Please welcome Yoon Ha Lee to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Ninefox Gambit was published on June 14th by Solaris Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Yoon: Howdy! I became interested in writing in 3rd grade, when my teacher, Mr. McCracken, had a habit of dressing up as the superhero "Story Man"
and coming in to teach us about creative writing. Up until then, I had had some vague notion that stories fell out of the sky or grew on trees or something. The idea that people wrote books was amazing, and I wanted to try my hand at it. So for years, my sister and I wrote little stories for each other, even making "book catalogues" with catchy summaries and ordering stapled-paper "books" from each other, most of which we failed to actually finish writing.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Yoon: Plotter, definitely. I envy pantsers, but when I try to do it that way, I write myself into a hole pretty consistently.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Yoon: Oh my God, characterization. When character-oriented writers talk to me about how easy it is to have characters in their heads who come alive and tell them what they (the characters) want to do, I am so envious! I do best when I can relate to something about the character's personality.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing? How does your background in mathematics influence your writing?
Yoon: Reading Roger Zelazny and Patricia McKillip in high school taught me that language could be beautiful for its own sake. For worldbuilding, I've been influenced by a number of game settings. For example, Planescape was an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons setting with several factions in which reality is shaped by belief, even to the point that cities can shift out of one dimensional plane and into another. Another is Warhammer 40,000 with its bloodthirsty endless grimdark wars; I am not willing to pay for the miniatures, but I really enjoy the over-the-top-ness of it all. And the third I'd like to mention is Legend of the Five Rings, which is a samurai fantasy setting where the clans are in conflict all the time, with bonus demons and zombies.
For short fiction, I often structure stories like a proof, starting with the core premise (axioms) and reaching a conclusion (theorem). I didn't do that in Ninefox Gambit, but I used some mathematical imagery and concepts. I think math is incredibly beautiful. People think of numbers sometimes as being really cold and impersonal, but I think of them as being incredibly personal. Math is the language the universe is written in, and numbers are literally life and death! I've tried to get across some of that in Ninefox Gambit.
TQ: Describe Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire Trilogy 1) in 140 characters or less.
Yoon: Disgraced captain teams up with undead tactician to save the galaxy from heretics. The catch: the tactician may be out to kill her.
TQ: Tell us something about Ninefox Gambit that is not found in the book description.
Yoon: The world's technology base is mostly magic--and the magic is based on calendars. If everyone uses the same calendar, it enables one set of technologies. If people start using a different calendar, those technologies--which include things like the stardrive and FTL communications--stop working and other technologies become enabled. So the government has a very strong incentive to enforce timekeeping. I got this idea from reading about different calendar systems in Marcia Ascher's ethnomathematics book Mathematics Elsewhere, with a side of Harlan Ellison's "The Paladin of the Lost Hour."
TQ: What inspired you to write Ninefox Gambit? What appeals to you about writing Science Fiction?
Yoon: A couple years earlier, I had started writing a space opera fanfic version of Legend of the Five Rings (L5R). I had to pause this project when I tried out to become one of L5R's official Story Team writers for Alderac Entertainment Group. As it turned out, I was one of two writers selected to be added to the team (Robert "Spooky" Denton was the other), so I definitely had to shelve that fic. And then I was busy writing official game tie-in fiction, which was a great experience.
Later, after I'd stopped writing for AEG, I realized I still wanted to write a space opera. I'd been publishing short sf for years, but I was interested in trying something with more scope for a bigger world and a larger plot, especially since space opera is about scale!
The other thing was that I had become addicted to TV Tropes. My favorite pages on that site, then as now, are Moral Event Horizon, Magnificent Bastard, and Chessmaster. I wanted a chance to use those tropes in my own writing, and so I started brainstorming Ninefox Gambit with those in mind.
What I like about science fiction is that it lets me tell stories about worlds that aren't. As long as I can keep things entertaining and spin in some general plausibility, I can make up a lot of details. It also lets me imagine a spacefaring future. I'm personally too chicken to ever leave the planet and with my health problems I'd be a lousy candidate for it anyway, but with the help of the imagination, I can go anywhere I like without leaving my couch.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Ninefox Gambit?
