Today’s post is by Yoon Ha Lee, author of Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, which comes out on June 13th.
I have a confession that may horrify you.
When I was writing Ninefox Gambit, I worked from a lot of notes. I had an outline. I had a list of entertaining tactical tricks scrounged from James Dunnigan and Albert Nofi’s Victory and Deceit: Deception and Trickery at War. I had the occasional list of information that didn’t make it into the novel, such as the list of high calendar months.
That’s not the confession. Rather, the confession is about all the other worldbuilding that I made up as I trudged through my rough draft. Sure, I knew that the hexarchate had six factions, but what were the internal cultural norms of those factions? What was life in the hexarchate like, even through such a limited lens as that of its military, the Kel?
I’ll give you an example of something I made up on the fly that snowballed and turned out to have (horrifying?) ramifications not just for Ninefox Gambit, but for the two sequels, Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun. I had decided that in the magic system for this society, one of the Kel superpowers was a type of battle magic wherein loyal Kel soldiers ritually took up certain geometrical positions in relation to each other in order to channel effects like force shields or fire lances. In addition, I’d determined that the Kel had something called suicide formations, where they would literally burn up the soldiers in the formation in exchange for a more powerful attack or whatever.
Well, I thought, maybe in the past the Kel were elites who could get dedicated, fanatical soldiers to agree to that sort of thing. But the hexarchate is not a nice place, and sooner or later someone would come up with the idea of brainwashing soldiers so they could use suicide formations with regular troops, not just dedicated, fanatical soldiers, who were probably hard to come by. So I came up with formation instinct, a type of brainwashing that emotionally compels a Kel to obey a superior.
The Kel are a volunteer army, but this instantly made the whole system nastier. It also made the system incredibly fragile in ways that are explored in the second and third books. After all, if you can subvert someone at the top of the hierarchy, the whole thing falls like a house of cards.
I also thought about the potential for sexual abuse. Personally, while the hexarchate is a terrible place, I didn’t want to write about rampant institutionalized rape, even if there were probably other forms of abuse of authority. So I decided that Kel Command was not completely awful about rape and, more cynically, morale problems, and I invented a very strong taboo against fraternization so that Kel can’t have relationships or sex with other Kel, period. (In fact, as Ninefox mentions, the penalty for such is execution of all parties involved.) And then I looked back at the history of the Kel, and decided that back in Jedao’s lifetime, the Kel had a less drastic policy regarding fraternization because this predated the invention of formation instinct. As an additional consequence, I determined that sex work was legal in the hexarchate, and while not exactly a great way of making a living, there existed sex workers hired specifically to cater toward the Kel military, along with those who worked with other clients.
More broadly, I took inspiration from East Asian culture, but did not adhere to it strictly. I would never claim that the world of the hexarchate is “authentically” Asian. The hexarchate’s authoritarianism and hierarchical nature was partly drawn from Confucianism/Neo-Confucianism, because the government’s control of consensus reality depends on social control. But I deviated from historical precedent here–for example, I am unfond of Confucian patriarchy and didn’t want to replicate it in the world I was writing, even if it was a dystopia, so I tried to establish that women and men (and later alts–nonbinary people) were regarded as equals. I figured that we were far enough in the future that people were genetically engineered to the nines anyway.
Some of the small details were also Asian-inspired. Food is one example. I grew tired of reading science fiction in which the food was relentlessly European, so I decided the Kel would fly around space serving gimchi (the notorious Kel pickles). People use chopsticks; in one of the tie-in stories, “Extracurricular Activities,” it’s established that Jedao has to be introduced to forks. And then in Revenant Gun I introduced a character who hated tea because I am so tired of Asians = tea. Which is hilarious, considering that I do drink tea, but I never grew up with any sort of ritual, and my first tea was Lipton tea from the Commissary!
Another example is the number four being unlucky, which is something I grew up with as a child in South Korea. I was accustomed to seeing elevators with the fourth floor marked with F (for “four” in English) rather than the numeral 4, which would have been unlucky. Given that the hexarchate’s state religion runs on applied numerology, I figured there would probably be some number-related superstitions. When discussing this with my husband (who debugs all my stories), we decided that one of the reasons the hexarchate’s economy sometimes suffered was that they were busy scheduling product launches and so on that rigidly adhered to propitious days. A later rival to the old hexarchate is able to boost its economy by relaxing that requirement, which you’ll see in Revenant Gun.
Returning to sex and gender, I had originally determined that the Kel regarded body modification, including sex changes, with suspicion. There wasn’t space to show it in Ninefox, which is very narrow in focus, but this is because the Andan and Shuos factions use body mods freely. The Andan do so because they’re responsible for first contact and diplomacy, so part of interacting with alien/foreign cultures sometimes includes modding themselves to make a favorable impression. They also dominate high culture and place an emphasis on beauty as a way of manipulating people. The Shuos, well, they’re spies. For their part, the Kel are, to be frank, expendable xenophobic fascists, so they resent the Andan, and have their doubts about the Shuos.
I wish I could say that I planned all of this out ahead of time. But in the main, I had a general idea of the “feeling” of the society I wanted to depict, and I let details emerge in the writing, then tweaked them in revisions. You’ll have to let me know whether the results worked or not!
About the Author
Yoon Ha Lee is an American science fiction writer born on January 26, 1979 in Houston, Texas. His first published story, “The Hundredth Question,” appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1999; since then, over two dozen further stories have appeared. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Preorder Raven Stratagem here.