We’ve got a very special guest for you this week - Yoon Ha Lee, author of, among others, the Machineries of Empire series, and the Thousand Worlds series (with Rick Riordan Presents). Join us as we compare adult SF/F publishing to middle grade & YA, get our PhDs in space operas, and even discuss the appeal of robots.
Theo is more honorable than Jackie. Jackie reveals some truly shocking information. Rachel talks about her worst teacher. Yoon exposes his own shameless pandering.
Topics include: the Labyrinth board game, choose your own adventure books, Spyro, The Lord of the Rings, Betrayal at the House on the Hill, matrix multiplication, The Billionaire Were-Bear’s Curvy Bride, planetary romance, space operas, everyday Gom Jabbars, fan-made wikis, YHL’s (potentially) favorite fan, R2-D2 & BB-8 & C-3PO, the retractable gills we all have, porgs, Battlestar Galactica, Brian Aldiss’ checklist, an uncle that betrays, Into the Spider-Verse, mathematicians vs vampires
What is Fire the Canon?
Prefer your books in comedy form, but still want to sound smart at parties? We got you. Discover the hilarity hidden in the classics with new episodes every Thursday.
RACHEL: Hi everyone, welcome to Fire the Canon. Usually we're a podcast that likes to sort of break down the books in the western canon and decide if they belong or not, and this week is one of our sort of semi-regular interviews with people whose work I personally like. Anyway, look forward to that. We will get to our guest in just a minute. First, I'm your host, Rachel.
JACKIE: I'm your other host, Jackie.
THEO: I'm the producer, Theo.
R: And we have a great guest. He is one of my favorite sci-fi writers and the first book in the Hexarchate series - am I pronouncing that right?
YOON HA LEE: Yeah.
J: Yeah, it is pronounced ‘book’. You got it right.
R: ‘Ninefox Gambit’ is one of my favorites. I like every book in the series, but I highly recommend you start there. Unless, of course, you are in the mood for something a little bit more refreshing, more middle grade, then perhaps there's another book that you might like to read. It's called the Thousand World Series and the first book Is Dragon Pearl. The second book is Tiger Honor and that came out in January. So, anyway, if you have any middle schoolers or precocious elementary schoolers or just people who like middle grade books, I highly recommend Dragon Pearl, which I have read and enjoyed and given to a friend's child and they also really liked it. Haven't read the sequel yet, but I look forward to it. So, anyway, here's our guest, Yoon Ha Lee.
YHL: Pleased to meet y'all.
T: Yes, good to meet you too.
J: Nice to meet you too. I was wondering if Rachel was ever going to say our guest’s name.
R: I was building up to it.
J: She finally got to it.
R: Also, it's going to be in the title of the episode, so I think they'll know.
J: Yeah. True.
R: So normally when we do guest episodes they're a lot looser than our usual which, if our audience has listened to any of them, I feel like that's very obvious. So for this episode we kind of had a topic that we wanted to sort of focus on, but of course we're free to go wherever we want. So we were going to talk about space operas this time.
YHL: Yes, space opera, my favorite genre! In case that wasn't obvious. That's pretty much all I write these days.
R: I mean that's great. Everybody dreams of being able to write their favorite subgenre all the time.
J: I mean some people just dream of being able to write, full stop.
J: So, embarrassing to say, but until I looked it up today, I didn't exactly know what a space opera was, because I didn't realize that it doesn't actually involve opera, like, the musical form. So I guess that would be obvious, but I just didn't know. So maybe for people who don't know also, Yoon, if you want to, could you kind of just describe what space opera is?
YHL: Sure, and actually I get this question a lot when I do school visits or school talks, because middle graders are new to science fiction. They don't know all the five hundred million subgenres. The space opera that everyone in the modern era is familiar with is Star Wars. It's got robots, it's got space travel and planets, it's got big space battles, but it also kind of plays fast and loose with science and technology. Like, as far as I know, the Force is not real. You know, the sort of magical effects that you can do using the Force do not happen in real life. So space opera is known for being a little bit fast and loose with the laws of physics in service of a fast, dramatic, interesting story.
