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Slack Your Rope Hangman


By Fonda Lee 

26 Sep, 2017

Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn't Suck


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Fonda Lee’s 2017 Exo is a standalone young-adult SF adventure novel. (No, this is not a review of Steven Gould’s Exo, even if my editor wishes it were.)

Earth is a colony of the Mur Commonwealth, a colony protected by its benevolent zhree overlords from their rapacious Rii cousins. Most humans, secure in their placid second-class existence, regard the brutal resistance that first met the zhree as a regrettable mistake. For the insurgents of the Sapience, the resistance is an inspiration.

Teenager Donovan Reyes is a loyal soldier for the zhree: an elite soldier, hardened with alien biotechnology. Donovan and those like him are charged with maintaining the peace in West America. His enhancements provide Donovan and his comrades with the durability, speed, and lethality required to protect the squishies,” as the soldiers deem the unenhanced humans, from their own worst impulses.

A moment of poor judgment lets the insurgents capture Donovan. Sapience’s policy is to brutally murder any soldiers they capture, pour encourager les autres. Donovan’s prospects are dim — or they would be if not for the fact that in addition to being a willing ally of the zhree, he is also the only son of West America’s Prime Liaison Reyes. Donovan has considerable hostage value.

The Reyes government does not negotiate with terrorists. 

Keeping the Liaison’s son hostage is a risky move. The government is highly motivated to recover Donovan, alive or dead. Better to simply shoot Donovan to show that even the Liaison’s son is not immune to Sapience fury. There are two arguments against this. Firstly, and least compellingly, young Anya believes off-handed brutality is wrong. Since she’s a new recruit, she is unlikely to sway anyone who matters. Secondly, and far more importantly, Donovan is not just the Prime Liaison’s son. He is also the son of the mysterious Max, the foremost Sapience propagandist. Max is important enough to the cause that it will spare her son — at least for the moment. 

The moment lasts long enough for Stockholm Syndrome to begin to set in. It also lasts long enough for SecPol to find the hidden base where Donovan is being held. Some insurgents manage to flee from the swarming soldiers. Donovan is among them. Other rebels are killed; still others, like Max, are captured for trial, inevitable conviction, and swift public disintegration.

Donovan does not support his mother’s politics. Not only does he know that the zhree are not monsters, as his mother believes they are; he is aware that driving out the Commonwealth would only result in an immediate invasion by the Rii. Still, he does not want his mother to die. Determined to save his mother, Donovan puts in motion an ambitious scheme to set her free.

It’s a plan whose results will be personally tragic for Donovan and potentially calamitous for all Earth.


I would be a bit surprised if Lee had ever read John Christopher’s Tripods books, but it is interesting to read this almost immediately after the Tripods trilogy. Once again, dumb luck is on my side.

The senior zhree (who rarely come to Earth and who, being long lived, remember what humans were like a century ago) are overtly bigoted towards humans, whom they see as little better than animals. The zhree who live with humans regard them with affectionate condescension, casually tweaking soldiers’ brain chemistry so that they will be more reliably loyal to the zhree. It’s true that everyone who submits to the process is a volunteer, but it’s also true that the only way to get ahead on Earth is to submit to the zhree. 

As colonial invaders go, the Commonwealth zhree are not a bad lot. It’s true that they don’t have much time for human civil liberties, but, unlike the Masters, the Commonwealth has no plans to wipe out the entire terrestrial biosphere. Compared to some human colonists, the zhree are comparatively benign. Unlike the British Raj in India, zhree rule does not mean centuries of economic stagnation and recurring famine. Unlike the rulers of the Congo Free State, the zhree have not adopted severed human hands as currency1.

Lee may have over-egged her pudding with her depiction of the Rii. Rii see worlds as resources to be used up. Human independence would only mean almost immediate death at the claspers of the Rii. 

Lee is Canadian, so her views may be influenced in part by the history of the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions, in the 1830s. Premature independence from Britain would have left the Canadas vulnerable to conquest by the slaveholding nation to their south, a development too horrifying to consider2.

The lesson that Donovan learns in this coming of age novel is that you cannot serve two masters, at least not if those masters have incompatible goals. There’s no way to work towards higher status for humans within the Commonwealth and total Terrestrial independence outside it; the zhree are unlikely to be keen on some sort of sovereignty-association” nonsense3. Donovan’s first attempt to keep his father happy and his mother alive has horrifying consequences. The only thing keeping him out of the disintegration chamber at book’s end is that nobody in SecPol knows what he did. He has the chance to make amends. Whether he will succeed is unclear. 

Zeroboxing ended on a very similar ambivalent note; I am waiting to see if Lee’s Jade City will continue this trend. Thus far, Lee has not written sequels to any of her books. Do tell us, author, how zhree-human relations play out!

Exo is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: The zhree also seem to be considerably more humane in their treatment of humans than Canadians are of First Nations persons. Not a high bar, given that our standard methods are one part brutal oppression to one part empty negotiation.

2: At least the Canadians would have been dealing with the hapless Martin Van Ruin and not his immediate predecessor, the genocidal Andrew Jackson.

3: Sovereignty-association is a hilariously stupid notion put forth by Quebec nationalists; they would get all the benefits of independence and all the benefits of being part of Canada. It was never clear why they thought the rest of Canada would play along. It was essentially le Brexit. However, there were never enough deluded fools in Quebec for the proposal to carry the day. Would that UK Leavers had been as sparse.