Ninefox Gambit, the first novel in Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire trilogy, won the Locus award for Best First Novel, and was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards for best novel. Its first sequel, Raven Stratagem, has repeated as a Hugo nominee for best novel, and is also a finalist for the Locus award for Best Science Fiction Novel. It remains to be seen if Revenant Gun can score a Hugo-nomination hat trick for the series, though this reviewer wouldn’t at all be surprised. As part of his blog tour for the release of Revenant Gun, the author kindly allowed me to put a few questions to him about the trilogy and its concluding volume.
First, a chicken or egg question: The earliest published story set in the Hexarchate is “The Battle of Candle Arc” in 2012. Did the Machineries of Empire emerge from your idea for that story, or was the story a byproduct of your idea for the trilogy?
I wrote Ninefox Gambit first. The eponymous battle was mentioned in passing in a couple of lines, and I was so pleased with myself because here I was with this supposedly brilliant general (something I have learned for next time, don’t write about brilliant generals when you’re not a brilliant general!) with his brilliant victory that I didn’t have to explain. But it started bothering me that there was no explanation of the victory, and when Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld asked if I had any stories to send him, I decided that I’d try writing the battle up as a story in its own right, which would involve figuring out the tactics and, more intimidatingly, figuring out how to explain the setting in snapshot form. Fortunately, one of my beta readers, Daedala, pointed out that I could crib from a historical battle, and I did. The tactics in Candle Arc are loosely derived from that of the Battle of Myeongnyang, which Admiral Yi Sun-Shin of Korea won against the Japanese invasion in 1597. Ironically, Yi did better despite being at more of a disadvantage, and took fewer casualties, but I didn’t want to push the reader’s suspension of disbelief too far!
In nearly two decades of publishing short fiction, you’ve built so many different universes and mythologies where we are only offered a glimpse of what seems like a much richer context. Most of these stories are one-offs; what was it about the Hexarchate concept that compelled you grow it into a larger epic? Have you entertained the idea of expanding on any of your other stories?
I’d been wanting to write a novel for a while, but my first substantive attempt, which I (affectionately?) call the Millstone Fantasy Novel, was ten years in the making and turned out to be fatally flawed, so I trunked it. I love space opera, though, everything from Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker books to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga to Jack Campbell’s Black Jack Geary books, and I wanted to try my hand at it. Even then, Ninefox Gambit was originally going to be a one-off. When I came to the end, however, I realized that I had more to say about the setting and more ideas for plot. I suppose part of it’s laziness as well–having generated all those setting details, it seemed a shame not to get some more use out of them!
I’ve occasionally thought about revisiting a few of my past stories, but most of them feel complete in themselves. Especially at shorter lengths, I’m really more focused on the idea than building an elaborate world that can be explored again and again. I’m probably more likely to do something new and different to keep myself entertained.
Most dystopias are the product of autocratic rule that quashes internal dissent, but the Hexarchate relies on the interdependence of six different factions filling different functions and checking each other’s power. Given how fragile the relationship between factions often was, was the Hexarchate always a house of cards, or would defense of the high calendar have been a strong enough incentive to keep it upright if not for Jedao/Cheris’ rebellion?
Oh, it’s totally an improbable house of cards! I admit I don’t necessarily hold space opera up to very rigorous standards of worldbuilding. In my opinion the hexarchate/heptarchate should by all rights have fallen over within the first couple centuries or so. The system doesn’t encourage stability. But I liked having the different squabbling factions because they were colorful and entertaining, and for me that trumped considerations of strict plausibility in a larger-than-life story.
Hypothetically, where would the Hexarchate be if Shuos had blown up instead of Liozh?
Oh, that’s such a great what-if! I suspect the Kel would have had to take up the intelligence function, and they already have special forces, which is adjacent to the whole assassin thing. With the Liozh still present, there would be a greater possibility of reform toward a more humane system of government. Goodness knows, given the reputation of the Shuos, I’m surprised no one’s blown them up before this anyway.
John Milton was famously concerned that readers of Paradise Lost would too closely identify with Satan, because of all the characters he most resembled the epic heroes of classical poetry. Throughout the Machineries of Empire trilogy, and in the short stories “The Battle of Candle Arc” and “Extracurricular Activities”, Jedao has the kind of slippery charisma modern readers associate with the “antihero”, even though it’s clear he should never be mistaken for the good guy. Why is he the kind of character we want to identify with against our better judgement? To what degree did this concern you when you were writing the trilogy?
Oh, I was definitely worried about this. The problem with Jedao from my standpoint as the author is that he’s canonically supposed to be charismatic–it’s part of what makes him so dangerous–but then the reader is tempted to identify with him. The fact that he spends his career as a soldier in service to an oppressive dystopian government already makes his morals dubious, but I personally feel that cold-bloodedly murdering one million people in a high-stakes gambit to try to overthrow said government is completely inexcusable. (Jedao takes the sunk-cost fallacy to extremes.) If you read the TV Tropes website at all, Jedao is pretty much a textbook case of Well-Intentioned Extremist, which still doesn’t make what he did excusable. At least the short stories predate the massacre in the setting’s timeline–in “Candle Arc” Jedao even acts to have the enemy killed cleanly rather than subjected to torture. But as time goes on, he definitely becomes increasingly morally compromised until he hits the Moral Event Horizon (if I may cite TV Tropes again) at Hellspin Fortress.
That being said, I think readers should be allowed to enjoy morally dubious or evil characters in fiction. I feel that most readers know the difference between reality and fiction! One of my favorite characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the evil vampire Angelus, but that doesn’t mean I advocate murdering people in real life…
Ninefox Gambit inspired a lot of strong reactions when it was published two years ago. How much, if at all, did reader reaction to Ninefox Gambit inform the writing and editing of Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun?
Not as much as you might think, to be honest. I had already completed a draft of Raven Stratagem and half the draft of Revenant Gun at the time that Solaris made an offer on Ninefox Gambit–so this was, thanks to the speed of publishing, before anyone but my beta readers had read or reacted to Ninefox. Most of what’s in those books already existed. There are two exceptions. First, I added a servitor POV to Revenant Gun in revisions because the servitors were turning out to be popular, which I hadn’t anticipated, but I’m not against a little pandering. Second, I learned that I have aphantasia (the inability to visualize) and the lack of visual descriptions was off-putting to many readers, so in Revenant Gun I made more of an effort to put in descriptions, although since I can’t “see” them myself I have no idea if they worked.
Now the hard question: If you were a servitor, what form would you be?
Catform all the way. I’m sure this is obvious to anyone who’s read the books (Zehun and all their cats!), but I am owned by a beautiful, loving calico-tortoiseshell named Cloud (or Gureumi if you prefer her Korean name).
Thank you so much for your time, Yoon, and congratulations on the release of Revenant Gun!