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Interview: Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee is a writer and mathematician from Houston, Texas, whose work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and The Magazine Of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He has published over forty short stories, and his critically acclaimed collection, Conservation of Shadows, was released in 2013. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.

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The Machineries of Empire series is your very first. Tell us what the experience has been like writing Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem.

Kind of a rollercoaster! I almost quit so many times when I was originally writing the first book, Ninefox Gambit. I have bipolar disorder and struggle a lot with depression, and I often questioned whether it was worth sinking the time into writing a novel as opposed to more short stories. I knew by then that I could sell short stories. I had no guarantee that I could write a novel that made any sense. Raven Stratagem went more easily, in the sense that I had one completed novel behind me, even if it hadn’t yet sold at the time, and I was eager to tackle its plot.

The original impetus for creating the world of these novels was wanting to tackle a big space opera plot with more room for characterization than I typically got in a short story. It was hard at first: I’m not used to spending so long in the same world, and at times it felt claustrophobic. On the other hand, after a certain point it was nice to be working in a familiar setting, rather than having to create everything from scratch like I do with short stories!

When did you notice or feel you had honed your voice? Was it before or after you made short story and poetry sales?

I think it developed during the process of learning to write. Early on, I aimed for a very clear, very transparent style in imitation of writers like Piers Anthony. Then I discovered Patricia McKillip and Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny, and they blew my head open in terms of how language can be used. Part of it was also subject matter. After reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game for the first time, I realized that what I wanted to write about, most of all, was military ethics. That was sometime in high school, and my writing shaped itself accordingly after that.

How has the overall reaction to Ninefox Gambit been from readers?

Very bimodal! From what I can tell, most people either love it or hate it. There were some narrative decisions I made that I knew would not be popular with some readers. For example, because the two main characters, Cheris and Jedao, are making command decisions from the very top, I chose to use throwaway viewpoint characters to depict the “boots on the ground” perspective and show the consequences of decisions that are abstract from a general’s perspective. Some readers really like to tunnel into a smaller number of characters and get close to them, and I knew that I would be losing people who like to read that way. For another, I used minimal exposition. I remember really enjoying C.J. Cherryh’s Faded Sun books because they’re told in a similar way, leading to this great sense of immersion, but some readers prefer to have the world spelled out for them. On the other hand, other readers liked those very things. There are always trade-offs.

General Shuos Jedao is a compelling and charismatic trickster figure. That goes for Captain Kel Cheris as well. Why did you want to put trickster characters at the center of space-faring battles and governmental intrigue?

Jedao’s situation by the time we meet him in Ninefox Gambit is that he’s literally nothing but a voice, and he has an agenda that amounts to high treason. The success of his mission depends on him being able to lie convincingly. One of the things he teaches Cheris in the course of that book is guile.

It’s funny—ordinarily trickster characters drive me up the wall and I frequently find them annoying. But in this case I found them necessary. I reread Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (the translation by Lionel Giles) as part of the research for this series, and it seemed to me that the way I’d stacked up the odds against both Cheris and Jedao made it impossible for a head-on approach to succeed for them in pursuing their goals of revolution. So they’d have to fight smart—fight tricky, and dirty—rather than doing the Charge of the Light Brigade thing.

Many of your characters are motivated by redemption. In Raven Stratagem, General Jedao—if we are to believe him—wants to right the wrongs he committed in Ninefox Gambit. Is redemption a theme that’s important to you, even outside of the military setting of these novels?

I think it’s a theme that’s hard for me to escape. Even though there are cockamamie Asians in the setting of these books, I attended a Christian high school, and I took a couple of Bible classes. (I’m agnostic now, though.) The way redemption is presented here really owes more to that background than to anything specifically Asian.

In Raven Stratagem, you also seem preoccupied with the idea of the double. Shuos Mikodez hires his sibling Istradez to act as his double at governmental meetings. Captain Cheris becomes General Jedao’s double when he possesses her. Where does that come from?

For me, it’s just a more efficient way of making use of characters. I feel that major characters should either be wildly different from each other so that they are easy to tell apart, or that they should be doubled or otherwise connected so that readers can see how they refract each other. Cheris and Jedao would be good examples of the former: They’re almost polar opposites. For the latter, I am personally fond of the Jungian idea of the animus/anima.

