In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Yoon Ha Lee to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain.”
The concept of the four guns each having a different effect on the target is unique. How did you come up with it?
The original version of this story was inspired by the TV show Burn Notice. (No, really!) I had this notion that if you swapped out all the spy tech (I have no idea whether any of it works the way they describe it, but it sure sounds cool) and replaced it with magic you could have a fun spy story. So I figured I needed something for the guns, and at this point I got stuck because all I could think of were guns based on the elements, whether you go with something like the Chinese elements or the Japanese elements or something sideways of that. I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about doing elemental blasts. But you know, if you’re going to go with fantastic guns, why not go for broke? And so I ended up first with Arighan’s Flower, because I figured wiping out whole ancestral lines would be a pretty big threat.
I also knew from the beginning that I wanted the gun to be one of a set. I had some idea of trying to do this in comic form, just as an experiment, and so the protagonist would have this set of guns to deal with in her adventures, one by one, but obviously I decided against doing the story in that format. One of my beta readers actually wanted this story to be about five times as long as it is right now, and to follow that kind of structure, detailing Shiron’s adventures with each gun. Quite probably it would have been a good story, but it wouldn’t have been the story I wanted to tell.
Shiron discovered that Arighan was a prisoner rather than an honored guest in the empire she served. Have you given much thought as to why Arighan was a prisoner? Was it because of her weapon-making skills?
Definitely her weapon-making skills. I knew from the very beginning that Arighan’s weapons had a sting, that they were created out of revenge, and that in order for the story to be set up the way it was, Shiron’s ancestors lured her to their court and then trapped her. I don’t actually know how they accomplished this. My best bet is that Arighan was good at making weapons but a lousy shot?
Ancestry in speculative fiction is always an interesting idea to play with. Many time travel stories deal with the possibility of upsetting your timeline by interfering with an ancestor. What drew you to create a world where entire lineages could be wiped out?
I’ve definitely read my share of those stories, although the thing that attracted me to the idea in this case was Confucianism. I have a book of Korean folktales that we picked up when I was a kid, and I swear, every other story in there is about filial piety. I remember my dad taking us to his mother’s grave when we were little, and having to bow to the grave, and you know, just the way that reverence for your ancestors is inculcated in a Confucian society, it gives the whole “your lineage goes poof!” aspect a different kind of ouch.
The opening section implies that there are multiple universes at work in the story. What are the results of Shiron’s relationship with Arighan’s Flower? Obviously she cannot return to her home. Is she creating a new universe each time she uses the gun?
Yes: each time she fires the gun, a new universe branches off and she gets propelled into it.
Shiron acknowledges that if she were to use the Flower on one of Arighan’s descendants in her timeline, she would no longer be in exile, but cannot return to her original timeline either. Is it possible that she would no longer exist in her current timeline because the gun never would have been created? It’s quite a paradox she would create.
I am reminded of my 8th grade social studies teacher telling us about Gilgamesh being two-thirds god and one-third man, and wondering how the heck that even happened. Although I guess if you have deities in your ancestry anything is possible? Let’s see: she wipes out Arighan’s line, which means the guns never were forged, but which means that the whole situation never happened in the first place. What a messy situation! I personally suspect that she would be hanging around with the Flower, and they would be these two weird anomalies in the universe, things that shouldn’t exist but do.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know about your story or the ideas behind it?
I have to thank Daniel Dennett’s philosophy book Freedom Evolves, even though I still haven’t finished reading it, because his thoughts on evitability and inevitability really helped pull this story together.
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