Aug 12 2018

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

Sometimes an author is much more interested in a major character than I am. Writing about Raven Stratagem, the second book in the Machineries of Empire series, I already noted that Lee’s interest in writing about Shuos Jedao was starting to exceed my desire to read more about him. Revelations late in the book showed me why Lee had concentrated so much on the character, I understood what Lee had been up to all along, and I appreciated the skill involved in both setting up the apparent imbalance and resolving it in a satisfying fashion. Revenant Gun offers readers twice as much Jedao, the one who has appeared in the first two books, and a new one, created by one of the hexarchs to counter the threat that the first has become, but furnished with far fewer of the original Jedao’s memories.

The main action of Revenant Gun follows Raven Stratagem by nine years. I found this an awkward gap. Some of the external dangers to the hexarchate that loomed so large in Raven Stratagem have receded, without great explanation within the story and without great effects on the hexarchate. On the other hand, some of the internal political issues that stem from the end of Raven Stratagem are as important to the characters as if no time at all had elapsed since the events of the previous story. To tell the story he wants to tell about the two Jedaos, Lee needs a setting that’s settled into a more stable equilibrium than would be possible if the book were set directly after Raven Stratagem but he also needs the previous conflicts to be as immediate to the characters in the new situation as they were before.

It’s an awkward fit, and one that points toward a more general challenge in science fiction. “Given all the possible stories in this setting, why are you telling this one?” is a common question facing people setting out to tell science fiction stories. “Is this a story that could only take place in this setting?” is another. Both questions are valid, and even important. Why bother with creating a new universe just to tell, say, a story of a middle-aged academic having an affair with a student? (On the other hand, sticking to something as familiar as a Victorian novel of marriage and manners can lead to extraordinary if the Victorian society happens to be one of cannibalistic dragons.) Answering them pulls writers toward stories that most directly shape the universe in which they are set. Going back to Ninefox Gambit, why tell the story of Kel Cheris? Because her recall of Shuos Jedao from the black cradle will set off a chain of events that will transform the hexarchate. It is a story that turns on the unique features of the universe that Lee presents: calendrical warfare, exotic effects based on the mathematical control of spacetime, the faction-driven jockeying for position within an authoritarian system of interstellar governance.

But when nearly every author answers the question “Why tell this story?” by choosing to tell the story that most directly shapes or re-shapes the fictional universe, they start to look alike. This is particularly true out at the far end of a trilogy, where characters have advanced closer to the heart of things over the first two books. People who started in obscurity are now making decisions that shape the whole fictional setting, or at least great swathes of it. What starts as a tale of survival and climbing turns into a story of power, rulership, and probably survival as well.

Revenant Gun flies straight into this paradigm. The actions of Cheris and Jedao in the first two books brought fundamental change to the hexarchate. One of the powers-that-were is fighting back by bringing back another Jedao, who is both more than the first one in terms of physical and mathematical abilities, and less, in terms of memories and experience. Over the course of the book, the question arises of whether the new Jedao wants to be on the side of the previous status quo, and if not, how he might do something about it given the constraints around him — not least that the hexarch who revived him could easily unrevive him and try again with yet another new model Jedao if the hexarch thinks he is up to something funny.

There is a good story lurking within Revenant Gun, even if it is strongly shaped by the structural issues noted just above, but I had trouble getting to it for several reasons. First, Lee is far more interested in Jedao’s background, inner life, and decisionmaking than I was. Second, time acts in funny ways within the story. The nine-year gap between books two and three felt like too much and not enough; too much for the conflicts to have remained the same, too little for deep changes to have taken hold. Further, events external to the main characters felt like they were taking place at a pace shaped by the main characters’ needs, rather than by the logic of the events themselves. It felt to me like Lee’s fictional universe was starting to shape itself around the characters, rather than the characters living within a universe that ran according to self-consistent rules. The first two books in the series were much better at presenting an intriguing setting that shaped and constrained the characters, one that would go on regardless of what happened to them. Third, and relatedly, the characters use of time did not feel consistent. Most of the characters are high-level commanders, administrators or political leaders. They talk to each other about demands on their time, yet they take long periods to do things on apparent whims. Lee also mainly shows these leaders interacting with each other, compounding the sense that the universe revolves around a small set of characters. This is another aspect where the other two books did a better job of striking a balance. Finally, four hundred pages is not a big book by my standards, but Revenant Gun is still noticeably longer than either Ninefox Gambit or Raven Stratagem, and I think less would have been more. The book wanders in Jedao’s past, in his relations with the hexarch Nirai Kujen, in interactions among the political leaders set up by the first two books, and other places besides. The first two gained in tension from their terse depictions of the universe of the hexarchate and from their breakneck pace; Revenant Gun would have been better if it were similarly taut.

In short, I would greatly enjoy reading more stories set within Lee’s hexarchate, or indeed either the heptarchate that preceded it or the successor states that are trying to succeed it, but I would like them to be stories in that universe, rather than of it. And no more Jedao for a while, please. He has earned his rest.

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