Review: Machineries of Empire

I wept and I laughed at Yoon Ha Lee’s visionary space opera trilogy

The cover of Yoon Ha Lee’s book “Ninefox Gambit”

“At some point you had to ask yourself how much legitimacy any government had that feared dissension within more than invasion from without.”

It’s not often you read a book where the same character plays both the villain and the protagonist. Enter Shuos Jedao, the suave, cynical, four-centuries undead revenant who swaggers through these pages with a smooth drawl and impeccable comic timing. Granted, the swagger is all metaphysical (he is a ghost) and the timing is a matter of opinion — the middle of a battle going badly is not the best time for the general to engage in gallows humor, perhaps — but when it comes to Jedao, everything is a matter of opinion.

The best thing about Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire — if I had to pick one, and that’s a tall order — is that he doesn’t seem overly concerned about whether his characters are good or bad, alive or dead, male or female. In addition to being the most brilliant tactical mind in generations, Jedao is an assassin and a mass murderer: in philosophical terms, he’s a stark reminder of the empire’s sins; the past come back to haunt them; the law of unintended consequences in semi-human form.

Jedao’s world is ruled by an empire. Its leaders are sorted into six factions, and each faction is headed by a titular psycho. The factions have professional purposes. The Kel, for example, are the soldiers; while the Shuos are assassins and spies. The Vidona are the ritual torturers, and the Andan are the sleek killers. If it seems like a lot of the rulers’ work goes into oppressing the citizenry, it’s a recognition you’re reaching around the same time as Shuos Jedao. Imagine if our guns came to life and turned on us; that’s what seems to be happening to the faction leaders now that Jedao has started asking questions. Everything good is bad again, or perhaps the reverse.

Jedao is not the books’ only pro/antagonist, for all his charms. Early on in book one, he’s anchored to the physical body of a female infantry captain named Cheris, who has an unexpected genius for mathematics. Mathematics and joint belief are the foundation stones of the empire’s ‘exotic technologies’. Unfortunately, so is ritual torture, thanks to a long-dead but now immortal genius engineer named Nirai Kujen, who designed the system. The tortures power the calendar, a mathematical system that relies on shared belief for its technologies.

“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,” observes one character, with the book’s trademark dry reserve, of an enemy but also of the empire.

Exotic technologies. There’s a comparison beneath the surface of the text — far enough beneath that you kind of have to reach for it — to climate change, if you’re the type of reader whose peculiar scifi shtick is seeking parallels to our own time. The people of the empire have committed one relatable arch-crime, which is to continually look away from the high human cost of technologies they’ve come to rely on for comfort and continuation. Jedao is the mirror. He’s also the spark.

Here’s another thing about this book that’s worth noting, besides its deep symbolisms: it’s witty, in a sort of ‘chuckle darkly beneath your breath, all the time’ kind of way. It’s a humor that arises from Lee’s worldview. To wit: “In the dramas people shied from Shuos assassins and saboteurs, but the ones you had to watch out for were the bureaucrats,” says one character, when he finds himself at his secretary’s mercy. Another character, a sentient AI, amuses itself by making music video mashups for its favorite TV serials. Of all the things you expect a super-smart computer to do, filking isn’t one of them.

Nonetheless, this isn’t one of those grand exercises in which everyone’s complicit and therefore no one’s guilty. Some people are more guilty than others. Society has calcified into a social hierarchy as brittle as an old exoskeleton, and about as useful. Exactly what Jedao and Cheris do about this problem is the meat of the matter, and it’s a wild and surprisingly joyful ride, at least in book one. By book two the conceit has come apart at the seams and so has Jedao. His journey, as the stories progress, becomes sadder, less certain, and not entirely less satisfying. Book three spends a lot of time with Nirai Kujen, puppetmaster. Kujen is described in the kind of terms reserved for queens who once broke Greek heroes’ hearts: the stars shine in his eyes, and worlds are born in his voice. Jedao is “enraptured again by the edifices of thought that Kujen held in his mind like a temple.” The world without Kujen would be dimmer and smaller, but…it would also have a lot less torture. Like, a lot less.

Lee’s genius, really, is how much he makes us love his villains. Their sureness, their brilliance, their vitality. I miss them all.

The book opens in medias res and it takes a while to catch the swing, perhaps because Lee’s book is only dimly in English: the empire is alien to us, and the terms and concepts that animate its dialogue are left unexplained, a worldbuilding conceit that some critics liked. Not so much me. Book two begins with slightly better signposting, perhaps at the behest of an editor who read a few reviews. Still, if you don’t mind stirring the word soup a bit in the beginning, it starts to turn into something delicious and new. If I were the type of give stars, and I’m not usually, I’d give this trilogy 4.9/5.