Neon Yang’s The Genesis of Misery is an intriguing and twisty space opera. Yang is a nonbinary speculative fiction writer from Singapore.
The book is apparently the first volume of a trilogy, the idea behind which Yang has described on twitter as “Joan of Arc, BUT GUNDAM”. That is a pretty accurate characterization. We have a galactic empire, with travel between star systems provided by wormholes. But it all has a basis that seems more religious than scientific — in this way, the novel tends more towards what is sometimes called “science fantasy” than towards “hard” science fiction.
The novel’s backstory is that, centuries ago, when human beings first explored interstellar space, they became mentally and physically ill as a result of contact with, or contamination by, what they call the “nullvoid”, which seems to be something like the “quantum foam” or “dark energy” of spacetime itself. The nullvoid first foments madness, and then causes physical deterioration. The first human beings to explore interstellar space were also betrayed by their spaceship’s AI. which (HAL-like) sought to pursue the mission by killing all the human beings conducting it.
But the human explorers were saved by the intervention of some apparently godlike agency called the Larex Forge or the Demiurge. The survivors of the mission, now remembered as “Saints”, or as the eight Messiahs, were blessed by dream visions, which taught them how to manipulate certain materials known as “holy” stones to fend off the nullvoid. The various types of holy stones now run nearly all human technology; AIs of any sort are banned. The result is a despotic galactic empire dominated by the two (secretly conflicting, or jockeying for power against one another) authorites of Church and State. There are also enemies, known to the Faithful as Heretics, who deny the divine and seek to find scientific explanations for all these phenomena (and also seem to be less phobic about AI). The Faithful and the Heretics are engaged in a perpetual war.
As for the spaceships — or at least the space warships — in the novel, they are all more or less giant mecha (hence the Gundam premise). The are described, at least on the Faithful side of the confilct, as “seraphs” or “archangels.” A pilot is ensconced in a ship, and binds with it so that they feel like the the ship’s limbs are extensions of their own (except they often have six or eight limbs instead of four). Space battles (of which there are a good number in the course of the novel) are an odd sort of physical combat. Nothing happens at a distance. Instead, the mecha ships grapple with one another, their limbs physically bashing and trying to cut into one another. Not having been a gundam/mecha fan in my childhood, I am not really sure about the emotional resonances of all this; I am sure there are aspects of it that I am not catching. But the space battles are described grippingly enough that it still works for me without this extra layer of understanding.
The novel’s protagonist is a young woman named Misery Nomaki, presumably the novel’s Joan of Arc analogue. I love the twist of having her first name be “Misery”. She’s a young queer woman from a mining colony moon in some distant star system. She starts hearing voices and hallucinating apparitions that claim to be divine, and that prophesy her status as the next Messiah. She also has the power of being able to manipulate, with her mind, all the “holy” stones on which the civilization runs. Initially, Misery is really punk in sensibility. She’s been screwed over by everyone, and she hates it. She comes to the capital of the Empire, cynically determined to use her special abilities to get ahead. She assumes that her hallucinations and powers are a fraud, the result of nullvoid contamination; this means that her life will not be long, but in the meantime she hopes to do as much as she can.
In the course of the novel, however, Misery has a conversion experience. She has a mystical vision of union with the cosmos, and as a result comes to believe that all the things she has cynically pretended to be are in fact literally true. She is now confident that she actually is the Ninth Messiah, called by the Larex Forge to liberate the Empire from the destructive threats of the nullvoid and of the Heretics. United with her archangel mecha, she thinks she is invulnerable and can win every space battle. She and her lover Lightning (the ferocious sister, and bitter opponent, of the current Emperor) resolve to save the world (or worlds) together.
And this is where questions of narration come into play. Misery’s story is told in the third person, but very vividly, in the present tense, and with the narrator closely identifying with Misery and expressing her inner feeelings. (There are short sections called Interludes, narrated more objectively, and containing information that Misery doesn’t necessarily know; but these constitute less than 5% of the text). The narrator is themself a character in the narrative, however, as is revealed in a Prologue and Epilogue framing the main story. To avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal who the narrator is, though this does prove consequential for the narrative as a whole).
When Misery has her conversion experience, the content of her thoughts changes, but the style of narration does not. So, as we move from Misery’s punk cynicism to her absolute militant fervor, we are inclined to still give her the credit that we did from the beginning. We are strongly seduced into completely identifying with Misery’s zealotry; but at the same time, I also started to feel an uncomfortable, nagging sense of doubt. Things just don’t feel quite right. Indeed, Misery herself starts at some point to feel that things aren’t quite right — albeit for different reasons than the reader feels this. Misery never doubts her religious certainty, but she begins to doubt to what extent the universe really conforms to that certainty. I cannot be more specific about this without recounting the ending of the novel in detail; there’s a surprising shift of perspective there that puts a new light on everything — but that I remain uncertain about, and that will only be resolved one way or the other by the succeeding volumes of this trilogy. The official publicity for the book states that the trilogy as a whole is “a story about the nature of truth, the power of belief, and the interplay of both in the stories we tell ourselves.” This self-reflexivity is entirely merited in the current volume, since the novel both solicits our belief in the protagonist and in her beliefs, and yet steps back and makes us question that at the same time.
I will end with some more general points. The Genesis of Misery — like a lot of recent speculative fiction — presents a world, or a cosmos, in which queerness is taken for granted and not stigmatized. A good number of the characters are (by our early-21st-century standards) queer or trans in one way or another, but (unlike today) this is entirely normal or expected within the world of the diegesis. I am inclined to see this as a kind of utopian element; however these novelistic worlds are messed up and oppressive in all sorts of ways, gender identity and sexual orientation are not parts of the problem. Writing speculative fiction in this way does two (seemingly incompatible) things at once. On the one hand, it gives readers plenty of opportunities for identification, rather than demanding default identification with a white, cis, heterosexual protagonist as older genre fiction all too often tended to do. At the same time, and on the other hand, struggles for gender equity and sexual equality are not in any way the focus of these novels, because the struggles have already been resolved, and in an entirely liberatory way; this leaves the author free to both be affirmatively queer, trans, or non-binary, and yet at the same time to address all sorts of other issues as well.
This leads me to larger questions as well. My friend Jason Read wrote on Twitter, just this morning, that: “The cultural domination of fantasy over science fiction that we are currently living through just seems to be symptomatic of the broader turn towards fascism.” He is especially thinking, I suppose of current television blockbusters like the prequels to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. I am inclined to agree with Jason for the most part: it just seems reactionary to me that so many speculative fiction works focus on Kings and Emperors, rather than on bureaucracies and spy systems, as both forces of oppression and ideals. I will always prefer science fictional approaches. But at the same time, this domination of fantasy over science fiction in recent years does not just apply to hegemonic media, but also to written speculative fiction by so many queer, trans, and nonbinary authors, and to many nonwhite authors as well. I am not sure what to make of this. I do not accept the explanation that this simply means the rejection of dominant Eurocentric instrumental reason in favor of older and non-Western ‘ways of knowing.’ But I do not have a good counter-theory, either. The Genesis of Misery deals to a certain extent very thoughtfully and self-reflexively, but my questions remain.