Yoon Ha Lee’s contribution to the 2015 science fiction anthology Meeting Infinity was the story “The Cold Inequalities.” A take on the classic 1954 Tom Godwin story “The Cold Equations,” Lee re-visioned its human dynamics in prosaic and intelligent fashion. Apparently only a precursor to deeper genre incursions, Lee emerges in 2016 with a novel-length work that looks into a larger concept within science fiction, particularly space opera. First in a planned trilogy, that work is Ninefox Gambit (Solaris).
Kel Cheris is leader of a squad of soldiers involved in a brutal, punishing war. A totalitarianist structure above and below her, she obeys orders from the hexarchate to the letter, just as her soldiers obey her. But this is not enough to save her job. In one particularly violent firefight, Cheris makes a hard decision that changes the course of her career. Moved into an unthought of position, it comes with one footnote: she must accept the consciousness of Shuos Jedao, a former general as renowned for defeating the enemy as he is of destroying his own army to achieve the victory. War with a heretical faction looming on the horizon at the Fortress of Needles, Cheris does her duty and steps into the shoes of duty, and with Jedao in her head, the decisions only get harder.
At the skin and muscle level, Ninefox Gambit is a work of space opera. Aesthetics sharp and the plot shifting with every battle, Lee creates a thick veneer of his universe with the likes of eelstrikes, scanning tech, calendrics, cindermoths, and other such imaginings. By design, the imaginings don’t relate to some form of our reality. Wouldn’t be space opera, otherwise. Weapons being the prime example, one may not know precisely what an amputation gun or winnower is, but in the context provided, the rigors of the space opera ring true—in this case in dense, colorful fashion. Crushed into a tight and taught package, it’s fair to say Lee understands the sub-genre.
But in its bones, beyond the compact surface of space ships, weapons, military rank and war, Ninefox Gambit is something more. Hidden just behind the façade are the politics of power, societal control systems, and Kel’s perspective within them. Some may argue these are natural themes for space opera. In Ninefox Gambit it’s subtly apparent Kelis’ story is more than a springboard for action and drama, however. (Gender may appear an item to some readers, but given the internal balance and lack of obvious tactics in that direction, I would assume Lee’s agenda to be more universally human.) The largest piece of evidence supporting this is the continual shadow over the main storyline cast by the mechanisms of power inherent to Kelis’ hexarchate, and the blind philosophy of aggressive utilitarianism innate to its operation. The novel’s subtitle, The Machineries of Empire, hinting as such, Lee takes his sub-text in a similar direction to the premise of Adam Roberts’ New Model Army, namely into the gears, switches, and fuel driving the super-structure of military and politics, and how they relate to a human agenda.
Just what precisely the ultimate commentary is, however, is not made perfectly clear. Ninefox Gambit the opening book in a trilogy, Lee does not reveal all his cards. Ending on a note that closes the storyline to that point while opening interesting possibilities in other directions, readers will be satisfied with the result of Kelis’ plight but have to force themselves to wait to learn of the hexarchates’ future, as well as Lee’s underlying goals for the trilogy.
In the end, Ninefox Gambit is a vivid, dense take on space opera that would seem to have a deeper political agenda left to be fulfilled by forthcoming books. The language prosaic (interestingly akin to Samuel Delany), the battles and skirmishes, space ships and assassins exist at the surface level, while politics, aggression, and the mechanisms of power shift quietly below. Where “The Cold Inequalities” dismantled Godwin’s view, Ninefox Gambit would seem to be the opening salvo (ha!) in a series seeking to dismantle the notions of power and dominance inherent to Western power structures.