R: Like a grand tale is more important than…
YHL: Yeah, it's a hundred percent. It's typically a story that's told on a very large scale, you know, the fates of empires or huge nations. Again, the big space battles are very characteristic. It's not so much people in a single space station doing their politics. It really tends to be that huge scale that differentiates it from some of the other genres.
J: It's not just HAL versus one guy. It's got to be a lot of players involved.
J: And we covered one of the most popular space operas and I didn't even realize it was one - Dune, right?
J: I guess the term comes from - part of it comes from a soap opera, basically, right?
J: Yeah, when I was looking this up, I think it was the Wikipedia page, and it was comparing it to other genres that were sort of in the opera realm as well. So like, soap opera, space opera, and then there was something called Horse Opera? Which is like a Western type of template.
YHL: I think that was the first one, and they were making fun of the genre. So it was originally a derogatory term.
J: Oh, okay.
R: Because calling it opera makes it sound more highbrow, these days.
J: Elevated. Yeah, I’m glad I know what a space opera is, because horse opera… I would have been really confused. No, but I was just going to ask what got you into science fiction, you know, space opera as your favorite genre?
YHL: You know, my parents, when I was six years old and they had no concept of child appropriateness, showed me the entire Star Wars trilogy. I had nightmares, because - I hope I'm not spoiling Star Wars for anyone at this end of time, but you know that scene where Luke Skywalker’s hand gets cut off? I had nightmares. I was terrified. But I also loved the robots and the lightsabers and the big spaceships. So that entered my imagination and then I sort of wandered away from science fiction for a few years until elementary school when I got into Anne McCaffrey's ‘Dragonriders of Pern’.
R: We've talked about that on the podcast very briefly.
YHL: Yeah, Anne McCaffrey, you know, there are some issues with her work from a modern perspective, but she was really good at drilling down into what appeals to the id and sort of having your own personal dragon who loves you and adores you and thinks you're the best person on earth. That is a very, very id-y trope. So I got into Anne McCaffrey and from Anne McCaffrey I jumped to other science fiction authors and the rest is history.
R: So when you said you took a break from sci-fi, you mean from like the age of six to the age of nine, and ever since then you've been back.
R: Okay. (all laugh)
YHL: I spent that time reading horse books. I was really into horses. And actually the jump was sort of like from horses to unicorns to spaceships.
T: Logical trajectory.
YHL: Yes, it's sort of funny.
T: So I'm curious. When did you start writing?
YHL: I decided to start writing in third grade because I had a teacher named Mr. McCracken and every week he would dress up in a superhero costume, which I realized now was probably a Superman costume, but I didn't know about Superman. This was in South Korea, and he would dress up as Story Man and teach us creative writing. And at that point I didn't realize where books came from. Like, I loved to read, but I sort of had this vision in my head that every so often the ceiling of the library would open up and books would fall down from the heavens, you know, like manna, and that was where books came from. And Mr. McCracken made it clear to us that human beings wrote books, like authors wrote books, and I said to myself, wow, if people write books, maybe I can write a book someday. And I started writing these really terrible short stories and forced my little sister to read them, and that was how I got started.
R: That’s cute.
T: That's great. That's so interesting. I feel like most people couldn't pinpoint the moment when they realized there's such a thing as an author.
YHL: Yeah, it was a big revelation. It's not like today, where authors are on Twitter and Tik Tok and have YouTube channels. You know, the connection between writers and readers was much more tenuous. I mean I knew there were sort of like, you know, on the back flap of a dust jacket, there would be ‘About the Author’ and a photograph, but that didn't really feel real to me. I was like maybe they're fake. These books come from heaven.
R: So were your first stories that you were writing in English or in Korean?
