Friday 25 January 2019

Machineries of Empire trilogy, by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit is the first volume of Yoon Ha Lee's SF trilogy, Machineries of Empire. It comes well recommended, winning the 2017 Locus Award for best first novel, and nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards. One reviewer summed it up as "Starship Troopers meets Apocalypse Now", which sounded intriguing. The story is set in a far distant (in time and/or space) universe, in a culture called the hexarchate which has some strange political/religious structures and military tactics. There's a lot that's new to absorb, and the author doesn't coddle the reader with any of the established ways of explaining what all of the new terms and concepts mean – he plunges straight into the story and lets the readers try to figure out what's going on. This can actually take quite a long time; I certainly wouldn't want to be asked to explain some of the more challenging aspects of the background, even just after finishing the book.

Despite being more or less confused most of the time, I was sufficiently intrigued to persevere. The heroine, Captain Kel Cheris, is a likeable soldier with a talent for mathematical analysis that makes her a tactical genius in the science of space warfare, and she is given the job of master-minding a counterattack against heretics who have seized an important base. To help her, she is saddled with a passenger in her head: the personality of Shuos Jedao, a famous general who won every battle he fought until he apparently went homicidally insane, killing his troops as well as the enemy's. His mind had been put in storage for four centuries (becoming a "revenant"), only being let out and transferred to an "anchor" (host) when really needed.

By the end of the story it is clear that there is a lot more going on than the reader (or the heroine) has previously realised, and I obtained the two sequels (Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun) and read them as soon as possible before I entirely lost my shaky grasp of Lee's universe.


Raven Stratagem begins where Ninefox Gambit leaves off, but with an important difference: while the original volume has the focus very much on Kel Cheris as the main viewpoint character, in the sequel the viewpoint switches between various characters and we only see Cheris – who now appears to be totally dominated by Jedao – through the eyes of others. There is a reason for this, as is revealed towards the end of the book.

The pace of the action is slower, but we learn rather more about the curious structure of the society in which these stories are set. There are six factions within the hexarchate society: Rahal, who set the law; Vidona, who provide education and enforce the law with ritual tortures; Kel, the military wing who suppress the frequent rebellions and deal with attacks from cultures outside the hexarchate; Nirai, the engineers and technicians; Andan, who provide financiers, diplomats and artisans; and Shuos, who specialise in information operations and also provide the overall political leadership of the hexarchate. Each faction is led by a hexarch, and the whole social structure is underpinned by a philosophical/religious belief system linked to clocks and calendars (don't ask – I still don't know). Apart from the humans, there are also servitors: robots of various forms with a high level of artificial intelligence, who ironically form some of the more sympathetic characters later in the story.

The three main viewpoint characters are General Kel Khiruev, in command of a Kel swarm (fleet) which is peremptorily commandeered by Cheris/Jedao; Colonel Kel Brezan, who resists this take-over and is promptly evicted from the swarm and sent back to Kel Command; and Mikodez, hexarch of the Shuos faction and effectively the emperor of the hexarchate. On the face of it, the commandeered swarm is focused on defeating a Hafn swarm which has invaded the hexarchate, but (as usual) there is more than this going on, and by the end of this volume we learn the full implications of Jedao's long-term strategy.


Revenant Gun is the final part of the Machineries of Empire trilogy.  Some spoilers are necessary to say anything much about this.

The structure of this volume is rather confusing, as it hops between events immediately after the end of those in the previous volume, and the situation nine years later. To make matters worse, we have two different versions of Jedao; one of them still associated with Kel Cheris, the other having been re-created by the villain of the piece who has emerged as Hexarch Nirai Kujen, who is also a revenant and achieves immortality by hopping from one "anchor" to another as they age. The author doesn't help by referring to both versions as "Jedao" for much of the time.

There is much more about "calendrical warfare" and the importance of religious observances (including brutal blood sacrifice) in preserving a particular structure of time which supports the functioning of certain weapons and hinders others. No, I can't explain it any better because I still don't understand what the author had in mind.

