2017’s Raven Stratagem is the second novel in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series. The first novel in the series, Ninefox Gambit, was reviewed here. Readers are well advised to read Ninefox Gambit before reading Raven Stratagem.
The Hexarchate is far too sensible to rely on the obedience of soldiers with free will. Instead, every soldier of the Kel has no choice in the matter, thanks to formation instinct conditioning. To see a superior officer is to be compelled to obey them. It’s a system designed to make mutiny impossible. For the person wearing senior officer Cheris’ body, it means that taking control of the Swanknot shipswarm is merely a matter of establishing that they are the undead General Shuos Jedao. Once they believe they are confronted with a general with three centuries of seniority, the hapless soldiers have no choice but to obey.
By the time the Hexarchate’s rulers discover what Jedao has done, he and his little fleet are long gone.
The system isn’t perfect. A minority of the soldiers are crashhawks, who are immune to Kel conditioning. Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan is (to his own horror) one such. His attempt to stop Jedao from hijacking the Swanknot shipswarm fails, but he never stops trying to relay info to the Hexarchate. Alas for poor Brezan, not only are there layers of obstructive bureaucrats between him and the people he needs to reach, but … the Hexarchate didn’t get where it is by trusting people who risk their lives to serve it out of mere free will. One standard treatment for self-confessed crashhawks is prophylactic execution.
Luckily for Brezan, his superiors spare him. But only because they plan to send him out to deal with Jedao. Even if he succeeds, there is every chance his reward will be a swift death (for the crimes of competence and autonomy).
Oddly enough, Jedao’s rebellion takes him out to challenge the Hexarchate’s bitter enemies, the Hafn. You think that the Hexarchate would be willing to forgive and forget. Nah. They try to kill Jedao and everyone he has contaminated with rebellion. While they are at it, they plan to exterminate an entire ethnic group as well (the Mwenning, Cheris’ group). That should teach her not to be possessed by undead generals.
But the Hexarchate is right to be suspicious. Jedao’s campaign against the Hafn is an element in an epic act of prestidigitation … but what grand scheme does this slight of hand serve?
Readers may notice parallels between this series and Legends of Galactic Heroes. That’s because the Empire in LGH was modelled on Prussian history, while the Hexarchate was modelled on Korea’s Joseon dynasty. Both polities were rigid, autocratic, and cruel … though I would argue that the Joseon dynasty (and thus the Hexarchate) would edge out the Prussians for the Nasty Empire prize.
Though the Hexarchate does have an excuse that the Joseon didn’t. Their technology depends on belief: the shared worldview of the mass of their subjects. Conformity is crucial; without it, technology fails. When competing worldviews (known as “calendars”) overlap, chaos and technological collapse ensue. Every faction in the Hexarchate has good reason to force their worldview on as many people as possible, thus making possible some powerful tech1.
Of course, the Hexarchate also engages in cruelty pour encourager les autres. The Mwenning genocide serves no real purpose except to demonstrate the state’s willingness to unleash monumental cruelty at the smallest provocation. Not everyone can be brainwashed into formation instinct, but everyone can know fear. It’s a fearsome logic encountered across human history, from GermanSchrecklichkeit to American Shock and Awe to Japan’s Sankō Sakusen.
The Hafn, BTW, aren’t any better. Their tech is powered by the hearts of forsaken children.
This does not seem like a setting that would allow of any hope. Do you want to be trampled by the boots of the Hexarchate or the boots of the Hafn? Scylla and Charybdis. But there is hope, because the rulers have settled on one stupid strategy (everything is a nail that needs a hammer) and are blind to any alternatives. Any resistance will be able to dance rings around them.
Yoon Ha Lee’s characters are not mere automatons, defined by their conditioning and culture. Perhaps they will die heroically, brought down by overwhelming force. Perhaps they will defeat the autocrats and be left with the enormous task of reform. Perhaps the Hafn will smash Hexarchate and resistance alike.
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I was reminded of the long-term influence of legacy computer code. Design choices that made sense early in the history of a code lineage can constrain available choices down the road. Constitutional law ditto.
“If they’re like us,” Khiruev said, “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.”