In which we host Yoon Ha Lee talking about Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, which is out next week on June 13.
You Were Watching What on TV, Cheris?
Yoon Ha Lee
One of the most entertaining things I’ve gotten to do in the background worldbuilding for the hexarchate is its popular culture. For example, in Ninefox Gambit, my heroine Cheris spends her free time watching crackalicious TV shows (“dramas”). In Raven Stratagem, one of the Kel recalls a classmate who used to read trashy adventures involving “dungeon-crawling” in the bowels of the campus. And it also reveals that Jedao’s mom used to like reading equally trashy sci-fi novels involving survivalists and tentacled monsters from outer space. Just because she’s a science fantasy character doesn’t mean she can’t like sci-fi, right?
I have seen people remarking on how ridiculous these stories sound. On the one hand, sure; I usually constructed the examples to be humorous. I was trolling when I mentioned a “dolphin chorale” in one of the dramas that Cheris watches. If you really want to know, I was inspired by that one character in the Eyeshield 21 anime whose special move is symbolized by a galloping mustang or the like. (This is an anime about Japanese high schoolers playing American football, by the way!)
But on the other hand, ridiculous is as ridiculous does. Narrative conventions are socially and culturally determined. I did not grow up watching anime and was introduced to it by my boyfriend in college, and I remember what the adjustment period was like to some of the visual conventions: bleeding noses as expressions of, er, lust; super-deformed and chibi depictions of characters; X-shaped throbbing veins as a shorthand for anger. I can only imagine that some Western comics conventions look equally odd to someone encountering them for the first time: a saw and a log for snoring; different kinds of bubbles for text (speech, telepathy, thoughts…); four-fingered hands for ease of drawing. All this just to say that yes, Cheris’s dramas might be ridiculous–but they’re not inherently more ridiculous than some of the things that exist in American media (or Japanese, Korean, etc.).
The other thing that had occurred to me when I came up with Cheris’s dramas was that of course the hexarchate would have its own popular culture. I didn’t spend a huge amount of time on it, not least because coming up with fictional works within fictional works can take a tremendous amount of effort to do well. (Writing the books was hard enough by itself!) But I did want to hint that the hexarchate’s citizens watched their equivalent of TV, and read books, and so on, for entertainment.
The hexarchate’s popular culture also allowed me to poke fun at tropes, sometimes including ones that showed up in the story itself. Brezan complains about Kel cadets in stories who never run out of ammo. I’m pretty sure that Raven Stratagem only once mentions how much ammunition a weapon has gone through, largely because my firearms experience is impoverished and designing realistic future guns is not one of my ambitions. I hope the rest of the bad nested fiction in the hexarchate amuses y’all!
A Korean-American sf/f writer who majored in math, Yoon finds it a source of continual delight that math can be mined for story ideas. Yoon’s fiction has appeared in publications such as F&SF, Tor.com, and Clarkesworld Magazine, as well as several year’s best anthologies.