YHL: I went to an international school because Korean was my first language, but I was sent to American and English-speaking schools. So I'm really only fluent in English and my first stories were in English. They were what we would call really bad fanfic with the serial numbers filed off. So I read the Black Stallion by Walter Farley, which is about, you know, horse racing, and I wrote like a three page story about a horse named Thunder and horse racing. I read Robin McKinley's ‘The Hero and the Crown’ and I was like wow, dragon slaying, very cool. So I wrote a story that was a complete rip off of Robin McKinley and I apologize to McKinley fans and to miss McKinley herself as well, but I was in fourth grade and I didn't know anything about copyrighting, for instance.
R: As someone who went to law school, I can tell you you're safe from a legal perspective. I don't think she's gonna come after you at this point.
T: I don’t know, this podcast could be evidence. That's interesting, I mean, but if someone had pointed out to you the similarities, do you think you would have argued with them or you would have accepted it?
YHL: No, I was trying to write a story that was as similar as possible but, you know, four pages long instead of like three hundred pages long. So like, essence of McKinley, because I really admired those stories and I was like wow, I love that story, so I want to make my own version of it.
T: That's amazing.
R: Do you still try to make your books as short as possible? Because they're pretty long, some of them!
YHL: Um, I do, but in context the longest book I've written is a hundred and twenty thousand words, which is around four hundred pages.
J: Oh ‘cause it sounded really long when you said just the word number. I was like, ‘what?!’
YHL: Well, for perspective, my friend Seth Dickinson, who writes the Masquerade Fantasy novels, he once turned in a manuscript that was three hundred thousand words and almost killed his editor in the process, and they had to split it up into two books and cut the word count. So ‘Ninefox Gambit’ was like, I think, eighty or ninety thousand words, and then each volume in the trilogy kept getting longer and longer and I'm like, I don't want to write long books, because more words is more work, and fundamentally I'm very lazy. Like I want to write the fewest words I can get away with and have a novel.
J: That's why I'm a poet and Theo is a composer, so no words at all.
R: No words at all.
J: And notes are no work.
R: I think Ada Palmer, who we just had on our most recent interview, she said that she also wrote a giant doorstopper and the editor said no, we're cutting this in half. So I think that's what happened with those as well. I just lent ‘Ninefox Gambit’ to my sister last night because she was like, Oh, what are you doing on the podcast? And I saw it lined up on the bookshelf with all the others and I did notice, ‘are these getting bigger as it goes on?’
YHL: They were getting bigger. And I was like, I don't like this trend, I really don't like this trend, let's nip this in the bud.
T: Yeah, I'm curious. Is it just that you find more in this world that you like and you just it just is a natural thing that you just want to write more about it, or something like? Why do you think they get longer?
YHL: Well, ‘want’ is a strong word. The original draft of Revenant Gun was 80,000 words, which is the same length as Ninefox gambit. But because it's a trilogy, I had all these plot threads that needed to be wrapped up and I needed more words to do it and I ended up adding a POV (point of view), which was where most of that 40,000-word difference came from. So adding the new character and wrapping up the threads. And you know, I didn't even wrap up all the threads because there are some loose ends dangling in Revenant Gun. But that's really what it came down to was you know, as this world grows, it becomes more complex and there are more things that readers will want to know about right now.
R: Can we expect you to address those dangling threads in a future book?
YHL: I wish I could. I would love to do it someday. So this is not an absolute no, but right now I am under contract for four books, which (are) book three in the Thousand Worlds and a young adult trilogy, so it's not happening soon.
R: Ooh, so you're really all over the demographic map, it seems like.
YHL: Yes, this is not really what they advise you to do in terms of writing careers. They usually advise you to pick a lane and stick in it. But what happened was that my former agent, Jennifer Jackson, found out about the Rick Riordan Presents imprint starting up in middle grade, and she said, “Yoon, you're Korean, you could write books about Korean mythology,” and I gave it a try. And the other thing that she saw as a very savvy agent was that middle grade pays much better than adult science fiction and fantasy.
