I was reminded by the recent announcement of a sequel that I never really processed my thoughts and reactions about Ninefox Gambit, one of the strangest reading experiences I’ve ever had. Since it was generally out of my usual wheelhouse—I am not regular reader of hard sci-fi—and it was genuinely disorienting, I found it difficult to put my experience into words that would reflect it in any meaningful way.
Initially, my response was rather cliché. It throws you in the deep end. It leaves you to sink or swim. This is some weak sauce, not just for me as a writer, but for the reading experience as a whole. Nearly a year later, let’s see if I can do better.
For this, let us turn to a scene straight out of science fiction (and, admittedly, not entirely free of cliché, but hey, sometimes you have to work with the tools you’re given).
You are enclosed in a glass tube. Or maybe it’s a large tank. Whichever. The tube/tank/space is being slowly filled with a murky, slightly viscous fluid. Now, you have been fully briefed on whatever this stuff is, so you have no rational reason to be afraid of it. Maybe it’s medicinal, or maybe you are being put into some scientifically impenetrable form of hyper-sleep. Again, your choice.
Anyway, the liquid is slowly rising. Your conscious mind knows it will be fine. You don’t know why, specifically; you’ve seen other people experience it, even heard some people rave about the experience. But as the levels increase—it’s at your chest, approaching your neck—your much less rational unconscious is starting to fight back. Your heart rate increases, you feel frustrated by a feeling of entrapment, you struggle. As the mysterious-space-metaphor liquid touches your mouth, you clench up, and when it enters your lungs you start to thrash, and maybe even try to scream. Cue the dramatic bubbles and stifled sound.
Then, suddenly, you’re immersed. And you find that, while it doesn’t feel entirely natural, you are doing just fine. You still don’t understand the stuff any better than you did at the start, but you know the experience has been something worthwhile, even enjoyable, in the way novelty that has an edge of fear can be.
The funny part is that if I reduced the plot to its absolute essentials, you would assume this much overextended metaphor is just a symptom of having too much weird space liquid on the brain. Basically, the“hero” is required to prove her loyalty to a shadowy empire/religious overlord organization by helping them defeat a dangerous rebel splinter group (in the religious terminology often used in the book, heretics). She must work with a genius partner with questionable loyalty and a dangerous past, all while only being fed partial information. Space battles and espionage ensue. Will these mismatched allies save the day? Who are the “good guys”? Are there any good guys at all?
Boiled down so far, it sounds like another rote future-politik space adventure. You would be supremely wrong, but this is not the kind of book that can be boiled down to an easy summary and still maintain what makes it so astonishing. (And perhaps some of this perspective arises from my limited experience with the more techno-babble heavy strains of hard sci-fi. Given what I’ve heard from others regarding their experience, I’m inclined to think not).
The technology, the politics and social structures, the terminology of the universe itself is presented almost entirely without context or explanation. I don’t think any story of this size and scope could be 100% exposition-free; in the case of Ninefox, I’m willing to say it’s presence is so minimal as to be statistically insignificant. As such, you are constantly confronted with technology you don’t understand (and may find impossible to visualize), social cues without structure, and strings of words that may result in a serious case of eye-glaze.
SO HOW DOES THIS THING WORK SO WELL?
If I could tell you exactly why, I would be rich because every techno-babble-loving hard sci-fi writer would pay me in unpronounceable space currency for the formula.
However, I have a half-baked hypothesis (and it’s nothing new, so you can have it for free). Initially, the hope that the brain-scrambling world building will all make sense with time—and the undeniable appeal for a certain kind of reader to understand something that seems so complex—grabs you and pulls you along. Then, just as you are starting to realize the answers you have been hoping for will never come, the plot has insidiously taken hold of your brain and you suddenly feel invested in a world that somehow never stops being slightly (and sometimes very) disorienting. By taking readers through the most basic of sci-fi adventure plots using the least predictable (or sometimes decipherable) methods, there is a synthesis that is nothing short of masterful—and profoundly difficult to replicate.
If you made it through this completely non-explanatory explanation without wanting to jump out of an airlock, congratulations, you have a tiny taste of what it is like to survive Ninefox Gambit.
Oh, and did I mention the hero is a mathematician?