The incredible author of Revenant Gun, Yoon Ha Lee, agreed to answer some of questions of our about his complex and gripping The Machineries of Empire series. Thank you again Yoon for taking the time to talk to us, and everyone else enjoy our questions and answers below! Revenant Gun comes out this week and you can find our review of it here. There also is a blog tour happening right now, so be sure to be on the lookout for other interviews and articles about Yoon.
I deeply admired your ability to world build in the first book in a way that relied on the reader’s engagement and willingness to accept the gaps. How hard was it to leave a lot of the stuff open ended to the reader, while still getting general idea across?
Honestly, while I had an outline and a bunch of notes, in writing Ninefox Gambit I made up a lot of stuff as I went! Patricia C. Wrede makes an interesting distinction between what she calls “iceberg” worldbuilders and “bubble” worldbuilders, and I definitely tend toward the latter. “Iceberg” worldbuilders are people like Tolkien–they come up with the deep history of the world and its cultures and maps and everything. “Bubble” worldbuilders make up things as they go and everything is on the surface–there may be hints but there aren’t 500 pages of backstory lurking in the background. Of course, she says–and I discovered it to be true–that “bubble” worldbuilders turn into “iceberg” worldbuilders when they write a longer work like a series, because you start actually having to keep track of what you’ve said and you need to keep your world consistent within itself. Leaving a lot of things open-ended was a natural side-effect of the way I built the world.
How did you elevator pitch this story to your publisher? I have been asked to give a short description of the series before and completely failed so I would love to steal your answer.
Fortunately, I was able to look up my query letter to agents, which is probably pretty close:
Captain Kel Cheris is ordered to recapture a space fortress whose takeover by heretics my disable her nation’s advanced technologies, which depend on the state religion. The weapon given Cheris is a dead tactician, Shuos Jedao. Jedao may be the only one capable of outthinking the fortress’s defenses. But he went mad during a former life, massacring his own soldiers, and while he seems sane now, no one knows how long that will last–least of all Cheris, who has been made host to his spirit.
Um. I’m not going to pretend that’s the best pitch in the history of pitches; it’s very definitely a skill I’m still working on!
What was your inspiration for the series? Was there some external force or did all of this series majestical weirdness solely come from the depths of your mind?
There were several inspirations! First let me talk about Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), a collectible card game/roleplaying game originally created by Alderac Entertainment Group (it has since been bought out and rebooted as a Living Card Game by Fantasy Flight Games). I started playing it in college, and one of the things that sucked me in was the lore. Its setting, the land of Rokugan, is a sort of fantasy feudal Asia (mostly Japan) and one of its key features was that you could join one of several clans, each with its own specialties–for example, the Lion Clan was known for its honorable warriors and tacticians, the Crane Clan for its elegant courtiers and duelists, the Scorpion Clan for its ninjas and seductresses.
Fast forward a number of years. A man named Rich Wulf wrote a modern-day, cyberpunk-influenced fanfiction series about the setting called Rokugan 2000. Inspired, some friends and I conceived of a space opera version of L5R called Rokugan 3000. (A number of people around the web had the same idea–we were hardly alone.) I was really excited about writing fic for samurai in space.
There was a catch, however. AEG was looking for another writer for its official Story Team, and I wanted to apply. And I knew that if by some miracle I succeeded and joined the Story Team, I would have to stop writing fanfic for the setting. As luck would have it, Robert Denton III and I were both selected for it (Robert is currently writing for FFG now, as it happens, among other things). So I shelved Rokugan 3000.
I still wanted to write space opera, though. I had a great experience working with folks at AEG but ended up leaving after a year, and decided that it would be a good time to try to write a space opera in a setting of my own devising. The hexarchate has influences from Rokugan–the factions were loosely inspired by the clans.