Your exploration of the double is also connected to the way you envision immortality. Immortality entails being turned into a ghost and then being anchored to someone who’s alive. The ghost, though, is kept in what you call a black cradle. Jedao escapes the confines of his black cradle by possessing Cheris. Do you think immortality would be as dreadful as the governmental officials in your series make it out to be?

I will own that immortality sounds to me like hell on Earth. If you offered it to me, I would turn it down. So that’s my personal philosophy coming through. I don’t want an afterlife either. I will be content to wink out into nonexistence when I die. My feeling is that we live, we die, we make space for those who follow us, and so the cycle continues.

The technology in Machineries of Empire is based on calendars. The government, called the hexarchate, enforces strict timekeeping, because as long as everyone uses the same calendar, it enables one set of technologies. You’ve mentioned you got the idea from reading Marcia Ascher’s ethnomathematics book Mathematics Elsewhere and Harlan Ellison’s “Paladin of the Lost Hour.” I was wondering if you could tell us more about the ideas you took from Ascher and Ellison to come up with this system.

I don’t own Ascher’s book anymore (it was a flood casualty from last year), but from what I recall, she spends a section of the book talking about different ways that different cultures construct time and keep track of the year. One of the coolest ones, although I didn’t use it, involves a society that uses the yearly cycle of bioluminescent sea critters to let them know when to reset their year, or something like that. It made me think about how timekeeping relies on a set of agreed social conventions.

I last read “Paladin of the Lost Hour” in high school, so it’s been a while, but if I recall correctly, it concerns the guardian of an hour that was “lost” during all the shenanigans in converting between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. It just struck me as incredibly interesting that something that I had took for granted until then, timekeeping, could be something that people had fought over.

As an SF/F writer who majored in math, you’ve stated that math isn’t just about arithmetic and computation; it’s also about argumentation. What can you tell us about the math you use in this series?

To be honest, the actual math in Ninefox Gambit is pretty minimal. I was going to come up with the equivalent of an applied algebra game engine for the calendrical warfare, but my husband talked me out of it on the grounds that none of my readers was going to sit still for that much math. (To be clear, my husband is not afraid of math; he has a doctorate in astrophysics from MIT, and he actually uses math on a daily basis. But he is also a science fiction reader.) While perhaps not one hundred percent true, he was correct to the extent that my agent and I almost couldn’t find a publisher for Ninefox—even with the minimal actual math in it, several publishers turned it down for having “too much math.” There’s honestly more security engineering than math. (I read Ross Anderson’s Security Engineering twice for inspiration.)

That being said, one of the battles in Raven Stratagem uses a bit of watered down information theory, plus my memory of working with codecs back when I made fanvids. And the third book, Revenant Gun, will have a brief discussion of prime factorization and cryptology (thanks especially to Andrew Plotkin and Helen Keeble for their thoughts on the matter!).

How did you get interested in mathematics?

I hated math until ninth grade, when I had geometry. Up until then it looked like a bunch of arbitrary and tedious memorization and computation. Geometry introduced me to proofs, and then I understood that math didn’t just fall out of the sky, it came from somewhere. I am more of a mathematical Platonist, so I have this weird conviction that math is uncovered rather than invented, but still.

I also liked to read nonfiction about science, so I naturally wound up in the math section of the library. There I would read books about fractals, chaos theory, fuzzy (multivalent) logic, artificial intelligence, cryptology, and so on. I became hooked on the beauty of math and how it expresses the structures of the universe.

Linguistics forms an active part of the worldbuilding. What I like most is that the languages your characters speak are clearly not derived from English or other Western languages. You can tell by the details: animate and inanimate forms of words, suffix honorifics, social hierarchy indicated through conjugations. What language or languages is your future linguistics based on?

Korean, mostly, although Korean does not (to my knowledge) have an animate-inanimate distinction. I thought it would be interesting to have noun classes (or grammatical genders) that weren’t the familiar Western masculine, feminine, (sometimes) neuter. (I’ve taken some French, a little German, and a little Latin, although I am by no means fluent in any of them.) Like Japanese, which is more familiar to most Westerners (yay, anime?), Korean has suffix honorifics and different formality levels encoded on the verb.

I haven’t bothered doing much of a conlang (constructed language) sketch for the high language, because it would be an enormous timesuck, but besides the above, I know it’s written with a featural code not unlike the Korean alphabet, although probably not organized in syllabic blocks, because the high language doesn’t have as neat a syllable structure. And the alphabet is written vertically, not horizontally. It doesn’t generally inflect for number, so when Hexarch Kel Tsoro always refers to herself as “we,” because she’s speaking for the Kel hivemind, she’s actually using an archaic form of the first person pronoun from an earlier version of the language that did inflect for number.