I have to say that it took me some time to finish this book in my evening reading sessions, because I kept falling asleep. This is not a good sign; if a book really grips me I can carry on reading for half the night without feeling sleepy.  Eventually I managed to finish it (with some relief) and I'm pleased to say that the eventual fates of the principal characters proved satisfying.

Overall, I would say that the Machineries of Empire trilogy is very ambitious but its reach exceeds its grasp, in that important aspects of it remain unintelligible – to me, at any rate. As a result I am unable to join the enthusiastic chorus which has welcomed the arrival of this trilogy.

Friday 4 January 2019

The German invasion of England - pre-World War 1 speculative fiction

I have recently become intrigued by a rather specialised sub-branch of fiction concerned with stories written in the years before World War 1 forecasting a German invasion of England. Not too suprisingly, this is known as "invasion literature" and a vast number of tales were written, of which only a handful survive in print. These fears were stimulated by dramatic changes in European politics; first by the astonishing defeat of France, regarded as the greatest land power in Europe, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, immediately followed by the formation of a new German Empire with Prussia at its core. These changes were a considerable shock to the British and led to a switch in viewpoint; the country's traditional enemy, France, being replaced in that bogey-man role by an increasingly powerful and assertive Germany.

Many military writers expressed their concern that the British government had become complacent in its imperial superiority and that the Army was wholly unprepared for the possibility of invasion, reliance being placed on the Royal Navy to deter or prevent any such hostile action. Some of those writers expressed their concern in the form of fictional accounts of how an invasion might happen, and what the results could be. So these stories are a form of speculative fiction, interesting in what they reveal about the national mindset of that era.

I have already written about one of these stories, in comparing it with Wells's The War of the Worlds: this is G. T. Chesney's novella The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, which was published in Blackwood's magazine in 1871. Unlike the majority of writers on this subject (who tended to be very jingoistic) Chesney was a professional; a colonel in the Royal Engineers. His account of the successful German invasion of England from the viewpoint of a British volunteer soldier is gripping and realistic; the courage and enthusiasm of the volunteers is shown to be useless against the professionalism of the Prussians (Chesney doesn't actually name the country the invaders came from, but they do speak German…). The panic, lack of information, confusion and errors described in Chesney's well-written account are all too credible, and it is no surprise that it was a best-seller.

British concerns about German intentions only increased with time, as Kaiser Wilhelm II, urged on by Alfred von Tirpitz, Grand Admiral of the German Imperial Navy, decided that being the foremost land power was not enough: he wished to challenge the Royal Navy as well. The next landmark story in this genre appeared in 1903: The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers' great spy/sailing adventure. The two British heroes of this account take a sailing holiday in the German East Frisian islands, following-up a theory one of them has that the shallow, sheltered waters between these islands and the coast would make an ideal gathering place for an invasion force aimed at landing in Eastern England. I won't say any more about this story, except that it is my favourite novel. Those who also enjoy it might like to know that a sequel appeared in 1998 (yep, 95 years later!); The Shadow in the Sands, by Sam Llewellyn, is also a great read, the author having done an excellent job of capturing the flavour of the original.

This takes me on to the next best-seller, If England Were Invaded, by William Le Queux, originally published in 1906 as The Invasion. This is similar to The Battle of Dorking as it starts with an initially successful invasion of England by Germany, and gives a nod to The Riddle as the invasion does indeed set off from the Frisian islands, with huge numbers of barges being towed by tugs just as Childers prophesied.  This is not mentioned until later, however; the story begins with the invasion force having already landed at several points along the east coast of England and, with the aid of agents already established there, severing all communications with the rest of the country. The invasion force, including cavalry and artillery, is greatly superior to the available British forces in numbers, equipment, organisation and training, and the result is a crushing defeat for England. However, that is not the end of the story, the author illustrating the (still valid) principle that while a well-trained military will easily defeat a less well-prepared force on the field of battle, that advantage can be much reduced in the messy business of close-quarter fighting in densely built-up areas.