YHL: To give you some concrete numbers, my advance for ‘Ninefox Gambit’ was $8000 dollars. My advance for Dragon Pearl was $60,000.
T: That’s significant.
J: An order of magnitude different.
R: How much of that, though, is just that you are an established writer versus ‘middle grade against adult?
YHL: Part of it was that I had a track record of turning in books on time, which editors really like.
R: They pay a premium for that.
YHL: Writers are a notoriously flaky lot. But part of it really is that Ninefox Gambit was picked up by a small press in the UK because all the major publishers turned it down. Disney Hyperion, which published Dragon Pearl, is a major publisher and middle grade is just a bigger market. And then when I jumped into YA, the advance for that trilogy came to $166,000 per book. So again, it's not that I don't want to write more Hexarchate books, it's just that I would literally be taking like a ninety percent pay cut.
R: Wow, okay.
J: That’s a lot.
R: I mean no pressure, I just really like them.
YHL: No, I really loved writing them too. I loved the world, and I'm hoping that in some way I'll be able to return to them some day, but it'll most likely be the thing that I do for love and not the thing that I do to pay off the mortgage.
T: Or Rachel could subsidize them.
J: You're offering to, right?
R: I'll give you my percentage of our Patreon cut. So that's about thirty dollars a month, if that sounds good. (all laugh)
J: Yeah. I was going to ask you, because I was looking over your website and I think maybe it was Rachel that just mentioned something like - you have, even within the realm of writing novels, you have a lot of different strategies, like you said, and you don't just pick one lane and stick to it. But you just have, it seems like, so many different creative outlets in general. Like so on your website there's novels, poetry, games… like you code, would you call them computer games? Video Games? I sound like I'm a thousand years old. I'm sorry.
YHL: No, it's okay. I mostly write interactive fiction, text-based games.
YHL: I did one called Winter Strike for Failbetter Games, who is better known for Fallen London, and that was a mostly narrative game with some very simple graphics on top, but mostly story-based games.
J: Okay, but mostly story based games, but still. I mean there's like so much going on there. Like, do you still do any of those… I don't want to call them smaller projects, but smaller than a novel, right. Like a poem or a game. Are you still working on those?
R: Some text-based games -
J: I guess with those, I can see.
R: Like if they’re multiple choice, they can really mushroom.
YHL: They balloon. Yeah, actually, writing interactive fiction is a non-trivial endeavor. I do them from time to time and I like keeping my fingers in different pies. I'm interested in narrative in all its forms. I compose as a hobby. I write text games as a hobby. Once in a while I write poetry. I've had some poetry published, but a typical pay rate is like five dollars per poem. So I decided that this was not worth sinking, yeah, tons of time into. I mean, I love poetry, but again, it's that I have a mortgage to pay and a kid to send to college. So yeah.
J: I mean not that I'm like, the arbiter of what's good poetry… On this podcast, I am. Of the three of us.
R: I don't know, we each only get one vote. Jackie.
J: That's true. I think your poetry is really, really good, and it's not to say that like, well, you have to go to an MFA program or you can't write good poetry, but like… you didn't go to an MFA program and yet you're writing, I don't know, what I consider to be very high quality poetry. Is that just something that you practice? Or really, how do - how do you do that? Can I do that?
YHL: Thank you. I actually have loved poetry since childhood. My parents had copies of Khalil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ and ‘The Garden of the Prophet’. I would sit in the library as a high schooler and copy poetry from the library stacks into my assignment book instead of actually working on homework. So I studied poetry a lot. You know, I wouldn't say I'm an expert. I did not take any literature courses on the subject, but I'm very interested in it. I still read poetry.
YHL: It's just one of those things that works better for me as a hobby than as something... I have friends who are poets and let's just say that the United States is not friendly to poets trying to make a living at their job.
