I’m reading a bit of sci-fi at the moment as I’m woefully under-read in the genre. How lovely to have these two line up back to back.
Ninefox Gambit is a brilliant debut by Yoon Ha Lee. Kel Cheris is a captain given a seemingly impossible mission to destroy an impregnable space fortress that is being subverted to destroy the empire for which she fights. Put in command of a powerful fleet of ships and wondering if she’s simply expendable, she requests the help of a general considered a dangerously mad genius, locked up in immortal solitude for committing genocide.
Lee doesn’t introduce the worldbuilding particularly gently, but does keep the story focused on individuals, both Cheris and Jedao, as well as the power players who treat them as their pawns. Cheris and Jedao’s burgeoning relationship is the core of the novel, though it’s very much in the vein of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter (and compelling for that).The worldbuilding itself is very interesting, the story taking place in an empire the power of which, particularly militarily, rests on its belief system and how that informs its social system. The soldiers gain combat benefits from being/believing in harmony with their ‘system’ or ‘game’ as Jedao puts it, and the enemies of the ‘Hexarchate’ are trying to introduce their own beliefs and thus rot the system and destroy it. It’s as though a soldier’s doubt regarding their ‘calendar’ can undermine the whole unit’s efficacy in shielding itself, they are a hive mind united in faith and this boosts their combat power.
It’s a strange and fascinating concept, the need to believe in a framework, a set of mathematical formulas, being central to how the society functions in its totality, not just its ideals. None of this is particularly explained and I couldn’t care less that it isn’t. There’s enough detail in there, it feels coherent and consistent and you can just ‘use’ the information to exist in this novel’s universe and enjoy it.
And the enjoyment comes not just from this wonderful imagination but from us having a protagonist who shows vulnerability, determination, doubt and all emotions in between. She is out of her depth, she is challenged on all sides; by those who believe they should be in her seat to Jedao to the shady hexarchate families that appear to be playing some grand game, a conspiracy at the highest level of empire. For Cheris, read Ender Wiggin. Yet as we go along, we are set to wonder if Jedao, like Lecter, from a position of supposed impotence and imprisonment, isn’t in fact playing a game of his own.
I should say too that what makes their relationship extra special, upping the stakes on the Lecter/Starling relationship, is that Jedao is a sort of shadow and exists in her mind. Imagine Lecter being in Starling’s head, with access to her thoughts. Lee exploits this really well, in particular when Jedao is helping her negotiate the challenge of proving her competence to experienced officers under her command but also in the way that she becomes frustrated at being treated as a host to him at other times, relaying his words to those that wish to speak to him. Lee knows how to exploit the tension in this setup as you root for Cheris to find a way to prove herself. Quite how their relationship in this first volume evolves might divide readers. I’ve not read any reviews, so if you do read it, I’d love to talk about the end.
All of this keeps this unyielding story ripping along at almost a thriller’s pace, but it’s satisfyingly high concept at the same time. What a debut! And the first of a trilogy to boot.
Kim Stanley Robinson is, by contrast, a very experienced author with many great books under his belt. Aurora is considered by some to be his best yet. I thought I’d jump in here and I was duly blown away.
Ostensibly it’s the story of a generation ship making its way to Tau Ceti where its occupants hope to settle a colony. As with Lee’s book and indeed all great books, it succeeds because it keeps its focus down to just a handful of characters, around which the great events of the book revolve. The triumph of the book for me is that one of these characters is the ship itself, and it’s the ship that narrates the story.
How the ship comes to narrate the story of this mission and what subsequently happens is due to the efforts of Devi, the mother of our heroine Freya. However, it’s apparent that while events centre around Freya, Devi and ‘Ship’ are equally important characters. In setting up the conceit that the ship is learning how to write a novel under instruction from the genius engineer Devi, we have an exhaustively reliable narrator that at the same time is growing into its role as storyteller as the story is told. The narrative itself is thus evolving. Robinson cleverly uses this to give us the exposition early on and I was absolutely fascinated by the painstaking detail and research that must have gone into it. As a young girl, Freya’s relationship with her mother, and father Badim, are complicated by her mother’s legendary status as an engineer who has given over her life and every waking breath to solving the myriad problems unforeseen by the shipbuilders at the outset. It reminds us that we can try and think of everything, but there’s always something we haven’t considered, as humans, which, out in space, could be catastrophic if not for the kind of ingenuity brought so vividly to life in the movie Apollo 13. The ship is hanging together as it gets to Tau Ceti and in no small way it is thanks to Devi.
The novel then charts Freya’s growth to adulthood and the events that follow, which I won’t spoil of course. But as the novel goes on, Robinson’s narrator becomes increasingly important, increasingly conscious as well, and Ship’s musings on language and meaning show Robinson’s research worn lightly and relevantly.
There’s a quite moving finale, unexpected too, and an ending which is subtler and deeper than anything I’ve read since The Buried Giant, which is high praise from me. This is a really clever novel with a cast that have convincing and emotionally messy relationships. It feels simple to read, but it’s far, far from simple in its message and its themes.