Fruitcakes and Gimchi in SPAAACE is an essay by Yoon Ha Lee that originally appeared in the second volume of The Book Smugglers’ Quarterly Quarterly Almanac in September 2016.
Fruitcakes and Gimchi in SPAAACE
Once upon a time, I read a science fiction novel by Elizabeth Moon in which one of the plot points revolved around a fruitcake. (I’m not naming the novel because this is a bit of a spoiler, but if you’ve read it, you’ll recognize it.) I have heard stories of fruitcakes, mostly lamenting their bricklike texture and lack of flavor. Indeed, part of the plot point hinged on the reader being aware of this common judgment of fruitcakes.
I’m not knocking the book! It was a hilarious plot point and I roared when I saw how cleverly Moon had worked it in. But it did make me think: Why couldn’t I put Korean food into my science fiction, instead of familiar Western foods? And so, when I wrote my space opera Ninefox Gambit, which takes place in a secondary world populated by cockamamie Asians, I decided that my space forces were going to flit around the galaxy serving gimchi to their troops. (Alas, the gimchi is not a clever plot point. It’s just background food culture.)
My earlier sf/f stories drew on Western culture and history because the sf/f I read growing up did, and I was emulating the models in front of me. To be sure, I’d run into occasional exceptions, some problematic, some less so. I’d enjoyed Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’ Empire trilogy and Geraldine Harris’s Seven Citadels quartet. Even so, it took years for me to see that I had other alternatives.
I spent half my childhood in South Korea, and eventually it occurred to me that I could mine this for worldbuilding purposes, even if I didn’t formally study any Korean history until college. Prof. Barry S. Strauss’s course on War and Diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula, covering both the Imjin War and the Korean War, proved too good to resist. This may be the Korean in me speaking, but as far as storytelling drama goes, it’s almost impossible to improve on the Imjin War. You have Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, undefeated at sea, who is thrown in jail and tortured despite his victories thanks to political intrigues. You have the gisaeng (artisan-entertainer women, similar to Japanese geisha) Nongae, who lured a Japanese general to a cliff and flung herself over the edge with him, killing them both. You have the Battle of Myeongnyang, in which Admiral Yi defeated the Japanese navy while outnumbered ten to one. If science fiction had its far future Roman analogues and samurai analogues, why not Joseon Korea analogues? And so I wrote “Between Two Dragons,” a what-if based loosely on the Imjin War and the question of Yi’s stubborn loyalty; and later, “The Battle of Candle Arc,” whose tactics are based on the tactics at Myeongnyang.
Part of my motivation for using Myeongnyang was selfish. It’s an example of a spectacular underdog victory that Western readers wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with. That’s not a criticism of people who didn’t know about it. I didn’t know about the specific battle until college, although I’d grown up with vague stories about Admiral Yi, and I lived in Korea before then! (Ironically, I spent my high school years reading military history, all right—I read Caesar, Tacitus, and Josephus.) But it felt so freeing when I realized that I didn’t have to be limited to the history I had learned in school—largely Western military history—for inspiration.
There’s nothing particularly special about Korean military history. It just happens to be a corner of the world I’m familiar with thanks to family and having lived in the country. But the world is a big place. Just as reading fantasy inspired my interest in trebuchets and Cannae and Vegetius, I hope that I’ll see more sf/f drawing upon a greater variety of histories and cultures.
YOON HA LEE’s space opera Ninefox Gambit, the first in a trilogy from Solaris Books, came out in 2016. His collection Conservation of Shadows was published by Prime Books in 2013, and his short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Uncanny Magazine, and other venues. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been brave enough to cook gator.