There is an event—or, perhaps more accurately, a character decision—that occurs near the end of Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire that cemented it as my favorite speculative fiction trilogy of the 2010s. Without giving too much away, it has to do with the way consent works within hierarchical societies. It’s handled with a seriousness that the series never shies away from but hasn’t up to that point put itself in position to interrogate on an interpersonal level. Machineries of Empire is, in general, concerned with big things: revolutions, calendars, military strategy, bodies and identity, and the like. This event is a big thing in a different register.
When I mention the big speculative fiction trilogies of the 2010s, I am thinking of work like Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch (the technocratic liberalism of which left me underwhelmed), N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth (beautifully considered and incredibly astute on violence, from interpersonal to generational), and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti (an incredibly evocative world that stays smartly focused on characters). Coming to each of these after Lee’s Machineries of Empire, I wanted to judge them on their own merits (and I think I ultimately have been able to), but found myself constantly referencing the Hexarchate in the same way that I find it hard to read cyberpunk without Neuromancer (1984) or Islands in the Net (1988) coming to mind.
I offer these observations to hopefully help you triangulate your opinion against my own. Because it might be obvious that I am inclined to think that Hexarchate Stories would be worth a reader’s time, if only because it expands upon and lends nuance to what seems to me to be some of the most important speculative fiction of the last decade. Whether or not it stands up to the weight and import of the trilogy, the stories are bound to be instructional in their own way.
Being entirely honest, I don’t think these stories hold up to the trilogy. I do think they’re worth a sympathetic reader’s time—especially one who is interested in the history of Shuos Jedao, the undying arch-traitor and centuries-old revolutionary mastermind around whom so much of the trilogy revolves. Hexarchate Stories feels, at times, like a journal secreted away, telling stories of Jedao’s childhood—being bullied, his first years in the academy, joining the ranks of the spies and assassins of the Shuos, his predilections when visiting sex workers, moments with his college lover fishing for squirrels.
"Gloves," the story about Jedao visiting a sex worker, is one of three stories original to Hexarchate Stories and is fairly indicative. It runs about 2,000 words, mostly fleshes out the psychological profile of Jedao, and has light implications for the world at large. It’s a little more intense than the description might lead you to believe, and it is more sensitive to the implications of its subject matter than you might expect of another story with the same description. Taking it in light of the aforementioned event, though, turns it from an interesting bit of light erotica into a charged, impossibly wrinkled meditation on identity and memory and how they transmit, as well as how the structural trauma of the organization of military societies plays out in private affairs.
That intersection of societal trauma with the wider trilogy’s treatment of consent are returned to extensively in "Glass Cannon," a novella original to the collection and probably the main reason a reader would be interested in buying it. But we can return to that story shortly.
The third original contained in Hexarchate Stories is "Silence," another that feels a bit like it was torn out of a lost Jedao journal—except that it is told in the first person, from the perspective of Jedao's older brother, on the occasion of a relatively early visit home from Jedao. The collection is full of these kinds of things; stories of characters we barely meet or hear of only vaguely in the original trilogy, written from a variety of perspectives and in a range of voices (including one written in the second person). Like so much else in the collection, “Silence” is on its surface an exceptionally readable bit of ephemera. With the context of the whole in mind, however, it offers itself as a meditation on the fractured self and how it came to occupy the position it did in the trilogy—and therefore how being a self without a subject reflects on the microstructures of society.
Of the previously published stories, the majority appeared originally on the author's Dreamwidth blog. They are fairly easily found by way of a search engine. Their benefit in being collected here is context; their detriment is that it makes the collection often feel Jedao-heavy or tangential. But the most substantial of them—the collection opener, "The Chameleon's Gloves," and the oldest entry, 2012's "The Battle of Candle Arc"—each provide reflections on some of the central themes of the world.
Also present is the theme that drew me to Yoon Ha Lee's work back around the publication of Conservation of Shadows (2013), his first short story collection and an exceptional work in its own right: the question of language, or more properly signification, and its material effects. In that collection, ink was capable of fighting back.
Unlike most fiction that glorifies the possibilities of language, however, Yoon Ha Lee always seemed less interested in justifying his craft and more with exploring signification, whether in the form of language, math, art, or military formations. And instead of exploring it in the same broad humanist bromides that are so worked over in literary fiction ("stories can change our minds which can change the world!"), he has consistently explored the ways in which they affect the world. Speech acts, as the philosophers and linguists (used to) say. And Yoon Ha Lee might be unparalleled in the genre space as someone who writes speech that acts.
A representative example, from "The Chameleon's Gloves":
Rhehan triggered the mask into Kavarion’s own visage and smiled Kavarion’s own smile at Anaz, counting on the reflexive Kel deference to rank. The gesture provoked enough of a hesitation that Rhehan could pull out their own sidearm and put a bullet in the side of her neck. They’d been aiming for her head; no such luck.