There were other influences. In high school I read Jack L. Chalker’s Spirits of Flux and Anchor series, and one of its features is magic-like effects caused by manipulation of math and computers, as well as areas where magic doesn’t work. I’m not sure I would recommend the books to a modern reader, as they have some notable flaws (Chalker’s portrayals of female characters and sex changes were sometimes odd), but Chalker was a history teacher and I was fascinated by his explorations of historical processes.
Finally, there was ethnomathematics, which I learned of through Marcia Ascher’s Mathematics Elsewhere. I never had the privilege of meeting Ascher during her life, but it turns out it’s a small world–I found out later that she was the godmother of a college friend’s brother. In any case, the whole idea of calendars affecting the laws of physics in a magical fashion came both from Ascher’s writing and from reading Harlan Ellison’s “The Paladin of the Lost Hour,” which was the first time I really thought about differing calendar traditions in the context of fiction. In real life, of course, I was used to lunar calendar celebrations vs. the Western calendar in South Korea (fun fact, you get to celebrate New Year’s twice!).
Considering there was so many cool and weird things in this series, I want to know, what came first, Jedao as a shadow, or the calendrical system?
The calendrical system. Jedao as a shadow I made up on the spot. I will own that as I approached the scene where he’s initially attached to Cheris I felt a stab of panic wondering how to make him sufficiently interesting…
The idea of the Hexarchate is extremely intriguing and the sort of weird self-propagation of its values through factional competition and prejudices feels very natural. The whole thing always feels like it is teetering on the edge, but manages to remain in control. Where did the Hexarchate/Heptarchate start for you? Why did it feel important to have separate factions as a coalition instead of a sole ruler with a feudal duchy like system?
See above about being inspired by clans in Legend of the Five Rings! I admit that my feeling is that a system that precarious should only have lasted a couple centuries, tops, but I decided that strict plausibility was less important than having fun, especially in a space opera. I went with coalition rule because I thought that had more potential for exciting infighting and also because I’m a little burned out on evil empires with sole rulers, so I wanted to do something a little different.
Of the six factions in the world, which do you see yourself belonging to?
I took the faction sorting quiz that Solaris came up with (http://www.solarisbooks.com/post/2065) and came out as a Nirai. Since I have a B.A. in math, I suppose that tracks, although I didn’t pursue math further (ironically because I didn’t want to give up writing for six or seven years while doing a doctorate). In real life, I see myself as one of the masses of unaligned citizens, a redshirt sort of person.
You decided to expand a lot of the world building and explain a lot of the science in the final book as opposed to the first (which I loved). Why keep your readers in the dark so long?
It was a controversial decision! I often enjoy that kind of storytelling, though, so I wanted to give it a go. One of my favorite examples of it is C. J. Cherryh’s The Faded Sun, where you learn about the different aliens (especially the mri and regul) as you go on. (Obviously, I’m nowhere near as skilled a writer as someone like Cherryh! But one ought to aim high, if one is going to do things at all.)
As for explanations in book three, one reason is that it seemed cruel to leave readers hanging in the last book of a trilogy. The other reason has to do with choice of viewpoint characters. In Ninefox, Cheris doesn’t really think about how things work if they’re a part of her everyday ordinary existence; when I read a book set in the modern day and someone turns on a light switch, I don’t need two paragraphs explaining power generation and distribution to me, I just need to know that flicking the switch makes light appear. Even in a fantasy, if someone throws a fireball, I don’t need to know the grand unified theory of how fireballs happen; the name of the spell tells me it’s a ball made of fire, so why belabor the obvious?
In Revenant Gun, on the other hand, the main viewpoint is that of an amnesiac Jedao. Not only that, but he’s a few centuries out of date. So I explain things when Jedao learns about them, because it’s part of his process figuring out the world around him and what to do about it.
Not to spoil anything, but the conclusion to Revenant Gun leaves Jedao’s fate very open ended, would you consider doing another series about him or is this the end for your grand tactician?
