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Exclusive Interview: Yoon Ha Lee on the OPERATION ARCANA Story “The Graphology of Hemorrhage”

SF Signal is pleased to present a series of interviews with the authors of the military fantasy anthology, Operation Arcana edited by John Joseph Adams and available now from Baen books.

Here’s what Operation Arcana is about:

In the realms of fantasy, the battlefield is where heroism comes alive, magic is unleashed, and legends are made and unmade. From the War of the Ring, Tolkien’s epic battle of good versus evil, to The Battle of the Blackwater, George R.R. Martin’s grim portrait of the horror and futility of war, these fantastical conflicts reflect our highest hopes and darkest fears, bringing us mesmerizing visions of silver spears shining in the sun and vast hordes of savage beasts who threaten to destroy all that we hold dear.

Now acclaimed editor John Joseph Adams is sounding the battle cry and sixteen of today’s top authors are reporting for duty, spinning never-before-published, spellbinding tales of military fantasy, including a Black Company story from Glen Cook, a Paksenarrion story from Elizabeth Moon, and a Shadow Ops story by Myke Cole. Within these pages you’ll also find World War I trenches cloaked in poison gas and sorcery, modern day elite special forces battling hosts of the damned, and steampunk soldiers fighting for their lives in a world torn apart by powers that defy imagination.

Featuring both grizzled veterans and fresh young recruits alike, including Tanya Huff, Simon R. Green, Carrie Vaughn, Jonathan Maberry, and Seanan McGuire, Operation Arcana is a must for any military buff or fantasy fan.

You’ll never look at war the same way again.

In this “mission debrief” Yoon Ha Lee talks to Sandra M. Odell about his Operation Arcana story “The Graphology of Hemorrhage”…

Yoon Ha Lee’s work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lightspeed. Lee’s short story collection Conservation of Shadows came out in 2013 from Prime Books. Lee’s stories have also appeared in the anthologies The Year’s Best SF 18, ed. David Hartwell; The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012, ed. Rich Horton; and The Year’s Best Science Fiction 29, ed. Gardner Dozois. Lee lives in Louisiana. Learn more at

Sandra M. Odell: The characters for “The Graphology of Hemorrhage” are as rich as the setting, and as intricate as the system of magic you have devised for the story. Where did you find your inspiration for Nawong and Kodai?

Yoon Ha Lee: I knew I would only have two “real” characters in this story—two characters who had names and who would have lines of dialogue and become real to the reader–so I wanted them to have a close, amiable relationship. I liked the idea of this poor aide expecting to be assigned to some spoiled rich brat of an magician and being won over by the fact that she was not, in fact, what he expected her to be. I also knew there would be a class divide along with the rank one, so that while they would be close, they wouldn’t ever entirely overcome that divide. Both characters grew from there.

SMO: The system of written magic is very precise, much like the machining of the gears of a war machine, yet are threatened by something as small as a drop of rain. The cost to the magician of wielding such power is also very precise. When creating such magic, how did you see it having come about, the pitfalls and victories of the research?

YHL: I like to think of most fantasy magic systems as coming in two general flavors, ambient and technological. (I apologize for my terminology! I’ve never developed a good vocabulary for this.) Ambient magic is what I see in Patricia McKillip’s fiction, and a lot of fairy tales, where magic is part of the environment and it’s not something you can really control in precise ways; it operates more like metaphor.

Technological magic is what you see in L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s Recluce stories, or in pretty much anything by Brandon Sanderson that I’ve read, such as the Mistborn books, where magic is worked out according to defined principles and its ramifications are carefully considered–if those laws of magic existed in our world, I could guarantee that some engineering-minded person would use magic as portrayed and you would be able to codify it in math.

Although I didn’t have the space to work out great levels of detail, I thought of the calligraphy magic as being more like a technological system. I expect it would have the same pitfalls and victories as learning how to build good bridges before people developed the mathematical tools. (This is my guess, anyway; I’m not an engineer or an architect, so the question of how to make a good bridge is very mysterious to me.) There would be a lot of trial and error at first and then people would start codifying principles in the interest of saving lives, or even just out of sheer scientific curiosity.