The narrative is largely written from the authorial viewpoint, the language slipping in moments of excitement from dispassionate third-person to a more emotional form, as in: "at present we are powerless". Much of the book consists of articles in newspapers, reports from correspondents, diary entries and official proclamations from both sides of the battle. There is great emphasis on military detail, with the army units involved from both sides being identified and their locations and movements described. I can imagine the contemporary military enthusiasts having maps spread all over a table, moving around tokens representing the different units as they follow the story. For the rest of us, though, this is a tedious amount of detail, far more than is needed to appreciate the tale.

A couple of other criticisms: the ability of the Germans to secretly put an army of 250,000 men ashore with apparent ease seems far-fetched, and very little is said about the Royal Navy, whose primary task it was to block any invasion. There is just a brief mention at the start that the RN had suffered a major defeat (plus a description of how warships were trapped at Chatham by German blockships) and, close to the finish of the story, that the navy had managed to regain control of the sea following a major victory. Conversely, and presumably reflecting the personal interests of the author, there is a great deal said about the impact of events on the stock market and banking services!

This is a much longer book than Dorking but, in providing both a wider canvas and more detail, Invaded lacks the immediacy and emotional impact of the earlier first-person account. This is despite the apparently endless catalogue of destruction and slaughter, with little of note in London left standing. Dorking also at least provides some explanation of the failure of the RN to stop the invasion, so all told it is the better story.

When William Came, subtitled A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, is a very different story, a novella written in 1913 by one of the most perceptive satirists of the day: H. H. Munro, better known by his pen name of Saki. The starting point in this story is that Britain has been invaded and defeated by Germany, which is in the process of assimilating its conquest as part of the German Empire. Little is said about how this was achieved (other than reference to Germany's very powerful new air force), the focus being on the reactions of British (and specifically London) society to this state of affairs.

The two principal characters are a wealthy young couple with different attitudes to the invasion: he is violently antagonistic, she is more accepting of the situation, but views change over time. The joy in this story is the sharp observation of the author; this provides an often sardonic insight into the attitudes and thinking of the period, as well as presaging the dilemmas which lead some of the inhabitants of an occupied country to collaborate with the occupiers. His motive in writing this story was to argue for conscription into the military, in order to build up a large reserve of people with some knowledge of shooting and soldiering, ready and able to take up arms for the defence of the nation. He is a little more subtle than most of the authors here, however, driving the point home by having his Kaiser decide that British men would not be allowed to enlist in the armed forces of the German Empire, as they had shown no interest in or aptitude for soldiering, and they would therefore have to pay much heavier taxes instead!

Saki lived and died by his principles, enlisting as an ordinary soldier on the outbreak of WW1 despite the fact he was eligible for a commission and was over the enlistment age anyway. He was killed by a German sniper in 1916.

Danger by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (subtitled: Being the Log of Captain John Sirius), is a short story which takes yet another approach. This story is told by the captain of a submarine belonging to the navy of a fictitious small country in northern Europe, which finds itself at war with Britain. The use of a small force of submarines to blockade British ports and sink any vessels from any nation carrying goods to the UK rapidly results in food shortages since the UK relied (and still relies) on imported food to survive. With people starving, the UK is forced to sue for peace after only a few weeks.

Considering the story was written in 1913, it is remarkably prescient in presaging the unrestricted submarine warfare used by Germany against the UK in both World Wars, and which in both cases came close to success. Conan Doyle's purpose in writing the story was, for once, not concerned with pressing for more expenditure on armaments, but on measures which should be taken to reduce the country's vulnerability to blockade: more domestic food production, more strategic food stores and, interestingly, railway tunnels under the Channel to ensure blockade-proof supply routes (not that that would have helped in either World War, with the enemy at the other end of the tunnel).

To conclude, Wiki asserts that "the [invasion literature] genre was influential in Britain in shaping politics, national policies, and popular perceptions in the years leading up to the First World War" but it was criticised at the time as it "risked inciting war between England and Germany and France".