In Short: Two Stories in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire Universe

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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June 8, 2017

After finishing Ninefox Gambit, I was delighted to find out that there were a couple of short stories also set in that universe–both featuring a not-undead Shuos Jedao: “The Battle of Candle Arc” and “Extracurricular Activities”.

“Extracurricular Activities” (Tor.com)

Or: in which Shuos Jedao goes undercover and it’s awesome.

While this story happens well before the events of Ninefox Gambit, I don’t think it should be read before the novel, as it sheds a good deal of light on Jedao’s motivations.

Set at the beginning of Shuos Jedao’s military career, the story opens with his discovery of a case of goose fat from his mother. How she figured out where his new classified posting was is a mystery, but instead of lingering on that, he is almost immediately sent undercover to retrieve a classmate from a neighboring territory where they’ve been taken captive. So it’s basically a road trip and then a caper story and I am here for the Continuing Adventures of Shuos Jedao because he is one hell of a compelling character.

I found a lot of things to like about this story: the look into another state where they apparently use a mechanism other than a calendar to fix their reality (it does seem to still be religious in nature), the glimpses we get of Jedao’s days at the military academy and the tragedy that sets the entire narrative arc in motion, and Jedao as a human being, one with feelings and desires like anyone else. And the whole bit with his hair and all the people giving him the stink-eye was pretty great, too.

This story makes it clear to the reader that this is a fully realized setting, with more than planets of hats and weird religious math–there are people who live ordinary lives and there are pirates and people have relationships with each other, even when everything is not quite what it seems.

“The Battle of Candle Arc” (Clarkesworld)

“The Battle of Candle Arc” takes place a bit later than “Extracurricular Activities”, as Jedao is now a General and is recovering from an assassination attempt while also trying to win an excessively lopsided battle.

The story opens with Jedao attempting to meditate on a day of remembrance with a concussion, which is about as challenging as you’d think it is; however Jedao’s wandering mind also allows the reader to be clued in to some of the mechanisms of the universe. There’s also insight into the horrific ways that the heptarchate keeps the calendar stable–to power their exotic technologies–and the faction that holds that responsibility.

I really liked the way that this story didn’t flinch from exactly what these remembrances are commemorating and the human pain required to fix the calendar in place.  The heptarchate–later the hexarchate–is a world that runs on torture for the sake of  fancy weapons and faster than light travel. Shuos Jedao isn’t okay with this and this story also sheds light on Jedao’s motivations for his later actions in both the battle that sent him into hundreds of years of undeath, as well as those in Ninefox Gambit.

And after reading both these stories, and after reading Ninefox Gambit, I have become convinced that Shuos Jedao isn’t nearly as insane as Kel Command has been telling everyone that he is. It’s the system that’s not sane–it inflicts pain and suffering for offenses classified as heresy: from as benign as wanting to honor ancestors, to leading a rebellion, and to wanting democracy–they’re the same in the eyes of the police state that Jedao lives in. No wonder he wants to destroy it.

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