J: Nah. No. Very, very hard.
T: I'm actually curious about the interactive fiction, the text-based games, because one time I tried to make one of those kind of for fun.
R: KIND OF for fun?
T: Well, it turned out I found it not very fun as I was making it, because I kept feeling like, Oh, I'm making these different routes that someone will play, and they'll never see this thing that I made. I want people to appreciate the thing, the whole thing, you know, but they won't get to see certain parts of it. And I was thinking, there isn’t another art form that's quite like that.
YHL: I actually sort of started out not in interactive fiction but in game books, you know, like choose your own adventure books, some of which additionally have mechanics like the Fighting Fantasy or Lone Wolf books. And again, you know, you write this thing with like six hundred sections and somebody plays through it, and you know, even if you only have two choices per entry, it means that they only see a fraction of the amount of writing that you've done, unless you can convince them to replay it. And the thing that I tell myself when I make something like that is that no one person is going to see all the paths. But if I get enough of an audience, different people will see different paths and I have to tell myself that that is enough. But I agree it's a little disheartening that, for example, Winter Strike was literally 40,000 words long, but because it's interactive fiction, no one person ever sees all of those 40,000 words.
R: I've done an interactive fiction game once, one time. You know, I had all these grand ideas for how many different endings and stuff, but at the end I'm like, okay, no, you're going to have four endings and that's it. But so it was about being the Loch Ness Monster, but you don't find out that they're the Loch Ness Monster until a little bit further on. But anyway, I was happy with it, but I thought, okay, that's enough for now.
YHL: Yeah, no, there's a reason when even those big triple-A games usually don't have like two hundred different customized endings. They’ll only have a small number of big major endings because it's so much labor to customize all of those different paths.
R: It is a lot. We kind of talked about potentially doing a bonus episode where we read through a choose your own adventure something like that, right, guys?
R: So the books themselves are not huge, but when you're working your way through it it's quite short. So I think we'd have to do multiple routes.
J: I may have mentioned this to Rachel and Theo before, but I remember as a little kid, I would read a lot of little scary stories and things like that, and I remember specifically there were some choose your own adventure, like, little horror things for kids. I was too impatient, I couldn't just go through the whole thing. Like I would flip through the entire book all the time and look through all the old you know, the little endings and everything.
YHL: Also cheating is rampant.
J: Cheating is, yeah. Yeah, that’s basically what I was doing.
T: You're part of the problem.
J: I considered myself a voracious reader, but really I was just cheating.
YHL: That's okay. I think game book authors acknowledge that everybody gets to that point where like, okay, I haven't beaten this thing in three tries, I'm just going to read straight through and decode it.
R: That's the thing about having the physical version versus playing it on the computer. If you have the physical book, you can just flip around and say, Oh, that's interesting.
T: I remember I would always want to give myself one oopsie. So like I would always hold the page and then flip and if I died, I would always be like, okay, this is my one and I turned back.
J: Did you really hold to that, though?
R: That’s more honorable than Jackie.
J: Cause what happened if you die? You're just like, Oh, I guess I put this book down and I can't have fun anymore with it?
R: No, you start over from the beginning.
T: Yeah, you started from the beginning.
J: Oh, okay, I guess that's…
T: You just give up on the book!
J: Yeah, I think you need to be much more disciplined. You're just like, “Well, I didn't deserve to have this book.”
T: “They need to write more of these Goosebumps choose your own adventures, because I just flipped through like three pages and I'm dead! I got to go to the next book.”
J: That doesn't make any sense. That's not how, like, say, a video game works at all. Where you die one time and you're like, I guess I can't play this anymore. (all laugh) But I don't know anything about those because the only game I play is Spyro, and it's like -
R: You still play it? Like currently?
R: You never talk about it.
