INTERVIEW: Yoon Ha Lee, Author of CONSERVATION OF SHADOWS, on Writing and Her Attraction to Space Opera

Yoon Ha Lee is the author of over two dozen short stories, sixteen of which appear in her debut collection Conservation of Shadows. Her stories “Ghostweight” and “Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain” have been Sturgeon award finalists (both are included in the collection). Her fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Tor.com and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It tends to include math, and war, and language, and spaceships, and magic. She kindly took the time to answer a few questions for us.


Karen Burnham: Hello and thanks for taking the time to talk with us! Let’s start with the important stuff: what should people know about your debut short fiction collection, Conservation of Shadows?

Yoon Ha Lee: Conservation of Shadows contains stories in my favorite subgenres, which are “stories that have something to do with war” (which may or may not be actual military sf or fantasy) and what I think of as “science-free science fiction,” such as space opera. For the former, I have lately been drawing on Korean history, on the grounds that it is less often used as a backdrop in English-language sf/f. In particular, I find the Imjin War endlessly inspirational, not just for the spectacular ineptness of the Korean court, but because of the famous war hero Admiral Yi Sun-Shin. “Between Two Dragons” is a science-fictionalized alternate future retelling of the war, while “The Battle of Candle Arc” is directly based on Admiral Yi’s tactics at the Battle of Myeongnyang, which he won smashingly despite being outnumbered ten to one. “Iseul’s Lexicon,” which is original to the collection, has a setting smashed up between the Japanese occupation, the current division of the peninsula, and the Imjin War, and concerns genocide and the linguistics of magic.

As for science-free science fiction, or maybe science fantasy if you prefer, I figured out early on that I wasn’t going to be able to compete with people who have strong science backgrounds. I like science, physics particularly, and I’m married to a gravitational astrophysicist, but I decided instead to start with existing science fiction furniture and put my own spin on things. Usually I don’t reach for actual science or technology, but for metaphors drawn out of math. I majored in math, and there are so many unusual ideas and beautiful images that it seems a shame not to make use of them. One of my early distinct memories of a “sense of wonder” wasn’t just from a science fiction story. It came from my first encounter with Cantor’s diagonal slash proof that the real numbers are not countable.

KB: That leads me neatly to one thing that I was dying to ask you after reading this collection: dimensionality. You’ve got so many projections in these stories: origami weapons, where a 2D sheet is folded into 3D, and shadows, where a 3D object is projected onto 2D. Is that (and other math references) something that you consciously pursue?

YHL: Sometimes yes, sometimes no? In “The Shadow Postulates,” I deliberately picked shadows because there was an easy way to make an analogue to the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries, which was one of the story’s inspirations. But in other cases the math references just seep in. I started reading popular math books in high school, but it probably started with my 4th grade math teacher, Mr. Gumm. I was hardly his best student, but he discussed the most astonishing things, and one of them was Edwin Abbott’s satirical-geometrical novel Flatland. I became fascinated with dimensions ever since, even though I sadly lack the ability to visualize any of this.

I hated math for a long time, but in high school I got over this (I fell in love with proofs in 9th grade geometry), and I started reading popular math books, partly (I admit) because they had some of the coolest pictures ever. Menger sponges! The Mandelbrot set! Klein bottles! I especially loved Ivars Peterson’s The Mathematical Tourist, which I went out and bought a copy of later. I’m still attracted to the beauty of these images, and there’s no point in writing if you can’t put in the things you love.

KB:That’s so cool! Martin Gardner’s The Incredible Dr. Matrix had a similar effect on me. Is it the same for you with languages? I noticed that specifics of language and linguistics, difficulties in translation, differences in languages, etc., seemed to pop up often in your stories.

YHL: I’ve always been interested in languages, although right now English is the only one I am fluent in, sadly. My mother tongue was actually Korean, but I had an American education (long boring story) and lost most of it through disuse. I can get by in conversations with my mom on household topics and that’s it. I also had six years of French, although I’ve forgotten most of it, a year of German in college, and the equivalent of a year of Latin, also in college. At various points I also tried to pick up a little Turkish (I believe “fena fil” means “bad elephant,” please correct me if I’m wrong!), Japanese, and Welsh, not very successfully. It would probably have helped if I had stuck to one thing instead of hopping all over the place.

In high school and college I was very interested in conlanging (constructed languages), and I taught myself the rudiments of linguistics by reading textbooks and hanging out on some conlanging listserv hosted, I think, by Brown University. Some of my favorite resources were Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit, which he published as a book a few years ago; Thomas Payne’s Describing Morphosyntax; and Walter Meyer’s Aliens and Linguists, which is a linguist’s rather despairing survey of how linguistics is (mis)used in science fiction. I don’t do conlanging much anymore, except sometimes to construct a phonology to derive names from. It’s fun, but it’s also a tremendous timesuck, and I’m too lazy to start with an ancestral language and put it through language change processes and so on, especially for a short story; unless I’m doing something special, or specific to the plot, I can’t justify the time. I once spent years on this elaborate conlang with triconsonantal morphology for a novel that I ended up trunking and I want to avoid that happening again. For instance, with “Counting the Shapes” you see a bunch of faux French names because French was the foreign language (other than Korean) I was the most familiar with, and I decided to take a shortcut. Sometimes the shortcut is the more efficient solution!

