Epic Space Battles, Deadly Equations: An Interview with Yoon Ha Lee, Author of "NineFox Gambit" and "Raven Strategem"

A meeting of brilliant minds and their battle strategies—in tandem, and against each other—lie at the heart of Ninefox Gambit, the Locus Award-winning debut novel of Yoon Ha Lee. When Captain Kel Cheris, a soldier and brilliant mathematician, decides to link her fate with a long-dead general to win against overwhelming odds, she faces not only a monstrous war. There is also the fact that her ally, General Jedao, is a traitor.

An adrenaline-packed tale of space battles and carnage, Ninefox Gambit is also intricate with intrigue, shot through with glittering humor, and raw with emotional intensity. Lee explores a multiplicity of questions and dilemmas with a light touch, never preaching or heavy-handed. Scenes of devastation are all the more powerful for their restraint, and the sly wit simply delightful. The gut-punch of a conclusion resonates on multiple levels—intellectual and emotional—and signifies a thrilling emergent talent in science fiction.

I caught up with Yoon Ha Lee to talk about the series, which continues with Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun.

Your book is noteworthy for dropping the reader in the middle of an unfamiliar world order without explanation and trusting them to be smart. What are your thoughts about this approach?

A couple things--first, sometimes I really enjoy books that do it this way, which is why I wanted to give it a try.  One of my favorite examples in written sf is C.J. Cherryh's Faded Sun books, where we learn about alien (mri) culture as we go, and there's a lot of terminology whose rules you can figure out if you pay attention--it's not explained explicitly.

The other thing is that I tried to give the reader cues in the names themselves.  Ninefox Gambit has a one-time mention of something called a "weather-eater"--I don't explicitly explain what this does, but it's mentioned in the context of, well, local weather conditions, and you can probably guess that it has something to do with artificially controlling weather.  I didn't feel the need to waste words spelling that out.  That was my policy throughout.  Another example is the amputation gun.  It has that name, and when it shows up, people literally suffer amputations when it's fired.  Saying anything more would be redundant--it would be like explaining that a fantasy fireball is a ball of fire.

The incredibly compelling character of Jedao seems to me to be at the heart of the novel. Does that sound fair to say?

Yes, that's pretty accurate.  Jedao was the first character I came up with, and the one who ended up being the driving force.  When I was brainstorming for the novel, I wanted to create a traitor figure who used his betrayal as a massive manipulative gamble.  I was inspired by the TV Tropes pages on Chessmasters, but I missed the mark--Jedao's game isn't chess, it's poker.  Cheris came about as a complement, sort of a yin-yang dynamic--in a novel where the main interpersonal conflict is a battle of wits, I felt it would be really dull to have two scheming, manipulative characters going up against each other, so Cheris is pretty much Jedao's opposite in almost every way.

Jedao ends up being the central figure of the trilogy, but Cheris definitely has contributions to make.  I'll leave it at that!

The colorful, personality-driven hexarchate structure with its devoted Kels, scheming Shuos, and luxurious Andan feels so fully realized. How did this  world take shape?

The short version is that once upon a time I was writing a space opera alternate universe fanfic of the samurai fantasy roleplaying game and collectible card game Legend of the Five Rings.  I had to scupper that when I joined the official Story Team for L5R for a year, but I still wanted to write space opera.  After I left, I decided to take the plunge.  There are some nods to the world of L5R, especially the factions.  I saw how people really loved to sort themselves into Clans and stayed loyal to them (like how people sort themselves into Hogwarts Houses, same phenomenon) and I thought it would work well with a dystopian police state.

Without getting into spoilers, Ninefox raises fascinating questions about AI and ethics, such as have been explored in popular media like Battlestar Galactica, Westworld, and many more. I’m interested in your angle on that conversation.

I regret that I haven't seen Westworld and never finished Battlestar Galactica, although I was liking it!  (I am behind on TV as well as books as well as...you get the idea.)  My probably unpopular stance on AI is that creating actual sentient artificial intelligence and then enslaving it is morally wrong.  I'm not sure this is a practical issue; I can't remember which AI/computer scientist made this observation but someone said that there's no reason for computers to inherently *want* to conquer the world unless we program it into them, in which case we have other problems.

It's not explicitly stated, but the servitors are the slave underclass of the hexarchate.  They do the scut work.  If they all swanned off somewhere or did a strike, the hexarchate's economy would collapse.

The servitors (sentient robots) do have a role to play in Raven Stratagem, and we'll get a servitor POV character in the third book, Revenant Gun.

Ninefox feels like a cross between military SF and Greek tragedy, especially given the intensity of its moral dilemmas and central relationship. What is some of the literature that has inspired you?

I do not agree with his political views, but when I was in high school, I read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and it was the book that convinced me to switch from writing high fantasy to military-flavored sf (or science fantasy, as the case may be).  Specifically, I was interested in military ethics, and I wanted to know why Ender's instructors weren't court-martialed.

If you count a computer roleplaying game as literature, there's also Planescape: Torment, which introduced me to how consensus reality can play out in worldbuilding, and has a fabulously realized plot centered around an amnesiac immortal and the question, "What can change the nature of a man?"

And finally, while I don't actually recommend these books, there's Jack L. Chalker's Soul Rider series.  The caveat is that there are a lot of magical body transformations, including really skeevy objectifying portrayals of people being turned into gorgeous submissive bimbos, but along with the hinky sex-related stuff are some interesting magical tactics and an obsessive interest in historical processes and how they relate to the rise and fall of tyranny.

What’s next for you?

I'm currently working on Dragon Pearl, a middle grade space opera based on Korean mythology!  I figured when I pitched it that Korean mythology space opera was an underserved niche.  I was right.  I would have been happy to be wrong, though!  My heroine is a fox girl who goes hunting for her brother, whose desertion may be connected to the reappearance of the Dragon Pearl, an artifact that can terraform worlds.

After that, I'll be working on a collection of short stories set in the world of Ninefox Gambit.  I'm hoping to include a mini-gamebook in which YOU can play Jedao flailing around meeting his very first anchor!

Yoon Ha Lee's first novel, Ninefox Gambit, won the Locus Award for Best First Novel and was shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke Awards.  His short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lightspeed Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues.  He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.


Ilana Teitelbaum has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and other places. Her epic fantasy debut, Last Song Before Night, was released by Tor/Macmillan in 2015 under the pen name Ilana C. Myer. The sequel, Fire Dance, is forthcoming in 2018.

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