SMO: Concepts such as diversity and inclusion are almost continuously under attack by those who feel the deliberate and open representation of characters that reach beyond the expected cis-gendered, Caucasian “norm” is somehow a threat to SF/F. Your works are filled with characters that speak to readers of any number of races, preferences, and ideologies. Did you deliberately set out to forge a new mold for SF/F, or are you adding elements of your own life to write stories you would like to read?

YHL: Some from column A and some from column B. I grew up writing stories about cis-gendered straight Caucasian characters because that was what I grew up reading. I had little concept that anything else could exist because the examples weren’t available. Some years back, I started becoming aware of this as a problem by reading people’s book and social justice discussions on LiveJournal and similar venues.

I’m not an online activist; I don’t have the temperament for it. But I do write stories. And I think about people who might want to see themselves represented in stories, the way I used to want to see myself represented. I have an eleven-year-old daughter and I remember taking her into a comic book store when she was five or six, and she walked past all the male superheroes and made a beeline for the $40 Wonder Woman statue I couldn’t afford to buy her at the time. When I write female protagonists, I think of her.

I’m also trans, identifying as male, and I’m queer. I don’t write about gender as much because I still find it painful to talk about. But back when I was reading science fiction in high school, as a trans teenager, pretty much the only representation I got was in the works of Jack L. Chalker and Piers Anthony. The trans representations in their works are deeply problematic and I wish there had been some other alternatives. I took what I could get–I still have nostalgic fondness for Jack L. Chalker, maybe I’m the only person for whom that’s true–but I want there to be better options too.

I may not be the right person to write such stories, but maybe I can make some attempts in that direction. When I wrote “Wine” (Clarkesworld, January 2014), that story has a trans* protagonist, and it was hard–maybe one of the hardest stories I’ve ever written–because of the autobiographical elements that came along for the ride. Different people are going to want different things from their fiction. Some people want to envision a happier future, and that’s completely legitimate–God knows, this world we have is far from perfect. In my case, I prefer to write about the world I’ve lived, because that’s how I’m able to be honest about my own experiences. Reading about happy alternate futures just makes me more sad and bitter that I’m stuck here, so that’s the direction I took. The more people do this kind of writing, the more options there will be so that readers can find what is right for them.

SMO: We never learn much of the Spiders’ grievances and motives. How do you see the conflict between the Spiders and the Empire having come about?

YHL: The sad, prosaic answer to this is probably a combination of fighting over wanted resources and trying to secure defensible borders. (I’m so tempted to say “sheep.” My husband and sister are really into Age of Empires 2 right now.) I should have made this more vivid in the story, though. I once wrote a (now-trunked) fantasy novel in which a war was incited, fundamentally, by the closing of an alum mine screwing up the local economy. Every single one of my beta readers agreed that this was a boring reason to go to war. Lesson learned! Now I go in for genocides. It’s much easier to get readers behind a good (fictional) genocide.

(Just to be absolutely clear, I do not endorse genocides in real life!)

SMO: The depth of detail you give to the process and interpretation of calligraphy is amazing. Do you practice this art?

YHL: Sort of? Yes? Not really? I self-taught myself basic Western (Roman alphabet) calligraphy when I was a kid using those chisel-tipped marker pens, mostly Italic. I never got very good at it, but I had fun and eventually worked my way up to dip pens, including a set of Brause nibs that are honestly much nicer than my skill level. I have a book by Cari Buziak that I keep meaning to learn from, _Calligraphy Magic_, except I keep getting distracted by staring at her beautiful examples.

There is apparently legitimate (Asian) calligraphy in my family: my mother once told me that she used to watch her father do calligraphy when she was younger. He would have learned this under the Japanese occupation; he attended university in Japan. I never got to see any of this. I don’t know anything useful about East Asian calligraphies, although I’ve messed around with a brush. Mostly what I learned is that trying to make a single clean stroke is a lot harder than it looks!