Yoon: Tons of military reading, for starters. While my dad was an Army surgeon for a while, I don't have any military background. I read field manuals (my favorite is FMFRP 12-2 Infantry in Battle) and I've spent most of my life reading military history, which helped. I also read Ross Anderson's Security Engineering (both editions) to prepare for writing my antagonist, and some of the related cryptology stuff I already knew about from studying it as a math major. Also some stuff on game design--I have done a little of that, so I was already interested in the topic--because one of the characters has a standing interest in games.
The weirdest thing I ended up researching was goose farming. Someone kindly pointed me to Dave Holderread's The Book of Geese. I spent a full week asking my husband if we could quit it all and start up a goose farm in the country, and he reminded me that I like to get up around noon and this is not conducive to farming. It did, however, give me a great excuse to do roast goose for Thanksgiving, so at least I got something tasty out of it?
TQ: In Ninefox Gambit who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Yoon: Jedao was the easiest character once I figured out his voice. Disturbingly, he wouldn't shut up! I'm actually a little shocked, because his personality is the opposite of mine. He's a raging extrovert who loves being around people and he's a lot smarter than I am. (Also, I am not a mass murderer and I totally disapprove of mass murder. Just so that's clear.) But the fact that he was the antagonist also made him a lot of fun. If you point at any of his lines of dialogue, I can tell you whether he's telling the truth or lying or something in between, and why he's saying what he's saying.
The protagonist, Cheris, was the hardest. I designed her to complement Jedao, which meant she was introverted and quiet, and it was a struggle sometimes to make her compelling when the contrast was so strong.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Ninefox Gambit?
Yoon: I didn't write Ninefox Gambit to be about social issues per se--I intended it as a rather bloodthirsty space adventure--but some of that inevitably comes in when you talk about dictatorship. The setting is an extremely restrictive and dystopian police state. A certain amount of the story involves Cheris learning to think beyond the confines of her upbringing.
TQ: Which question about Ninefox Gambit do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Question: Why do the ships and space stations look like that?
Answer: Confession time. I'm almost completely non-visual--I have perfect pitch and I can hear symphonies in my head, but pictures, forget it. So when I name things, it's to evoke a feeling.
The starships are called "voidmoths" because they're based on biotech; they're actually enslaved and cyborged aliens. (The protagonist doesn't know this, though.) As for the space stations, I just gave them interesting-sounding names without thinking about what they would look like.
This became interesting when it came to the cover. To be perfectly frank, I was expecting to have the frequent thing happen where the cover illustration bears tenuous resemblance to anything that actually happens in the book. So I was shocked to be asked about the setting and its visuals. The illustrator, Chris Moore, did a fantastic job of interpreting my names! The station on the cover of Ninefox Gambit is the Fortress of Scattered Needles. It sure looks like its name!
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Ninefox Gambit.
"What happened to the cup?" He was waiting for her to ask anyway. Was there a trap in the question?
"I lost it on campaign. Ambush, a nasty one. One of my soldiers went back for the fucking thing against direct orders because she thought a cup mattered more to me than her life. You won't find this in the records. I didn't think there was any sense shaming her family with the details since she was already dead."
Jedao could be lying to her and she would have no way of verifying the story. But no one could have guessed that the small details of his life would matter centuries later. If they mattered. What she didn't understand was, what was he trying to prove with the anecdote? He sounded like a good commander. Of course, everyone had thought he was a good commander until he stopped being a good human being.
TQ: What's next?
Yoon: I've already turned in the second book of the trilogy, Raven Stratagem. Right now I'm revising a space opera comedy novelette about Jedao doing a mission back when he was a starship commander (goose fat is involved and in fact crucial to the plot), and working on the third book of the trilogy, Revenant Gun.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Yoon: Thank you for having me!
The Machineries of Empire 1
Solaris Books, June 14, 2016
Trade Paperback and eBook, 384 pages
To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris's career isn't the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.
Cheris's best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.
The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao--because she might be his next victim.
Yoon Ha Lee's short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and other venues. His short story collection Conservation of Shadows came out from Prime Books in 2013. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.