Actually, I’m at work on a collection of stories set in the hexarchate, part reprints and part new materials, and one of the stories picks up after the end of Revenant Gun, with Jedao and Cheris going on an adventure together, quarreling all the way. So stay tuned? I’m not sure I have another series in me–I think I need to do something different for a bit, next–but I won’t rule it out.
What are your favorite sci-fi and fantasy books? Who are your favorite strategists in fiction and why?
Oh, you’d ask the hard question! Iain M. Banks’ Player of Games, which I loved so much with its game-playing and metacommentary and double-crosses that I’m afraid to read more Culture books because how are they going to live up to it? Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs is a fantastic exploration of magic, gods, and colonialism married to a spy thriller. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, of which my favorite is Memory, although you need to read the others first for it to make sense. C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen with its brilliant and disturbing exploration of nature vs. nurture and genius characters everywhere. Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which has an antihero protagonist who weaponizes economics, although it’s not for the faint of heart. For something completely different, C. S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy, which is erotic fantasy.
And just because I’m a tease, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, which I read in ARC and which is coming out in 2019, in which an emissary from a tiny space station takes on a hungry empire based on a mixture of the Aztecs and the Byzantines; and S. L. Huang’s Zero-Sum Game, a near-future thriller about a female mercenary who is so staggeringly good at math that it’s essentially a superpower.
Favorite strategists or tacticians in fiction who we actually see doing their thing include Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, who terrifies the spit out of me. If Miles were real, I would make it a point to live the next galaxy over because he’s dangerous. Baru Cormorant from Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, one of the rarer female examples. There’s also a great female chessmaster in Ilana C. Myer’s Fire Dance. If you allow anime, then Lelouch Lamperouge from Code Geass and Kaizuka Inaho from Aldnoah.Zero, and if you allow kdramas, Misil and Seondeok from The Great Queen Seondeok.
What is up next for you now that Machineries is done?
I have a middle-grade novel coming out from Disney-Hyperion in January 2019, Dragon Pearl. It’s a space opera based on Korean mythology–you should have heard my mom’s ? response when I asked her for help researching pungsu jiri, the Korean version of feng shui!–in which a teenage fox spirit goes on a quest to clear her brother’s name after he allegedly deserts from the Space Forces to search for a powerful magical artifact that can change worlds.
Currently, I’m wrapping up the hexarchate short story collection, and after that I’ll be writing a novel for Solaris inspired by the curious story of the paint pigment PO49 or Quinacridone Gold.
Often in military science fiction I find a lot of the writing transfixed by the technology of war, without considering the consequences of using it. However, a lot of the technology in your series was showcased with a sense of wonder, followed by an incredible feeling of foreboding before the full brutality of it was revealed. Was this a deliberate effort on your part? And if yes, why did you feel the reader should go through this realization with each new weapon?
I know that brutal depictions of violence and carnage are not for every reader, but that was deliberate. I feel that the effects of terrible weapons should not be shied away from. While I do not have a military background, my father spent some years as a surgeon in the US Army, so I grew up with an awareness that when people go to war, someone has to stitch the survivors back together.
Some people have stories of war veterans in their families. I don’t have that, really. But I’m Korean-American and we do have stories of the Korean War. The one that I remember most keenly is the one my mother told me. Her mother–my grandmother–already had two small children plus a baby, and she was evacuating Seoul with her family a couple months after the war broke out. Grandma made the hard decision for the family to abandon the baby by the side of the road so that the other children would have a better chance of survival. But another woman picked up the baby and brought her back to Grandma and said, “You forgot this.” Grandma didn’t have the heart to abandon the baby again. That baby was my mother, and it is because of that woman, whose name we don’t know, that my mother survived, and that I am here today. So I always try to remember that war has a cost, not just for the soldiers but the civilians, even though in this trilogy I chose to focus on the soldiers, who are no more and no less human than the people they are fighting for.
Thanks again Yoon, and be sure to check out The Machineries of Empire if you haven’t already!