You return many times to flower imagery throughout Raven Stratagem. During one spectacular battle scene, the invading enemy, the Hafn, create flower formations with their battle crafts. Some hexarchate ships have names such as Beneath the Orchid. Would you like to say anything about that?

The longer version of that story is that the Andan emblem is flower-based (the kniferose) and they are the ones who use a lot of flower imagery. Beneath the Orchid has a flower name because it’s an Andan ship. The Kel currently have an antipathy for the Andan. Basically, the Kel are the military and are in the business of fighting heretics, and they tend to be xenophobic fascists. The Andan are responsible for the hexarchate’s finance, first contact, culture, and diplomacy, so they’re the ones who deal with foreigners, and they’re the ones most likely to be xenophilic. The Kel find this very suspicious and don’t trust the Andan: A Kel thinks that a foreigner is basically the same thing as a heretic, so people who deal with foreigners aren’t much better. The Hafn formations are given flower names by the Kel sort of as a gesture of contempt, because flowers have that negative connotation for the Kel.

(If you’re thinking that the Kel aren’t nice people, that’s correct, although given that the Andan superpower is mind control, they’re not exactly saints, either.)

Seeing how changing gender is commonplace in your far-future setting, what appears to be absent is gender performance—at least in Judith Butler’s definition of the term in her book Gender Trouble. For example, while General Jedao possesses Captain Cheris, he’s recognizable in her body not because of his maleness but because of his Jedao-ness. Similarly, Lieutenant Colonel Kel Brezan, though male, presents physically as female. Another character, Shuos Zehun, goes by the singular they pronoun and has no discernible gender at all. Is this a statement of how far-future military culture neutralizes gender, or are you perhaps foreseeing a future gender-neutral society?

I honestly wasn’t trying to make a statement as such. Rather, it seemed to me that it shouldn’t be automatic that even a dystopia as horrible as the hexarchate—and I mean, as far as I’m concerned, the hexarchate is up there in terms of horrible places where I would never want to live—wouldn’t necessarily be equally evil on all axes. So my thought was that gender was one area where they would be relatively egalitarian, not because the society is a good society to live in, but because it’s just not something they culturally care about.

In the hexarchate, advanced handwaved genetic technology plus the “crèches” (artificial wombs) means that women, or anyone else for that matter, can have children without undergoing the pregnancy themselves. The fact that there’s robot slave labor—the servitors—means that there is help with childcare. So, see, this doesn’t come without a cost. The servitors are sentient and most of them are patient with human shenanigans, but the fact remains that human freedom from this kind of labor is built on slavery. Genetic tinkering plus the ability to “mod,” or sculpt your body beyond what you’re born with, minimizes physiological differences between males and females, if one so desires. Basically, all of this is in the background, because I was adamantly not interested in writing a story where gender is a big deal. That’s not to say that stories about gender and sexuality aren’t important—they are—but it wasn’t what I wanted to focus on personally. I was here to blow up spaceships.

When did you decide that you wanted to address issues of gender in your work? Your exploration of gender seems to be a way of acknowledging your trans identity.

It’s funny—I didn’t even see it as an exploration of gender. I wanted to represent different possibilities, yes, so you have characters like Brezan or Tseya or Zehun, but I didn’t, for the most part, want to talk about gender, or make it a plot point. I guess for the longest time I wasn’t even comfortable having trans characters in my own fiction because it cut too close too home. The first time I did that was a story I wrote in sixth grade, and I got into trouble because my teacher saw the story and called my mom and she started trying to get me to be “feminine.” So I’ve been wary ever since, I guess.

You’ve mentioned that when you read works by Jack L. Chalker and Piers Anthony as a teenager, you found their trans representations deeply problematic. Could you tell us what you found problematic?

