In a special author interview for BCS Science-Fantasy Month, BCS Assistant Editor Kate Marshall talks with Yoon Ha Lee about “The Book of Locked Doors,” magic and technology being in opposition, an occupied people as neither passive victims nor virtuous heroes, and carved keyholes and giant bird-gods.
BCS: You’ve published work in a variety of genres. How do you approach genre in your work? Are you conscious of genre boundaries and sub-genres when you craft your worlds?
Lee: Based on observation, my working definition of “fantasy” is “has magic in it, usually actively called magic” and my working definition of science fiction is “has spaceships in it, even if their workings have nothing at all to do with the laws of physics.” There are obviously other types of fantasy and science fiction, but I don’t write them so I don’t worry about the classifications.
I used to think the difference had to do with a certain type of rigor, but that’s clearly not the case. Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy has a very rigorously worked out magic system, whereas Warhammer 40,000, as far as I can tell, runs on Lovecraftian horrors but has Space Marines and spaceships so is clearly science fiction. (Not hard SF, admittedly. But still, spaceships.)
I can say that the thing I like about SF/F generally is that you get to choose your battlefields. I avoid writing anything set in the contemporary world or in the historical past because there are constraints based on what is or was actually true and the reader will know about them. If I write in a secondary world, I control the situation, I control much more of what the reader knows about the world, and that allows me to corner the reader more easily. So in that sense, genre is a tactical decision.
BCS: In “The Book of Locked Doors,” magic and technology are largely in opposition to one another. At the start of the story, the technologically savvy Meroi are the dominant faction. How have the societies been shaped by which type of power they embrace?
Lee: What’s interesting to me about the Meroi is that they’re imperialists, and they can succeed as imperialists because whatever their military doctrine is, it works with their technology base.
Vayag’s people have some magical abilities with clear military applications, but their magic is largely used for religious purposes. Which is great up until the point that invaders show up with levitating fortresses.
BCS: You draw a vivid portrait of an occupied people, neither passive victims nor virtuous heroes. Can Vayag’s people and the Meroi be divided into right and wrong?
Lee: When I wrote about the two peoples, I was thinking about the Japanese occupation of Korea. I’ve been struck for years by something one of my teachers said about the occupation, that the Japanese did a lot to modernize and industrialize Korea, both of which are true. But I can’t help but think that Korea did not choose to be occupied and that it’s a bit much to expect us to be grateful.
I imagine most of Vayag’s people go along with the occupation because resistance is difficult and genuinely gets people killed. The resistance has been using terror tactics, but when you’re weak, a full frontal assault on the strong is just stupid.
I honestly don’t know which side I come down on. I’ve never been forced to make that decision; even if you look at my family history, you have people who made opposite choices during the Japanese occupation, and I don’t feel I’m in a position to judge.
BCS: Vayag’s possession of the book puts her in an important position in the events of the tale, but it is her personal, moral struggle which drives much of her action. Why did you choose to have her main drive be at such an intimate level?
Lee: Once upon a time, in high school, I wrote a novel (which was terrible), in which the motivation for war was economics. A resource shortfall, basically. When I put the thing through beta, I learned that people fall asleep when you make characters go to war over a resource shortfall.
I decided, once I’d figured that out, that you should still have the resource shortfall so the war makes sense, but throw in some kind of personal conflict on top so the reader has something to relate to at the character level. It’s the same thing here.
I spent a lot of time in high school trying to write very abstract stories about ethical dilemmas, and it never worked out (or anyway, it never did for me). You have to personalize the conflict.
BCS: The magic in your stories is full of powerful imagery, such as the carved keyholes and the giant bird-god. How do you choose these striking images?
Lee: The keyholes fell out of the air years back in a short story that I started and never finished. It was about an archer who shot keyholes into people. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it, so I scrapped the story for parts and recycled the image.
As for the bird-god, I confess that that is my thank-you to Harlan Ellison for “The Deathbird,” which was one of the stories I read in high school that blew my head open with what you can do with storytelling.
My basic rule for imagery is that you pick something that the reader knows and will respond to out of rote – fire, flowers, a bird – and then you give it a ninety-degree twist through an axis they’re not expecting, to make it stick out in their head. It’s a ridiculous trick, and I keep thinking people are going to get bored of it, but it works enough of the time that I keep using it.
BCS: What other work do you find inspiring, either fictional or otherwise?
Lee: K.J. Parker’s works take my breath away. For this specific story, I also found the anime Code Geass inspiring. It’s an interestingly plotty and symmetric story about two men taking opposite approaches to reform/rebellion against a background of imperialism and mecha.
Most of the time, though, I get most of my inspiration from nonfiction: math, music theory, military history, skimming random articles on Ars Technica, whatever I can get my hands on. Sometimes roleplaying games as well – you can find some terrific worldbuilding in RPGs, and although I haven’t played in a campaign in years, I still love reading the sourcebooks.
BCS: What’s next for you? What are you working on at the moment?
Lee: I currently have a space opera novel going through beta—it has a dystopian society that runs off abstract algebra and a protagonist whose worst enemy is the brilliant undead general assigned to her as an advisor. I had to be talked out of putting more math in, but at least I’m going to blow things up? After that, I have to decide whether I want to work on the tactical linguistics or try to come up with some more science fiction. It should be fun figuring that out.