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A Political History of the Future: Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

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Welcome back to A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction constructs its social and political worlds. This time, our subject is Revenant Gun, the concluding volume in Yoon Ha Lee’s space opera trilogy Machineries of Empire, published earlier this summer.

There’s a scene in Iain M. Banks’s Use of Weapons in which two characters discuss the tendency of Banks’s belligerently benevolent space empire, the Culture, to impose its values on other societies by means both subtle and brutal. One topic on which the Culture is described as strident is environmentalism and the preservation of natural environments. It takes a few paragraphs to realize that the environment in question is the atmosphere of a gas giant. It’s a typically Banksian moment of disorientation, a reminder that while the words and arguments his characters lob at each other may be familiar, the meaning underlying them could be entirely alien.

I bring this example by way of explaining my decision to discuss Yoon Ha Lee, and his Machineries of Empire trilogy, in this series. We’ve defined plausibility and rigorous worldbuilding pretty loosely in our discussions so far, but nevertheless Lee’s space empire, whose technologies are basically indistinguishable from magic and whose society—at least the parts of it that we see—is constantly in the throes of galaxy-spanning war, feels pretty far from anything like the real-world political issues we’ve tried to address. Almost alone among contemporary space opera writers, however, Lee, a Korean-American who trained as a mathematician, shares Banks’s gift for detaching the signifier from the signified. His novel are full of terms that don’t mean what we expect them to mean, and in that gap, he gives us a chance to reflect on the engines that drive a society, for good and ill.

The Machineries of Empire trilogy—Ninefox Gambit (2016), Raven Stratagem (2017), and Revenant Gun (2018)—takes place in the Hexarchate, a gigantic, centuries-old empire whose technology is rooted in its calendar. By compelling the population to abide by a particular time-keeping method, the Hexarchate not only powers its ships and ties its territory together, but creates conditions that allow exotic technology, which violates the normal laws of physics, to function.

The Hexarchate’s army, the Kel, are trained in “formations” that take advantage of calendrical math to produce effects as mundane as shielding, and as horrifying as mists that turn people into ice or rays that amputate people’s limbs. Most exotic weapons double as tools of psychological warfare, unleashing effects that are nothing short of demonic. Obviously, maintaining the observance of the dominant calendar is crucial to the Hexarchate’s survival, and much of its policing and military might is spent on suppressing “heresies”, the deliberate or accidental practice of a different calendar, which might cause the Hexarchate’s technologies to stop working.

It’s a slippery concept at first, but once you wrap your mind around it, it becomes clear just what a brilliant metaphor this is. Imposing a timekeeping method, a common tool of cultural imperialism, becomes a weapon of plain old ordinary imperialism. The Hexarchate propagates itself by literally winning over hearts and minds, forcing people to live according to its calendar (or risk being suppressed by one of the many arms of its doctrine-enforcing police force), which gives it the power to continue oppressing them. And, in order for any rebellion against the empire to succeed, it has to impose its own calendar, which is to say its own way of seeing the world, on a sufficiently large population.

In one of the most powerful scenes in the trilogy, a character recalls witnessing her mother, an officer of the doctrine police, summarily execute her father for studying an ancient timekeeping method. What’s remarkable isn’t just the brutality of the act, or the insistence that it be witnessed by the couple’s child, but the baroque inventiveness of the execution method:

As the clamor grew louder, Khiruev’s father wavered. His outline turned the color of tarnished silver, and his flesh flattened to a translucent sheet through which disordered diagrams and untidy numbers could be seen, bones and blood vessels reduced to dry traceries.

So the Hexarchate’s calendar grants its agents fantastic powers, which they use to terrorize the population into more fervently following the dominant calendar, which only strengthens the empire and its agents.

As Lee eventually reveals, the Hexarchate’s calendar relies on regular “remembrances”, in which heretics are ritually tortured to commemorate specific victories or the suppression of a particular heresy. In order to maintain their power and the empire’s technologies, the Hexarchate’s doctrinal authorities have to provide it with a continuous stream of rebels and heretics, which requires either a constant expansion of the empire’s borders, or a constant narrowing of the range of permissible behaviors. As weird as the calendar notion initially seems, I’m struggling to think of a fantastical device that so perfectly captures the pernicious trap of life under totalitarianism, the way that such systems feed themselves on their own citizens while sapping any survivors of the capacity for resistance.

Like Ann Leckie shortly before him, and Lois McMaster Bujold some time before both, Lee writes space opera as a novel of manners, with great emphasis on the rituals and traditions of the Kel warrior caste amongst whom much of the trilogy takes place. Wearing the right kind of gloves, mastering a particular form of calligraphy, observing specific rituals at mealtimes, all are as essential to the character and performance of the perfect Kel officer as martial skill and an aptitude for higher maths. But in Lee’s setting, this emphasis on tradition becomes a dark joke, not only because the Kel are serving a monstrous empire, but because it masks a complete lack of free will. At the end of their training, Kel are implanted with “formation instinct”, a calendrically-powered technology that compels them to obey the orders of their superiors regardless of their own wishes or judgment. In several instances throughout the trilogy, characters are able to use a loophole in the Kel rank structure to force lower-ranking officers to obey illegal or even treasonous orders.

