Science fiction picks: Time for a reality check

The world is what we make it

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Raven Stratagem, the second volume in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, and sequel to the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke-nominated Ninefox Gambit, continues its predecessor’s heady combination of space opera, fantasy, Korean folklore and mathematics.

The Hexarchate, a repressive space empire, derives its power from “calendrical weapons”, which rely on the acceptance of a particular calendar to power devices that bend and break the laws of physics. Since opponents, from within and without, create their own calendars to depower the Hexarchate’s weapons and drive their own, much of the government and military’s work involves suppressing “heresies” and “calendrical rot”.

As in Ninefox Gambit, this is a powerful metaphor for the coercive power of an authoritarian regime. The conceptual framework imposed by the repressive government powers the agents tasked with propping it up. Meanwhile, any rebellion must, in order to succeed, infect the populace with its own competing world view.

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The action continues to follow the melded personalities of Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao. Cheris, an infantry captain with prodigious mathematical skills, has had the ghost of Jedao, a military genius who went mad and slaughtered his own men, grafted onto her consciousness. For most of this book, Cheris/Jedao are viewed from the outside, through the eyes of their underlings and opponents, all of whom try to work out which personality is dominant, what plan they have for the Hexarchate, and whether rebellion is even possible. It is an oddly decentering device for a space opera, and one that does a great deal to undermine some of the genre’s gung-ho traits.

What, if any, possibility is there for moral agency under such a system? It’s a point that Lee frequently belabours, leaning a little too heavily on the regime’s atrocities, and on the nobility of those who serve in the faint hope of allaying some of these horrors. The absence of those who are complicit in the system, or indifferent to it, feels particularly unpersuasive. The novel’s climax, though, shakes the Hexarchate to its core, and sets up an interesting premise for the trilogy’s conclusion.

Power of words

Lee’s consensus reality is determined by maths. Reality in Karin Tidbeck’s debut novel Amatka is determined by words. Colonists live on a planet…

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