So last year, I read the Hugo novel nominees, and it was a really really satisfying little project. I’m thoroughly enjoying trying to keep up with good, modern fiction, and so I was determined to do it again. But I figured, why not add another as well? I settled on the Nebulas, because I think they form a nice contrast to the Hugos – equally broad scope, rather than focussing on specifically fantasy or SF, but not a public vote, so might throw up some things that were critically acclaimed but not necessarily popular. I don’t want too much of an overlap. As it happens, of the five nominees in the novel category, I’ve already read (and enjoyed) one, All the Birds in the Sky, so it’s a pretty puny project of four books, but never mind. My intention is to read two between now and mid-April, and another two between then and mid-May, when the winner will be announced, on a schedule of: Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee, Everfair – Nisi Shawl, The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin, Borderline – Mishell Baker. I’m saving for last the one I think I’ll enjoy most, because I’ll need something to look forward to if I have to plough through The Obelisk Gate*, sequel to The Fifth Season, which won the Hugo last year.
I chose to read Ninefox Gambit first, simply because I had no idea whether or not I was going to get on with it. I was hopeful, sure, but I hadn’t a clue. It wasn’t clear if it was going to be space opera, hard SF, both or something else entirely, and I generally have a pretty mixed response to hard SF, to say the least. As it turns out though, I loved it.
Ninefox Gambit is the story of a woman in a vast and sprawling space empire ruled by the Hexarchate – six factional leaders, atop six socio-political factions, into which the populace can test to follow the career paths open to that faction alone. Cheris, our protagonist, is one of the Kel – the soldier faction. She’s an infantry captain with a natural bent for mathematics – which would normally have her end up in the Nirai, the science and tech faction, but for her determination to fit in and belong. The story follows what happens to her when people high up notice her unusual combination of skills and want to make use of her in a much wider sphere of influence than just leading a platoon.
It’s a solid story, one I absolutely enjoyed all the way through, and nothing happened quite how I expected it to, but it’s somehow not actually what I’m here for. Lee does something that I nearly always enjoy (cf a lot of my discussion of Miéville, for instance) and that is to dispense with exposition pretty much entirely, and leave the reader to figure out what’s going on for themselves. And sure, that happens a lot. But when I say I like it, I mean I like it when the author dials it right up to maximum, and you spend the entire book having no idea how the fundamental principles of some of the setting work. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s not. It’s wonderful. Lee’s world, in a lot of ways, still makes absolutely zero sense to me but I just don’t care. It was beautiful despite it… or possibly because of it. He doesn’t get bogged down in details, telling you how everything works, instead trusting you to make the leap of faith and roll with it, adapt to your ignorance, and just keep going with the story anyway. Sometimes, you get understanding later, though mostly you don’t. But it doesn’t matter. The story is still the story, and entirely comprehensible, and somehow the world is more wonderful for that mystery. It’s a great knack if you’ve got it, and Lee really has.
So there is a heck of a lot to praise in his world-building, but I’m going to make that praise with one caveat. There are a lot of superficial parallels I could draw between Ninefox Gambit and the Ancillary series. A lot. Things like how the characters wear gloves, and removing them is strictly taboo, for instance. I’m not going to list them all, and I’m not going to say there’s a direct link between them. Lee particularly, but Leckie to an extent, are trying to create a world with a certain feel to it, and all the things they both do play into that atmosphere, so I’m totally willing to believe that maybe the decorative similarities come from coincidental aims for a similar tone. But then there’s the sub-thread about machine sentience… it could be coincidental too… but at this point, I am forced to conclude that an author this good (and Lee is good) ought to be aware of what his contemporaries are doing. So either it’s a coincidence he’s chosen to go with anyway, or an influence he’s happy to be visible. Which is fine – all art has its influences and it’d be wrong to deny that – but it’s something that was definitely in the back of my mind a lot while reading. It makes me think I might have considered this an evening more fantastic book if I’d never read the Ancillary books to compare it to.
On the other hand, Lee does a lot of interesting stuff with his setting that is uniquely his, so it’s not too hard to force yourself to move on.
I think my abiding impressions here are firstly Lee’s use of language – he has a real way with making a nonsensical yet beautiful turn of phrase, especially to describe viscerally horrifying sights, like bodies mangled by weapons. The way he captures little moments in entirely unexpected words… it’s completely captivating. The second, sort of linked to that, is his utterly incomprehensible, yet entirely terrifying, technology. You have things like carrion glass, threshold winnowers and the chrysalis gun that I frankly don’t really know what they do. All of them are pretty plot-crucial, but because his way of talking about them is so poetic… I can’t really put in any sort of real terms what the results of them are. And yet I’m still pretty horrified by them. Because for all that I don’t understand them, I can see and hear and feel what he’s telling me about them, the crunch of the carrion glass, the way it’s webbed up the walls of the ship, without really knowing what it’s done to the things it was aimed at. It’s again that sense of mystery and incomprehensibility pulling me in, and when wedded with beautiful writing, it’s absolutely compelling.
This is space opera done well and written wonderfully. The characters are accessible and real, even when their lives are so alien and distant, because Lee conveys emotions so plausibly. The pacing is varied, but in a way that suits the plot, and has clearly been deeply considered. But above all, the setting is a marvel and the writing a joy, and I couldn’t put it down.
I’m struggling to see how any of the other Nebula nominees could be this good, but if they are, I won’t be complaining.
*Yeah yeah, I shouldn’t pre-judge, but it’s a sequel to a book I really don’t enjoy, with another book by the same author being one I really disliked… forgive me some amount of pessimism here.