J: Well, I'm gonna be just very straightforward here. I have no idea what I'm talking about, but Spyro -
R: You’ve apparently been playing Spyro for like twenty years, I hope you know what you're talking about!
J: No, I only started in college.
T: Yoon, do you know what Spyro is?
YHL: No, but I mean there are five million video games. I don't expect to have heard of them all.
T: It was like a PlayStation one video game.
J: He's a little purple dragon.
R: Tiny purple dragon, yeah, like a quite old game.
J: Well -
T: To be honest, this is baffling that this would be the one game.
J: Yeah, well, I mean it's -
R: He's really cute though.
J: Yeah, and you can download it and play it on the Xbox or whatever, because, you know, I don’t play any other games. So I just have the one.
T: It’s a PlayStation one game.
J: Yes, but you can play it on the Xbox.
R: You own an Xbox and the only thing you play on it is you download a copy of Spyro from PlayStation one and you've been playing it for ten years.
YHL: So, I don't know anything about Spyro specifically, but I mean I've been playing games since like we had cassette drives on computers, and some old games have really good game play. Just because it's old doesn't mean that's not good. So I say go for it.
R: No, it's just -it's funny that that's her only game.
J: Well, it's not my Xbox. It's just, somebody else games, and then I just play it. But it's - here's the funny thing about continuing to play Spyro. It DOES NOT have good game play.
J: It’s hard, and the reason it's hard is because… it's just the technology, the graphics are so bad. Like you try to fly him to one spot, and it's like, twenty pixels that way or twenty pixels this way is the only place you can go. You know, it's not very highly attuned at all. So it's just frustrating because it's bad.
T: I remember when I was a kid I thought, oh, the camera in this game is so frustrating. Like you -
J: Yes! The camera is extremely frustrating, all the controls are backwards and I don't know why, but -
T: “The controls are backwards!” She’s just holding the controller upside down.
R: If this is the only game you have to play, what do you mean the controls are backwards? This is how controls are for you.
J: Like if I go to a friend's house and I play Mario Kart or something, it's backwards from every other game. Well, when I was at Theo's house for New Year's we played, what was it? An N64? It was crazy old.
YHL: I remember playing video games when - Automapping is pretty much ubiquitous these days, but in those days games did not come with any sort of automapping feature and I would sit there with a pencil and a sheet of graph paper and map the stupid bloody dungeons.
YHL: I am so glad that automapping exists. They have giant arrows that tell you where to go for the next quest in the quest chain. Some of the old games did not have a quest log. So if you didn't write it down and you forgot, you were just out of luck. I mean, I am so glad that games have become more user-friendly.
T: Yeah, really. Wow, you were a cartographer.
J: Yeah, you had to have skills!
R: Need to add that to your list.
J: Put another tab on your website. But I mean I'm imagining an archeologist in the future digging up some teenager from the early 90s or something’s game log or quest log, and just being like “What were they doing?” You know, because for me, not knowing about that, I would have assumed, Well, if it's written down, this must have been something they did in real life.
T: This child was exploring dungeons!
YHL: You know, a friend of mine, they were playing some ancient computer game their father had played and it was one of those old games, again before maps were a standard feature. Their father had mapped the game and they were like this is awesome, I don't have to go through the work and they just used their dad's maps.
J: Well, their dad shouldn't have let them do that. He should have made them pull themselves up by their bootstraps. (all laugh) There's a popular game that just came out that I've heard about. I think it's by the same company that made The Witcher or whatever, and it's apparently notorious for not having a map now. So it's extremely hard.
R: Go ahead, say what it is.
J: I don't know what it is. I can't remember the name of it.
T: Spyro 3.
R: Are you talking about Elden Ring?
J: Maybe? I don't know. It just came out like the other week.
J: But so now they've gone from not having maps to having maps, and now they're like, we need to go back the other direction.
R: There's an argument in the video gaming community about accessibility, you know, like how accessible should a game be? And like, well, maybe the developer wants it to be difficult, but that leaves people out and all this stuff. So I don't play a ton of games.
