Review: Revenant Gun

I voted for Revenant Gun to win the Hugo Best Novel, so don’t expect any sort of balance from this post.

It’s the third book in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, a space opera set in the Hexarchate, an empire whose authoritarian leaders maintain power by enforcing a calendar based on the ritual torture of heretics (read: anyone who refuses to conform or comply). The Hexarchate is in crisis thanks to the actions, in books one and two, of military captain Cheris, host to the resurrected mind of mass murderer and brilliant strategist Shuos Jedao.

In Revenant Gun, Cheris is on a secret mission to recover information about the nastiest of the hexarchs (the six leaders of the Hexarchate), Nirai Kujen. (This involves enlisting the help of a small robot who makes fanvids in its spare time.) Meanwhile, one of the leaders of the resistance, General Brezan, struggles with politics; and Nirai Kujen wakes up a seventeen-year-old amnesiac clone of Jedao to lead the Hexarchate’s forces into battle against the rebels. It’s a little confusing initially, but it’s a book that rewards attention; I think so, anyway.

Why was it my pick for the Hugo? To me, it was simply the most ambitious novel on the ballot, the one that was doing the most work to think transformatively about human society. The world of Machineries of Empire is a far-future one, and it shows: Hexarchate life looks very different from life in the West today. (It’s just occurred to me that this might partly be down to my personal unfamiliarity with Korean culture: I can’t say if the Hexarchate would be more immediately legible to someone more familiar with those inflections.) A small but important part of this – one I also touched on in my review of the preceding book, Raven Stratagem – is the fact that queerness is woven into the Hexarchate’s very structure. Polygamy (i.e. multiple adults of any gender entering into marriage contracts and living as a family unit) is the norm. Most characters are bi or gay. General Brezan is trans.

I’m not saying the text goes into any great detail about family dynamics (it’s more interested in politicking and in the inequalities of power inherent in romantic attraction), but to me it’s immensely valuable that this fictional society is both intensely dystopic and very queer-friendly, and those two things are separate from each other. Like, stories about resistance don’t also have to be stories about queer tragedy? And that’s awesome.

It’s also a novel that’s interested in cross-species cooperation: not only the robot “servitors” Cheris allies with (and into whose society and motivations we get an insight), but also the alien minds powering the Hexarchate’s organic spaceships – minds whose existence nobody seems to acknowledge. Both of these types of consciousness give us a new perspective on the universe, layering Lee’s world, asking us to reflect further on how every outcome of the conflict in the Hexarchate will affect someone in a way the decision-makers didn’t really intend. The main politicking narrative does this too – every choice the rebels make is a bad one for someone. The real work of resistance is a lot harder than I think any of the other Hugo nominees let on; it involves compromise from all sides.

With that in mind, and to tap into an idea that I’ve been thinking about since Worldcon: is Revenant Gun hopepunk? Despite the ritual torture and government-sanctioned genocide that stalks the text, I want to say yes. In this novel, kindness and respect for other thinking minds are active, political choices; not in the sense that they’re cynical moves made to gain more power or influence, but in the sense that they are not easy things to practice, they often come with costs, and yet these characters keep making those choices, in the hope of building a better world.

That better world is not assured by the end of the trilogy, but we feel at least that we are one (contingent, uncertain!) step closer to it. There is yet more work to do – but for Lee and his characters, doing the work, making the impossible choices, is better than the alternative.

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