Flash review: Counting Casualties by Yoon Ha Lee

A space opera encompassing a galactic war, numerous planets and cultures destroyed, and a journey that takes several years, in a package of less than 5000 words. Yoon Ha Lee continues with her trend of creating enormous worlds, which are all but obscure to her readers. However, unlike Ninefox Gambit, the size of this story does not allow for concepts to get out of hand, and the audience will always know what they are dealing with.

The civilized galaxy is at war with the Deaders, who with their fleet of deadships decimate planets and erase their cultural heritage. Nobody knows how they do that, but even physical artifacts pertaining to the planet’s erased cultural highpoints get destroyed, all over the universe. It’s a mystery why they do that, as they ignore all attempts at communication.

Commander Niaja vrau Erezeng commands a fleet, tasked with stopping a vastly superior Deader force that is on route to attack her empire’s central planets. On the brink of defeat, Niaja stops all fighting and orders all weapons to be powered down. For the first time, the Deaders don’t proceed, and instead escort her fleet to their point of origin, where the fleet may just find the reason for this senseless war.

I only read Lee’s Ninefox Gambit before, and I didn’t like it. I thought the concepts were too complex and too poorly explained. I likened the book to the description of a complicated board game without the benefit of a player manual. In this short story, the author actually describes the space battles as an overly complicated board game, with too many random events to make sense of it. This did not explain the actual battle to me, but it left me more satisfied than reading pages of invented language, pretending to be battle descriptions.

Other language choices of Counting Casualties were also improved upon Lee’s novel. There are very few technical elements, so they are easily discernible by the reader. For example, she calls the warships’ A.I. “faces”, but the reader very quickly realizes that it means the same. Whatever is not explained remains explicitly so: Lee often mentions that her protagonist doesn’t know one thing or another. In this way, all pretense is gone, and the reader is left with a barebones story, yet atmospheric enough to enjoy.

The story itself seems to be an amalgamation of popular culture elements, or perhaps I’ve been just projecting. The Deaders reminded me strongly of the Necromongers from Chronicles of Riddick. I pictured their base as the torus from Alastair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice. The space storm is akin to many such events in multiple Star Trek episodes and the show’s knockoffs, even though I think I caught a whiff of Vernor Vinge’s zones of thought concept. It was clear that Lee focused on set pieces (and still enjoyed describing the aftermaths of battles more than the action itself) than a strong storyline. Even though the action took multiple years, not counting the aftermath, only two paragraphs dealt with it, with a few more scenes dedicated to planning.

I didn’t mind the lack of action. In fact, it was a nice change to have a story about a galactic war ignore the actual war-making so much. The story features some attractive set pieces, which feel familiar, yet leave enough to imagination. The prose is flowing really well, thanks to concepts that should be familiar to the reader, and at under 5000 words, it can be finished in a matter of minutes. It may leave some interesting afterimages for longer than it takes to read it.

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