Yoon Ha Lee on Ridiculous F***-Ups in Sci-Fi Storytelling

We’d be lying if we said we understood everything that happened in Yoon Ha Lee’s astonishing debut space opera Ninefox Gambit, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy wandering through the labyrinth of every page. With next week’s release of the sequel, Raven Stratagem, we’re ready to do it all over again. Today, we’ve invited Yoon Ha Lee to shed a little light on what goes into building such weird, wonderful worlds. And oddly enough, sometimes that means skewing closer to fact than fiction.

Recently, I was amused to see my friend and fellow writer Seth Dickinson make this statement on Twitter about how he approaches foul-ups in The Traitor Baru Cormorant and its world

I responded that we were antiparticles. And the reason is not that he’s wrong (or that I am, for that matter). It’s a matter of different philosophical and aesthetic approaches to worldbuilding and plot in a given story.

I spent a not insignificant amount of time with my nose stuck in military history books and manuals doing research reading for the hexarchate books. One of the things that rapidly emerged was the sheer amount of WTFery that happens in warfare. Consider this example from FMFRP 12-2 Infantry in Battle:

“Indeed, there appears to be no limit, save the imagination, to the astounding situations that evolve in the darkness and confusion of war. Consider the Turkish pursuit of the British in 1915, after the Battle of Ctesiphon. The Turkish cavalry was sending in reports of the location and movements of the retiring British. The Turkish infantry was pressing forward to gain contact with the British. According to the British official history the Turkish cavalry was actually in rear of the Turkish infantry without the infantry, cavalry, or high commanders being aware of the fact. The movements attributed to the British were presumably the Turkish cavalry’s observations of its own infantry” (33).

After reading any number of examples along these lines, I decided that warfare in the hexarchate should be full of random f***-ups like this. There is nothing wrong with a narrative where omnicompetence is one of the rules of the game, but that wasn’t what I was interested in depicting in this particular story. Besides which, the hexarchate is a pretty bleak place. Random f***-ups provide some black humor for comic relief.

Of course, WTFery is a matter of degree. My personal rules of thumb were that WTFery should not favor one side over another overwhelmingly, and that it should complicate matters (especially for the protagonists) at least as often as it makes things easier for the characters involved. It’s just that much more fun for me as a writer when plans don’t go off as planned!

So Ninefox Gambit had a couturier who turned in a social rival as an “enemy” of the state, and an assassination attempt against a major character was foiled because the wrong person showed up and took custody of a basket full of bomb-laden pastries. Raven Stratagem will reveal that a particular character survived the rather deadly ending of Ninefox due to a chance f***-up, and is not done making contributions. In Revenant Gun, we’ll see a certain plan complicated by that most irritating of mathematical difficulties, the sign error. (I used to tutor math, and I have also seen people with doctorates in STEM fields bash their heads against math/physics problems because of sign errors! Never underestimate the sign error.)

Coincidences and WTFery can be used badly in fiction, but that’s true of any plot device. I’m firmly of the opinion that they can also be used well, or at least hilariously. Life is full of weirdness–why shouldn’t fiction be, if it’s fun?

Raven Stratagem will be published June 13.

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