Science Fiction

Thoughts on Ninefox Gambit & Too Like the Lightning

Year 1438
Month of Jumada
al-jum’a (Jumaat) the 13th

Dear reader,

The Sci-Fi Experience (hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings) is a challenge that isn’t really a challenge, in which readers “a) continue their love affair with science fiction, b) Return to science fiction after an absence, or c) Experience for the first time just how exhilarating science fiction can be.” You can read/watch/play anything SFnal for it, between December 1st and January 31st. While I usually participate when it comes to reading and watching, these days I realise that the reviewing part of challenges get harder to do. Because I’ve been busier lately, yes. But also because I find these books so mindblowingly amazing and I don’t really know what to say other than “I find this book mindblowingly amazing.”

So I’m not going to write a review. (And I’m not even posting this within the challenge dates!)

toolikethelightningThis time, I read two books I’ve been meaning to get to for sometime. One of them is Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, which I may not have picked up normally, except for this review by Jo Walton, and Jo Walton makes me want to read all the things I don’t normally read (and, of course, I’ll realise that I’ve been missing out). The other is Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, which is definitely not the sort I would normally want to pick up, because it’s Military SF/Space Opera, also known as Not My Thing. I ended up wanting to read it because I’ve read so many reviews and comments saying it’s as good as Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which completely blew me away, despite also being part of the Not My Thing genre.

(I’m beginning to suspect that Not My Thing is not an apt description. Maybe it’s really I Didn’t Think It Was My Thing But Then It Totally Is.)

I thought that Too Like the Lightning was Not My Thing, but I was judging by the cover, and I should have judged by the title (which is a line from Romeo & Juliet). Thank goodness Jo Walton’s review made me realise that, even if I did spend a third of the book wondering what a Seven-Ten list is, because I’m not much of a careful reader of late.

It’s got amazing worldbuilding and a utopian society I REALLY WANT TO LIVE IN, even when like all other utopians it reveals the sacrifices that such a society requires. It has lots philosophical questions and dialogues, which would endear any book to me, so I’m obviously very biased right now. It has interesting technology. It has characters that range from too-good-to-be-true to too-awful-to-like to they’re-really-horrible-but-why-do-I-like-them-anyway, and whichever of them they are, they’re interesting to me.

It has a story that seems at first to plod along, but the world and conversations and characters are so interesting that I didn’t mind, to the point where I didn’t even realise I’m moving faster and faster and got to the end where everything falls into place and my mind is blown. That’s kind of Diana Wynne Jonesian, come to think of it. The whole rushed ending and everything falls into place thing, that is. Maybe that’s why I didn’t mind. But of course, this book is also has a sequel (I thought there were only two books, but a third has been announced) so besides being absolutely amazed I was also extremely crushed and am now still feeling rather desperate to read Seven Surrenders. (Knowing how expensive it will be, at the current exchange rate, makes me want to cry.)

My copy is now on my Favourites shelf to Jo Walton and Ann Leckie and Le Guin.

Ninefox Gambit would have been on that shelf, too, if I hadn’t purchased mine in audio form instead. I’m starting to really enjoy audio books, something I used to think would never happen. It’s not that I hate the idea of them, it’s just the fact that I find it hard to concentrate and really listen. That all changed after I listened to Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. (Thanks, Lin-Manuel Miranda! You made me listen to an entire audio book.) Then I listened to Hamiltome. Ninefox Gambit is my third audio book, and I’m already planning to get audio versions of some of my favourites, because it’s easier when I’m in the train or bus. Anyway. Back to Ninefox Gambit.

ninefoxgambitLike with the Ada Palmer, I found Ninefox Gambit‘s world so alien and hard to get used to. Unlike the Ada Palmer, I did not find myself wanting to live in Ninefox Gambit‘s world – although that may be because it’s written from a Kel point of view, and there is no way I’m choosing to live in an authoritarian military society. Halfway through, I was still wondering what “calendrical rot” was. In the mornings before work start, I would flip through a physical copy at the store to see how certain words or names were spelled. (I will probably end up buying a copy sooner or later.) And – more awesome characters, mathematics, robots, fascinating worldbuilding, MATHEMATICS.

What I find most interesting in Too Like the Lightning is the questioning of many of the social constructs we take for granted now. For example, the world it’s set in is gender-neutral – people commonly use gender-neutral pronouns, and dress in a similarly gender-neutral fashion. The narrator occasionally uses gendered pronouns, but does so based on stereotypical gendered behaviour rather than biological sex, showing that there’s really no easy answer. Just realising that something is a social construct, and even officially getting rid of it, does not erase things we’ve already internalised.

In a way, Ninefox Gambit is also about constructs. It’s world is built on calendrical systems, relying on mathematics and technology that is so unlike ours that it looks like magic. But the thing is, if you change the calendar, or use a different calendar, you can alter the very fabric of reality. (Which is why the world is so rigid and militaristic, probably. And why “heretics” in this book refer to those using a different, or “the wrong” calendrical system.) So, a calendar in this world is all about maths, but it’s also an entire system of belief that everyone had to agree on in order for the world to function a certain way.

“According to the Shuos,” Jedao said, “games are about behaviour modification. The rules constrain some behaviors and reward others. Of course, people cheat, and there are consequences around that, too, so implicit rules and social context are just as important. Meaningless cards, tokens, and symbols become invest with value and significance in the world of the game. In a sense, all calendrical war is a game between competing sets of rules, fueled by the coherence of our beliefs. To win a calendrical war, you have to understand how game systems work.”
Ninefox Gambit

Of course at this point I had to stop and think and realise again that a calendar really is a societal construct (even in our world, even though using a different calendar wouldn’t alter reality in a non-abstract manner). And about all the other things that are social constructs and how performing identities is just a way of gaming the system and how more of us are aware of these constructs now and yet how difficult they are to shake, still, because deprogramming is HARD. (Plus rejecting one “calendar” means choosing another, right?)

Is it not miraculous, reader, the power of the mind to believe and not believe at once?
Too Like the Lightning

No easy answers.

Anyway. For someone who reads a lot (and usually have no problem writing for school and work) I have trouble putting my thoughts about books down, or even pinning down my thoughts long enough to take a clear look at them. But the gist of it is, Too Like the Lightning starts out slow for a book I thought I’d immediately warm up to, while Ninefox Gambit just tossed me in the middle of the action so I had to quickly figure out where I was and what was going on, which is so much harder to do in audio book format. I loved both of them. In a perfect world, I probably would have had the time to write about each of these books individually, and unpack the many thoughts I had while reading them before I did so. I would’ve written long, long paragraphs about Carlyle and Mycroft, and Cheris and Jedao. But that’s something that will only happen in a different calendrical system, I suppose.

Still, I managed one of my long rambles, and that’s something I haven’t done in a long while!

Yours in calendrical heresy,

P.S.: I also read Veronica Roth’s Carve the Mark, and watched Rogue One and the first episode of the Expanse S1 during the challenge period. Also, it’s Friday the thirteenth in the Arabic calendar (which we do follow for certain things) today!


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