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Guest Post by Yoon Ha Lee, author of “The Machineries of Empire”

Book cover of Revenant Gun with a space ship between what appears to be an orrery, with a star-filled space behind.

I have been lucky enough to review all the books in “The Machineries of Empire” series by Yoon Ha Lee. Although all three might be said to sit within the science fiction subgenre of space opera, each of the trilogy had a particular focus. The first, Ninefox Gambit, introduced the genocidal, Immolation Fox, General Shuos Jedao, pulled out of the notorious prison of his black cradle to do battle for the heptarchate once again, by his mind being inserted into a willing host, Captain Kel Cheris. The interplay between these two personalities, each vying for supremacy of the other within a broad tactical landscape, was riveting, as were the accounts of land and space battles. The second book, Raven Stratagem, really went into Jedao’s tactical methodology in a tense thriller which had no less an interesting outcome than the first book. The third, Revenant Gun, dug deep into Jedao’s past and got to the core of who Jedao really was, as well as the reason why he ended up being a genocidal psychopath.

All this indicated a highly complex society where social groups exist within a tightly controlled military and political framework. It was a world where the faint-hearted would have treated us to some lengthy world building before we really got going with the story. Not so Yoon Ha Lee, who leapt straight in there with both feet and started sprinting. I was interested to know more about this style of worldbuilding on the fly and was fortunate in being able to have him write a guest blog post as part of the Revenant Gun blog tour.

Book cover of Ninefox Gambit with a spaceship which appears to be bristling with black spines.

NOTE: spoilers for Ninefox Gambitand Raven Stratagem.

I wish I could tell you that I planned the world of the hexarchate/heptarchate in exquisite gory detail in advance. Instead, what happened was that I compiled a list of some basic ideas about the six/seven factions and winged everything else. There are some writers – Tolkien is the most notable example – who delve deeply into their worlds and figure out all the deep history. I’m not one of those people; I rely on a general sense of the mood I want to evoke and build details around that mood. In this case, the mood was “grimdark dystopia with occasional Asian-ish flourishes.”

So, for example, I didn’t have to think too hard about things like the fact that the Kel are running around serving gimchi in space (“Kel pickles”), or that everyone is using chopsticks. People do drink tea, but I made a point of having multiple characters who are not that into tea because I got so tired of the “Asians are into tea” stereotype. (Ironically, I do like tea…but my introduction was Lipton tea from the Commissary.)

For a more substantive example, formation instinct – the brainwashing imposed on Kel soldiers that ordinarily makes them unable to disobey orders – was a spur-of-the-moment worldbuilding decision that I made in the first chapter. That’s not a small decision! I made it up on the spot, but I was willing to follow the implications where they led, because it ended up informing not only Kel culture but the plots of all three novels. If I had removed formation instinct from the setting, it would have changed all three books completely.

For example, since so many of the characters are Kel, formation instinct informs how they relate to each other. It enables Cheris to use her “identity” as “General Shuos Jedao” to hijack General Khiruev’s swarm at the beginning of Raven Stratagem. The fact that Kel Brezan doesn’t have formation instinct, even though he’s in denial about it, is a major part of his identity. And it will come into play again in Revenant Gun, of course.

Although it’s proven controversial, I opted for a more immersion-style approach to getting the reader used to the world because it’s something I enjoy in my own reading. My favorite example of this is C. J. Cherryh’s The Faded Sun. For me, if (for example) a candlevine gives off illumination and is used pretty much where you’d use a light bulb, that’s enough for me. The name hints at its appearance (plant-like) and I personally don’t need a long paragraph explaining where they come from, how they’re grown, and how they work. Of course there are kinds of science fiction and fantasy where authors include this kind of explanation, and there’s nothing wrong with that either; I recently read Neal Asher’s The Soldier and he’s fantastic at incorporating explanations of some pretty wild technology and aliens. Different readers have different preferences for how they want their worlds presented to them and that’s fine.

As for the story arc throughout the trilogy, I pretty much took it one book at a time. That’s because Ninefox was originally going to be a stand-alone, except after I finished it I had an idea for what Cheris would do next. And I was going to stop with Raven Stratagem, except after I finished it I had an idea for what to do next. (Hint: I have been fond of amnesiac protagonists ever since I read Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber.) Fortunately, since I had two and a half books written before Solaris made their offer, I was able to go back and change things in books one and two to smooth out the continuity throughout and lay the groundwork for things that would happen in book three. Hexarch Kujen originally died in Raven Stratagem exactly where you’d expect him to, but I decided he made a much more interesting big bad for the trilogy and changed that so I could make use of him in Revenant Gun, where he is a major character.

Book cover of Raven Stratagem showing bat-shaped spaceships attacking disc-shaped structures piled on top of one another and exploding.

 

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