Contained in this bit of action is the whole length and breadth of a society. The Kel, whose entire society is structured around the military, select for individuals who defer to rank and, because of that, are able to produce effects on space and time and in war that no one else can. They enhance that selection as well, of course. All of this societal structure is boiled down into a simple interaction, providing a believable split-second of pause that can be capitalized on.
In this moment, the regular reference to "Kel jokes" throughout Machineries of Empire and Hexarchate Stories makes sense; they are, like all jokes based on stereotypes, ways of codifying social interactions and transmitting them across cultures (regardless of individual accuracy) with the ultimate goal of both producing a structure of intercultural exchange and reducing their butts to a position of potential subjugation. They are speech (or signification) acts, opening up space for guns to end the conversation.
The representative example from "The Battle of Candle Arc" leads us back into the themes that "Glass Cannon" addresses:
Jedao had served with Kel who would have understood why he had balked [at turning over an enemy officer to be tortured]. A few of them would have shot him if he had turned over an enemy officer, even a heretic, for torture. But as he advanced in rank, he found fewer and fewer such Kel. One of the consequences of living in a police state.
I read Machineries of Empire more or less as it was released, often in audiobook form. So forgive me if I'm not strictly accurate when I say that, despite Yoon Ha Lee's ability to be unflinching in the face of truly difficult subject matter, I believe this line from (at the time of this collection's publication) a seven-year-old story is the most direct acknowledgment of how Kel society maps onto our own understanding of societal structures. It is a perpetual police state, in which Lee finds (and explores) the deviations and exceptions that make a good story without sacrificing the realities of oppression.
"Glass Cannon" takes place two years after the end of Revenant Gun (2018), the third and final book in Machineries of Empire. At this point it is difficult to talk about it without spoiling some aspects of the trilogy, so consider this your warning.
In the story, the moth-derived embodiment of Jedao escapes from Shuos hexarch Mikodez's imprisonment and searches out Kel Cheris, living under an assumed identity in a Mwennin town. Cheris still harbors the original Jedao's memories, and this other Jedao wants them in order to feel whole. Cheris relishes the opportunity to be rid of her shadow, and knows there to be a way to do it. Together, they set off to become whole, singular selves. I hope it is not too much to say that the novella contains the line, about four-fifths of the way through, "Cheris realized that the complications had only begun."
“Glass Cannon” itself is an enjoyable romp, a heist with compelling action scenes and twists that reflect back on the state of the world in intelligent, interesting ways. It is the introspection that happens along the way, though, that I think makes it a must-read for anyone interested in the trilogy.
That event I mentioned at the beginning of this review comes up a number of times; in the story's words: "Sometimes Jedao caught himself daydreaming that he’d find Ruo, and—and what? He was already a rapist; Dhanneth had committed suicide to drive that point home." Dhanneth, being Jedao's direct report, could not deny Jedao's advances due to the Kel's societal structure. He is literally unable to even say no.
This does not lessen the trauma and pain even as it erases the possibility of it being expressed, at least temporarily. Language and signification again have material effects, as well as causes that derive from the social; in this instance, though, those effects are to put certain actions under erasure.
As "Gloves" makes clear, that which society suppresses gets released in different ways. For the original Jedao, this meant a uniform fetish. For the moth-derived Jedao, it meant letting that fetish slip out of the safe space of a brothel and into the place where it became capable of doing the most harm, as he repeatedly raped a subordinate. These actions are given no sympathy (aside from the fact that Lee didn't, for instance, immediately off the character and even allows him to star in a heist novella), but neither are they stripped of context and abstractly condemned. Jedao is a monster who murdered his own crew, a rapist, a revolutionary driven by revenge, a military commander who knows that "[W]ar is about people ... [e]ven when you’re killing them."
He is also a mind locked up in solitary confinement for four centuries, the shadow of anchors used for military or sexual purposes, a genetically engineered moth (the beings that power spaceships in this universe), an incomplete facsimile of himself, and shards of carrion glass memories floating around in Cheris' body. None of which really feels all that complicated when you're reading it.
“Glass Cannon,” like much of Yoon Ha Lee’s fiction, is at its best when it breathes for a second between set-piece action and plot advancement—when Jedao is made to confront what he has done, or when Cheris experiences herself as someone else and can shed some light on that particular kind of science fictional dissociation. And like Lee’s best writing, it is best here not because the rest is lacking, but because the considerations feel fully human, in the way that humans are always both themselves and products of their society.
Hexarchate Stories is a strange book. It often feels insubstantial, light, and tangential. It also feels fun and exciting. In retrospect, however, it is in many ways as dense and rich as the world it takes place in, building off the Machineries of Empire novels. Which lends it a place, to my mind, as a worthwhile supplement to one of the best speculative fiction trilogies of the 2010s.
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