Interview: Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee is a poet whose lyrical prose brings beauty to military sci–fi, and a game designer who teases out the depths of a story until you end up somewhere you never imagined. He has written over 40 short stories, has been a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, and the WSFA Small Press Award, and his stories have appeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction Anthologies. It’s impossible to pin a genre label on Yoon Ha Lee’s writing as he drifts between hard science fiction and fantasy with ease. But a hallmark is his ability to leave a reader thinking about his characters long after the story is finished. “Interlingua” is a perfect example. A story, built in layers, echoes the mechanics of communication itself and will leave you wanting more of the exasperated ship Hwacha.

Uncanny Magazine: Sentient space ships are a standard SF trope, yet your ship has an impertinent, exasperated personality. It’s a delightful head–tilt moment when you realize the ship has the persona of a frustrated middle manager. Do you have a favorite sentient ship in SF/F media? How did you determine the personality of this ship?

Yoon Ha Lee: My first encounter with that particular trope was probably Helga in Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang. I felt for Helga and her partners, and I loved the fact that she was musically talented. That being said, my favorites in more recent fiction include Falling Outside the Normal Moral Constraints (Demeisen) from Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail for its (his?) casual and inventive cruelty and, in general, the ships in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy for their complicated relationship to their crews and ancillaries.

I seem to have developed a reputation among my friends for writing war and genocide fiction, but when I was in middle school, I enjoyed writing humorous stories for my friends. For this story I wanted the tone to be lighter, and that led to my making the Hwacha rather grumpy and impatient with bureaucracy.

Uncanny Magazine: In 2011 it was reported that gamers cracked an enzyme riddle that could prove to help provide a cure for AIDS among other diseases. As someone who has written interactive fiction games, how do you see interactive gameplay as both a creative exercise and as a scientific exercise?

Yoon Ha Lee: I’ve seen discussions of whether games necessarily have to be “fun” to be considered games. Certainly they are more enjoyable to play if they’re fun! I’ve also been looking at “gamification” as a way of motivating people. In reading up on game design theory I was struck by the way it can incorporate behavior modification: the rules should reward the behaviors you want your players to display. I imagine you could apply this to both creativity and scientific endeavors, especially in the realm of simulations, training games, and educational games.

The tricky part about creativity is that sometimes game formats limit the kinds of solutions people come up with. I’m most familiar with this in the context of writing parser IF (interactive fiction, or text adventures). The game can only do what it’s been programmed to do, which can be frustrating for players who come up with a solution that seems like it should work but which the game’s author has not anticipated.

Uncanny Magazine: “Interlingua” examines communication in traditional and non–traditional forms and how it is affected by different cultures. As someone with an interest in linguistics, do you think that language or ideology is the biggest hindrance to effective communication? Do you think increased platforms, such as social media, have made communication easier or more difficult?

Yoon Ha Lee: The biggest hindrance to communication is human nature, so I suppose I fall on the side of ideology here. But as pessimistic as that sounds, it’s not all bad; human nature also causes people to want to understand each other and work together. As far as I can tell, people become invested in the stories they tell about themselves, and resist having those stories challenged. The hard part in communicating is doing so without causing people’s defenses to slam down. I may think that Person X is completely wrong about Topic Y, but in my experience, telling them how wrong they are never changes their mind. However horrifying, counterintuitive, or weird I find Person X’s opinion or belief, there is some reason they hold it, and I’ll never understand why if I don’t listen to them. (That’s not to say that I’m ever going to agree with Person X, necessarily. Sometimes Person X is hostile to my existence, but that’s all the more reason to understand them. As Sun Tzu says, “Know your enemy and know yourself…”)

Social media makes it easier to find people who agree (or disagree!) with you. This seems to result in echo chambers. It’s good for people to be able to found communities that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise, but I wonder sometimes if this also causes people to give up on talking to those who don’t agree with them. And to be clear, that can be a sane, necessary, or healthy choice; on the other hand, I often remind myself that if I only talked to people who shared my opinions on everything, I would have no one to talk to.

Uncanny Magazine: Do you see gameplay expanding into a form of communication?

Yoon Ha Lee: It already is! Even a game as simple as tag or Pong involves the transmission of intent. Admittedly, that communication might not be very sophisticated, but it’s there.

Uncanny Magazine: You’ve stated that the way words sound in a work is very important to you, which is a concept that people usually associate with poetry. You’ve written and published poetry in the past but have focused more recently on prose. How do you see elements of poetry working in a prose format?

Yoon Ha Lee: I like using techniques I learned from poetry such as alliteration, rhyme, pararhyme; I pay attention to rhythm. When I read text, I always hear it in my head, so it’s impossible to escape the sound. If the rhythm is jarring, or the sound isn’t right, it bothers me. Granted, this may not matter to visual readers, but since I’m the one producing words, I have to deal with it!

Uncanny Magazine: In a Locus interview you said that, as a child, you wanted to be a composer but instead decided to become a writer. Yet, you went to Stanford and studied math. I think it can be argued that these three disciplines aren’t necessarily that different. You are combining elements in order to reach a conclusion whether it be a melody, a solution to an equation, or a story. How do you see these three parts of your life intersecting?

Yoon Ha Lee: Writing, music, and math feel to me like different ways to express similar underlying structures. One of my music projects is to compose chamber orchestra/electronica pieces to “score” my space opera novels and their major characters. I once looked into the work that goes into TV/movie/game scoring and it sounds like the stress would kill me, but as a hobby I can do it without worrying about external deadlines. I enjoy the challenge of trying to express personality and character through music. (For example, I’m convinced that one character has to be represented by an oboe.) And of course music is very mathematical in the way that it’s structured. As for writing, I tend to write didactically, as though the story was a proof. That’s something my professors probably didn’t expect me to learn from their classes!

Uncanny Magazine: There are so many layers of communication at work in “Interlingua” and the nuance is fabulous. For example, the Xhleen cook, a member of a militant race, calls the ship Friend Hwacha, a hwacha being a sixteenth century Korean arrow rocket launcher. When writing, do you build these layers as you go or do you start with a conclusion and later add in the variables to make the conclusion work?

Yoon Ha Lee: I usually start with a pretty clear idea of the plot structure. I respect writers who can do it by the seat of their pants, but if I don’t know the beginning, midpoint, ending, and key conflict before I start writing, chances are I won’t be able to finish writing the story. That being said, a lot of worldbuilding details get made up on the fly. Someone once asked me how much worldbuilding I do in advance, and my answer, for a short story, was, “As little as I can get away with”—it’s not efficient to design a whole complicated year’s worth of world for a 5,000–word short story when I’m never going to revisit that world, you know?

What I do is I try to read widely, especially nonfiction, but also things like game reviews. (I used to tear through issues of PC Gamer, which helped when it came to writing this story!) I let all those topics rattle through my head and inform what I’m doing, but it’s not systematic. There are writers for whom the systematic approach works; I’ve tried that, but for me it tends to cause me to lose my enthusiasm for what I’m doing.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you so much for chatting with Uncanny Magazine!

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

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