I deal with difficulties in translation every time I get a letter from my mom, or try to write one to her. My mom doesn’t know very much English, so she writes to me in Korean (with words glossed for my benefit) and I write to her in the same. Korean and English have little in common. The phonologies are very different, and Korean is agglutinative, the grammar doesn’t work the same way, verbs don’t inflect for number or person but they have formality levels–if you know anything about Japanese, the basic structure is actually fairly similar. There’s a famous Korean poem by Kim Seoweol, “Jindallae” or “Azaleas,” and I once read an essay on the difficulty of translating this poem intelligibly into English. The essay includes seven translations that are each literally correct and yet each one fails to capture the beauty of the poem. It’s maddening!

Sf/f has varying levels of linguistic realism, all the way from the Dungeons & Dragons thing where everyone speaks Common as a lingua franca, or the default Star Trek thing where it seems like everyone speaks English unless you’re cool enough to get your own conlang and then you’re the Klingons, to settings where there really are multiple languages and people really do have to deal with issues of translation and interpretation and accommodation and linguistic genocide. I’ve worked both ends of the spectrum, but I am fond of the other end because it reflects the reality I grew up with, a home where two languages were spoken. I’m only sorry my knowledge of linguistics and languages isn’t more equal to the task of writing more stories that explore this.

KB: The other place that the linguistics shines through is in the clash of cultures. I notice that the stories in Conservation of Shadows often deal with the consequences of violence, especially in terms of occupation of a city or territory by a military faction. How did that scenario come to play a role in your fiction?

YHL: Korea was occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945, and in fact one of my grandfathers went to university in Japan and was fluent in Japanese. The whole question of collaboration vs. resistance looks messy all around, and I poke at it in fiction sometimes, but I don’t have any answers. I never talked to my grandparents about any of this, mainly because of the language barrier. Embarrassingly, I think I found out that my grandfather knew Japanese when my mother took one of my manga to him to get the sound effects translated! (He apparently did this with good humor.)

I’ve always been interested in history, but for me there’s a slight disconnect when I read about something like the Battle of Agincourt because neither the French nor the English feels like “my” people, and I’ve never been there so I can’t begin to visualize the land. With Korean history, it’s easier to feel a connection, however tenuous. (As a point of fact, my mother finds my obsession with the Imjin War and Admiral Yi Sun-Shin really funny. Which doesn’t stop her from enabling me.)

KB: Finally, that brings me to Space Opera. How did you come to be attracted to that form?

YHL: I think the first two space operas I fell in love with were Douglas Hill’s YA sf series The Last Legionary and Margaret Weis’s Star of the Guardians series. The former cheerfully goes through a bunch of sf tropes as though Hill was checking them off with abandon. The Weis has a nice big plot about a corrupt democracy, a brooding and ambitious warlord, the female amnesiac visionary starfighter who is psionically linked to him, a mercenary and his mouthy computer…I reread most of it recently and was surprised at how fast the action came.

I enjoy improbable big space battles, and the nice thing about space opera is that no one expects you to be hard sf about it, which gives me the opportunity to play. (I like hard sf! I’m just completely unqualified to write it.) High stakes, larger-than-life characters: subtlety is usually wasted on me, and the fact that space opera is an in-your-face genre appeals to me a lot.

KB: You’ve mentioned that you don’t necessarily visualize everything going on when you’re writing; how do you approach writing space operatic battles? They seem almost fundamentally cinematic.

YHL: I sadly lack the ability to visualize in my head, which I wish I had. But for some stories it doesn’t matter. Usually I look for a big floaty vivid metaphor and anchor everything to it. “The Black Abacus” has combat that’s more or less based on information theory, but locations, distances–I don’t use any of that. “Ghostweight” is also really vague about specific actions. The one time recently I had to get more specific was in “The Battle of Candle Arc,” and for that one I finally wised up and drew a diagram–space is three-dimensional and the diagram is flat, but the two-space diagram was sufficient to deal with the calendrical terrain, especially since I knew enough of what was going on in the +/- z-axis to handwave it.

I know that when I read really location-specific battle descriptions, I get lost very quickly because I can’t “see” what’s going on without diagramming it out or using miniatures (which is exhausting if all I want to do is read a book for leisure). So what I try to convey is a sense of action, who’s winning, who’s losing, who just did something spectacular, any emotions such as desperation or exhaustion or anger. Throw in a few descriptive details, not necessarily in the “ship X was such-and-such distance from ship Y” sense, but the sounds of whatever computer system, the shapes of weapons. Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet books are good for this–I can’t follow the fleet actions at all (and anyway the relativity doesn’t pan out, which is fine in space opera), but he does a good job of conveying what the important inflection points are in the action, and I’m able to ride along that way.

KB: Wonderful! Thank you so much for your time and your writing. Before we let you go, what’s coming up next for you?

YHL: Start shopping around a space opera novel (same setting as “The Battle of Candle Arc”) so I can, one way or another, kick it out of my life. If that fails, I have a chamber orchestra piece that I’ve been meaning to sequence in Reaper/Vienna Special Edition for the last year, or I could finally take the time to learn how to draw properly or screw around with fountain pen repair. Really, there are plenty of options and Youtube tutorials for everything. Not all technological advances are completely evil!


Intrigued? Check out Yoon Ha Lee’s short story”The Black Abacus“!

2 thoughts on “INTERVIEW: Yoon Ha Lee, Author of CONSERVATION OF SHADOWS, on Writing and Her Attraction to Space Opera”

  1. Sounds like an absolutely wonderful collection. Really enjoyed the interview and am intrigued by the variety of influences and inspirations. Will be looking into this.

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