique way of looking at the world that appears superficially fantastical, and yet somehow might be the most believable hard science fiction out there.
Either way, Solaris, has signed a real gem of an author here, and I'm definitely interested in reading more from this trilogy.
Ninefox Gambit is available from Amazon.com and Amazon UK.