Friday, December 22, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 7: Machineries of Empire Series, by Yoon Ha Lee

I have seen this series called space-opera or space fantasy. I don’t really know how to define the first, and I fear the second is often used to belittle science fiction that isn’t written by and for physics majors. To me, Machineries of Empire reads very much as science fiction, some of the most novel and exciting science fiction I have read in years. These are books about war and intrigue in a complex, rigidly organized society whose aristocrats have strange, psychic/magical powers. They spend a huge portion of their prose on exposition, description, and backstory. It is tense, engaging, beautiful, and difficult to put down. Here are some of my thoughts on the really important elements of that apparent contradiction, which I am hurriedly stuffing into this bag for my own use.

Big ideas really can be fascinating. Idea fiction is hard, like super hard, and I am particularly hard ground for many flavors of that particular seed. I did philosophy in college, and I bounce off a lot of work grounded in philosophical ideas from my own preference for rigor. Machineries of Empire is all about big ideas, about the nature of trust, of government, about the purpose of civilization on a galactic scale, and it is fascinating. The characters care so deeply about these questions that we as readers must as well. Lee’s characters care so deeply about these questions, about the potential for individuals to change and influence their fate in the great system, about the religious/political constitution of the empire and what it means. Machineries of Empire was able to make me care about big ideas that I did not come into the story looking for in way I am still barely beginning to understand as a matter of technique.

You can world-build forever if your world is cool enough. Lee spends a lot of time just teaching the reader about the world of the Hexarchate and its neighbors, how the government, and the religion, and the technology work, how it all came to be and how it evolved over centuries. Those long dives into history and science/magic mechanics and technology are some of the best parts, because the history and technology and magic/religion/government are incredibly cool, surprising, exciting ideas. These books have exotic (as in exotic physics) technologies that only function in those parts of space where everyone on the relevant space stations and planets follows/believes in/conforms to the appropriate calendar, and a vast government/religion whose raison d’être is enforcing that conformity. There are soldiers who voluntarily take on a compulsion to obey superior officers so strong refusal is fatal. The world is so rich and interesting that I never resented a long dive into it, away from the theoretically more proximate action of the main plot.

Awesome names do work. A huge part of the world building and delicious immersion of Machineries of Empire is done with names, evocative, strange names that are either never explained or only explained much later. When I read “ninefox crowned with eyes,” or “Kniferose” or “The Fortress of Spinshot Coins,” or hear of the terrible “threshold winnower,” I am immediately placed in a fascinating, alien world. Names do so much for the world of Machineries of Empire. They put you immediately in the flood of a new world and invite you to swim after brilliant, unknown fish. (more on my love of deep-end first world-building in a forthcoming blog on China Mieville; more on my love of complicated names in literally everything I manage to publish.) Lee claims not to be a visual writer, but the names do more work than most descriptions, and give readers (at least me) an endless succession of vivid images, or the sensation of having an image even if it is hazy, which is just as good.

Caring about individuals when dealing with conflict on a galactic scale is revolutionary and difficult. A society that encompasses hundreds of planets, that is united by faster than light travel and the strange contortions of a religious/calendrical system that enables that travel, necessarily contains a vast amount of human suffering, of people overlooked and neglected, or ground in the uncaring wheels of a vast bureaucracy. The Hexarchate of Lee’s novels contains quite a bit more, since the calendar that permits the technology that maintains the empire to function requires regular public torture and execution of heretics. In such a large, cruel world, it is revolutionary to have power and to care about the powerless as individuals. Lee’s heroes do that, and it makes them special beyond the power of brilliance or strength to do so. To have a novel of vast conflict and intrigue and make its heart one of care is powerful, and it reinforces the importance of care for the constitution of government and the personalities of those few who can move the levers of power. It is always worth remembering the power of care, especially when the size of the world and its troubles seems to dwarf our individual complaints.

Machineries of Empire encompasses the already released Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, with the forthcoming Revenant Gun.

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