Although the calligraphy in the story is loosely based on what I know of East Asian calligraphy, the whole concept of calligraphy magic comes instead from my small but ridiculous collection of books on Western graphology (not graphanalysis). I started reading these in libraries as a child and find them wacky and delightful, especially when they start making predictions about deviant bedroom predilections based on how you form y’s and g’s.

SMO: What is the appeal of military fantasy? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

YHL: I like it for the same reason that I like military sf–as a fictional playground for examining questions of military ethics. When I was in high school I started reading up on things like My Lai and genocide and related topics, and I’ve remained interested in the ways that history and human nature play out in war. Maybe that’s a dark reason to be attracted to a topic. I don’t, personally, have a military background of any form, although you can make me dewy-eyed about the terrible Lipton tea we used to get from the Commissary back when my dad was an Army surgeon.

I also enjoy the more intellectual side of thinking about tactics and strategy and logistics–military history is one of my favorite types of nonfiction–and the historical pageantry of reading about colorful military history figures. I’m guessing that’s part of the appeal for many readers as well.

SMO: What are some of your favorite examples of military fantasy, and what makes them your favorites?

YHL: Steven Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates, #2 in the Malazan Books of the Fallen. I was on tenterhooks reading about Coltaine’s campaign. I really had the sense of being there, except from the nice safe comfort of my house because honestly, I am a marshmallow and I don’t *really* want to have been anywhere near the brutal things that happened to Coltaine’s army. Glen Cook’s Black Company books for their grittiness. Paul Kearney’s Monarchies of God series has military fantasy elements, although it’s also epic fantasy. Pure grimdark, which is great because I *love* my grimdark. His trilogy starting with The Ten Thousand is supposed to be military fantasy but I haven’t been able to get the first book in the trilogy out of any local bookstore, which is driving me mad. And while we’re at it, does Warhammer 40,000 count as fantasy or science fiction? I adore the over-the-top unending war of grimdarkness, but it doesn’t seem very science-based to me…

For female authors/co-authors, I enjoyed the first books of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, although I don’t know much about Napoleonic or air warfare. And for something rather older, alongside the adventure/epic strand, the Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman has a military strand that I enjoyed very much, especially since you have two capable female military leaders–Kitiara on the evil side, and Lauralanthalasa stepping up on the heroes’ side. I was addicted to Dragonlance in middle school and learned a lot about writing from those books!

For authors of unknown sex/gender, K.J. Parker’s The Company–the last paragraph sort of paraglides into what-on-earth territory, but up until that point there’s a lot of great esprit and tension and a killer plot. I kind of had a crush on Kunessin for the longest time, which tells you something about me right there.


About Kristin Centorcelli (842 Articles)
Kristin Centorcelli is the Associate Editor at SF Signal, proprietor of My Bookish Ways, a reviewer for Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and has also written for Crime Fiction Lover, Criminal Element, and Mystery Scene Magazine. She has been reviewing books since late 2010, in an effort to get through a rather immense personal library, while also discussing it with whoever will willingly sit still (and some that won’t).

5 Comments on Exclusive Interview: Yoon Ha Lee on the OPERATION ARCANA Story “The Graphology of Hemorrhage”

  1. Blue Tyson // March 11, 2015 at 10:14 pm //

    The Ten Thousand is science fiction disguised as fantasy pretty much. The Xenophon take there has a group of soldiers fighting back through alien lands. With their advantage being better armour that morphs to the wearer (along with their tactics, etc.) Hints of it being technology, that sort of thing.

    So yes, one for your military fantasy list in that sense, but there is nothing supernatural…unless you call the armour magic of course.

  2. Adam Callaway // March 12, 2015 at 11:59 am //

    Lovely interview, but Yoon Ha Lee is a woman.

    • Er…did you read the interview?

      >>”I’m also trans, identifying as male”

      • Adam Callaway // March 12, 2015 at 5:50 pm //

        This is very, very embarrassing, especially considering that he’s one of my favorite authors. Just teaches me to do more than skim before making a comment. Thank you very much for pointing this out to me, John.

  3. Adam Callaway // March 12, 2015 at 5:45 pm //

    Obviously not closely enough. I apologize.

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