The cultured, dignified warrior caste, a staple of adventure stories and space opera in particular, turns out to be an army of slaves (albeit slaves who mostly signed up for slavery due to cultural pressure). A dark running joke in the books is that Kel can only really express their free will by committing suicide—though even that is usually in response to orders and in service of the Hexarcate’s goals.

Not that totalitarianism is the only system these books set their sights on. Discussing an alien race whose calendar demands even more elaborate sacrifices than the Hexarchate’s remembrances, a character observes “they’re locked into their existing calendar for exotic technologies they can’t bear to give up, and that means they’re stuck with some bloody awful options in other areas.” The reference to fossil fuels, climate change, exploitative supply chains, and above all the irrefutable logic of capitalism seems obvious. And once again, the metaphor of being trapped by a way of thinking and looking at the world, and not being able to break out of it except at tremendous cost, is an incredibly rich and thought-provoking way of describing the problem.

So much for the world; what about the story? Ninefox Gambit begins with the Hexarchate in a moment of crisis. One of the key holdings maintaining the calendar has been taken over by foreign-backed rebels, causing “calendrical rot” to spread to nearby territories. Faced with a nearly impossible siege, the Hexarchate retrieves its oldest and most dangerous weapon, the mad general Shuos Jedao, whose brilliant career was cut short when he destroyed both his own and an enemy fleet in a massive conflagration. Jedao’s revenant is grafted to a brilliant young infantry captain, Kel Cheris, and dispatched to win back the recalcitrant fortress. In Raven Stratagem, Jedao and Cheris escape the ruins of their previous mission, taking over a Kel fleet and using it to set in motion a convoluted plot against the Hexarchate’s leadership. In Revenant Gun, a clone of Jedao is activated to fight against his older self and the rebellion brewing in the Hexarchate.

There’s some pretty solid space adventure storytelling here—though some of it is a little too dense for my tastes. In particular, Lee has a tendency to drop references to characters or events chapters or even whole books before their full significance becomes clear, and trust that we’ll remember them, which left me scrambling in several crucial parts of the story. And while individual set-pieces are often thrilling, the overarching plot often feels like a great deal of setup for a payoff that can’t help but pale in comparison. (In general, I prefer Lee at a shorter length; his 2013 short story collection, Conservation of Shadows, is highly recommended.)

If there’s a core problem with the Machineries of Empire trilogy, it is this: having established a genuinely fascinating world, and an extremely versatile central metaphor that allows him to explore the horrors of totalitarianism from many different angles, Lee struggles to come with responses to this situation that are equally original and thought-provoking. Jedao, we eventually learn, orchestrated his entire career, from his meteoric rise to his genocidal fall, in order to put himself in a position to topple the Hexarchate. Cheris, following in his footsteps, finds herself constantly challenged to choose between the sacrifice of some fantastically enormous number of innocents in the present, and the wellbeing of an even more astronomically huge number of people in the future. Again and again, the trilogy’s storytelling boils down to the same question: how many atrocities are you willing to commit on your way to a better world?

One Banksian trait that Lee lacks—or, at the very least, hasn’t employed here—is the Scotsman’s finely-tuned sense of irony. When operatives of the Culture sacrificed millions in order to save billions in Banks’s novels, there was a level of detachment that kept you from taking it too seriously. Lee, in contrast, seems to want us to feel complicit. When Cheris agonizes over deploying genocidal weapons on a civilian population to end the siege more quickly, or sacrificing her own soldiers to deploy those weapons, or standing by while the Hexarchate rounds up and exterminates ethnic minorities in an attempt to derail her plot against it, we’re obviously meant to feel her indecision, horror, and ultimately, guilt. But you can only play that riff so many times, and by the third or fourth or twelfth time the story circles back to this sort of dilemma, it’s hard not to have the reaction of hey, buddy, this is your story.

It’s for this reason, I think, that I found Revenant Gun the least satisfying of the three novels, to the point of thinking that the series might have worked better as a duology. Ninefox Gambit is the story of Cheris’s radicalization (I was struck, in fact, by the similarities between it and The Count of Monte Cristo, both stories about an innocent who is disillusioned by a system they had previously believed in, suffers terribly, and emerges from their suffering with greater strength and the ability to strike back against their tormentors). Raven Stratagem is the story of how she strikes at the Hexarchate’s heart. I had expected Revenant Gun to be a story about how she and her allies struggle with the limitations placed on them by the calendar system, and with the question of whether they can ever build a just society under those terms. Instead it ends up being about Jedao and whether he can ever find peace—to which end, the novel provides us with a conveniently hissable villain who turns out to be at the back of many of the Hexarchate’s worst excesses, but who is also the only person willing to look past Jedao’s history of genocide and atrocity.

To be fair, it’s a lot easier to create a tyrannical, oppressive space empire than it is to come up with a believable method of transitioning from it to something like a free and just society. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Lee ended up focusing more on the personal than the political when it came time to conclude his story, while only gesturing at the possibility of a better future for the Hexarchate. (Also, Revenant Gun plays up a running theme in the previous two books, that unbeknownst to most of its citizens, the Hexarcate has been the home of non-human forms of intelligence, who will play a role in its future transformation.) But I still find myself disappointed that, having found such a perfect metaphor for oppression, Lee couldn’t come up with more imaginative forms of resistance than playing by the oppressors’ rules.

Next time on APHotF: Malka Older’s State Tectonics, the concluding volume of her Centennal Cycle.

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