Well, let me clarify that “trans representation” is maybe a bit misleading. I’m not even sure what the correct technical term is for what they were doing. (I guess I don’t hang out enough on Tumblr?) Chalker wrote, more than once, stories in which characters underwent various transformations, including men being transformed into (usually) very highly sexed, very attractive women. One example is The Identity Matrix. It’s actually a little frustrating, because the more thoughtful aspects of his works (he has a preoccupation with historical processes—he was a history teacher once—that I find fascinating) tend to get swamped by a very exploitative portrayal of female sexuality and subjugation, to say nothing of the misogyny. And I say “trans representation” is maybe not what’s going on here because, generally, the men characters don’t think of themselves as being women before their transformations. Rather, they’re transformed and stuck and have to adjust, possibly with various forms of mind control or brainwashing involved. So I don’t know if that’s exactly what I’d call a depiction of an actual trans person. That being said, what I did find valuable in these books, even if they were far from ideal, was that they depicted worlds in which characters’ physical sex could be changed. It might have been an impossible daydream, but it was one that I found comforting as a teenager when I encountered these books.

In And Eternity, Piers Anthony had a depiction of a woman changed into a man. Again, the woman didn’t think of herself as a man before the transformation, so I wouldn’t really call her a trans person—and taking on stereotypically male personality characteristics due to the magic involved, including being so overcome with lust that he/she/they (???) attempted to rape a friend. Besides the problem with “men can’t help raping women,” the general gender essentialism here bothers me.

Do you have any favorite examples of fiction featuring trans protagonists? And if so, what makes them your favorites?

To be honest, I generally avoid fiction with trans protagonists. Either it’s too close to home, or it’s poorly done, or it’s well done and happy, and the happy ending and/or character just reminds me that I’m not in a good position.

Another one of my favorite aspects of the worldbuilding is the recurring reference to dramas about assassins and killers. Your characters often compare what happens in the dramas to what’s happening to them. What tickles me is the fact that we the readers are technically reading a drama. Is this meta-commentary on space opera and military science fiction?

It’s not just meta-commentary on space opera and military science fiction; it’s meta-commentary on K-dramas and anime. (Ironically, it was my white boyfriend-now-husband who introduced me to anime . . .) It also seemed to me that the characters in the world would have their own forms of cracky entertainment and pop/fannish culture. Cheris likes watching bad dueling shows; a character in the third book, Revenant Gun, likes making fan videos. (I was briefly a vidder, mostly of the Buffyverse, before my computer died and I had to give it up.)

On one level, the dramas seem similar to TV shows or soap operas. On another level, your characters’ familiarity with them makes the dramas seem like mythology that informs their outlook.

Well, perhaps pop culture serves as modern mythology? My husband and I were once deeply involved in a collectible card game with an ongoing storyline called Legend of the Five Rings (L5R). To this day, we can often explain other stories to each other by making references to L5R—perhaps this character in a TV show reminds me of an L5R character or Clan, etc. I’m sure any group of fans with a common knowledge of a narrative could do the same. And that narrative doesn’t have to be fictional. Just listen to any group of sports fans talking together!

Speaking of mythology, in one scene, your Andan character Tseya says this about Jedao: “He’s more of a storybook figure come to life than a threat.” She talks about him as though he’s a character in the dramas.

Historically, the people who have worked with Jedao are Kel and occasionally Shuos. So for Tseya, who hasn’t, he really is more of a drama character than a real person. There actually are (not very accurate) dramas about Jedao’s life, and most of her impressions of Jedao would have been formed from those. (We get to see a snippet of one such drama in book three.)

You’ve spoken a few times about the third book, Revenant Gun. What’s coming up next for Cheris and company?

In book three, Cheris and friends will be going up against the trilogy’s big bad, Nirai Kujen himself, and finding out why Kujen has made the hexarchate the way it is—and even worse, Kujen has his own copy of Jedao for his general. Sleep tight!

Are there any other writing projects you’re working on that you can tell us about?

My current project is a middle grade novel for Disney-Hyperion, Dragon Pearl, which will be one of the books in the forthcoming Rick Riordan Presents line. It’s fantasy space opera with Korean mythology sprinkled in (although I play fast and loose—I mean, it’s already in space, there’s only so much authenticity that’s possible). My heroine is a fox spirit girl searching for her brother, who allegedly deserted from the Space Forces to quest after a magical pearl with the power to terraform worlds and revitalize their dying colony.

After that, I’ll be working on a collection of hexarchate short stories for Solaris (provisionally titled Hexarchate Stories, but that may change). About half the material will be new, and there will probably be a mini-gamebook in which YOU get to play Jedao! Assuming that playing Jedao’s role is something that might entertain you. (Don’t worry. I won’t take offense if you cheat your way through. I used to cheat all the time when I played gamebooks!) And after that, we’ll see.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.