J: Why should those be mutually exclusive?
R: I mean, I don't… I'm on the side of accessibility, but I don’t know.
YHL: So my husband is a hardcore gamer. He always plays everything on Nightmare Hell Destructo mode, you know, where you lose all your hit points and there's no save points and if you die it's like permanent. You know, there are games where you can set iron man mode or no-save or you can put it in story mode so the combats are really easy. So I don't see that these have to be mutually exclusive. You can give people the option of a more accessible game and also enable those hardcore modes for idiots like my husband, who wants to play the games in the most difficult, frustrating - it's like, he doesn't even sound like he's having fun? Because he’s cussing at the game and pounding on his desk and I'm like, why do you do this to yourself if you're not having fun? And he's like, “This is the only way to play,” and I'm like, okay, I wash my hands of this.
R: But you don't HAVE to play!
T: He does it in the first run-through of the game? In the hard mode on the first run-through?
YHL: Not necessarily on the first run-through, but that is his ultimate goal.
J: I mean, I thought that one of the ideas behind gaming is like, it's an escape from life, instead of just, ‘it's ALSO permanent when I die in this world’? I don’t want that!
R: Well, it can be much worse than your regular life. That's also an escape.
J: Oh okay, an escape into a much worse life, yeah.
R: My boyfriend recently started playing a particular game again, a multiplayer game called Splatoon, where it's kind of like paintball. I don't know how familiar you are with it.
YHL: My daughter plays it.
R: That's what I tell him, because he keeps playing the game and there's no voice chat, which is great, but he's always yelling and he's like, “Ugh, why would you do that?!” And I always pop in and I'm like, “Maybe they did that because they are literal children, because I think a lot of children also like this game.” (all laugh)
J And you pop in and just say this to him and he's like, “Get out of here. Why do you do this to me every day?”
R: He also… the other day I woke up from sleeping because I heard him downstairs. He'll usually curse a lot, but this time he just yelled one word, which was “ASS!” He's cursing so much because of this game that he's just not really doing it properly anymore.
J: So he's like devolving into child cursing.
R: Almost. But I've had three people come over and witness him playing and be like, “Does he really like this?” He always says, “Yeah, I do.”
YHL: There's this nonfiction book on game studies from MIT press, and it's about questioning the premise that people play games to have fun. Because when this researcher studied the actual, you know, emotions that gamers evince while they're playing, it's like no, they seem to be playing in order to have pain. They are masochists.
J: Well, it was just such a funny sentence that you just said, because I know we're talking about like, ‘video games’ gaming, but I imagined you were talking about just games in general. Like, the fact that people play? It's not for fun. It's like in the animal kingdom where it's like, “This is practice for war!”
T: Yeah, right!
J: Or, “This is just to FEEL something for once!”
R: I don't know if you've played the Labyrinth Board game before, Yoon, but it is very poorly constructed -
J: No. Rachel. Nobody has ever played this board game.
T: There is no reason -
J: I am the first person that ever bought that board game, and the last.
R: It is so poorly constructed. We, the three of us, really love the movie Labyrinth with David Bowie.
R: It's like a focus point for our friendship, for some reason.
T: It’s a touchstone.
J: It’s a spoke in one of the wheels.
R: Yeah, it's the center and we are the spokes going out of it. But one year - so, we usually like to hang out around New Year's Eve because we all live in different places, but our families are in North Carolina. So we like to hang out on New Year's Eve when possible. And one year Jackie gave me for my birthday the Labyrinth board game. So one person plays as Jareth, the Goblin King, and then the other people… who are we?
J: We're just all the other characters.
R: And it's Jareth versus everyone else. And when we started the game, Theo was Jareth and he was LOVING it. He's like,”Why did they make this game like this? There is absolutely no way - there's no way for Jareth to lose.”
R: But then when we reached the end of the game, Theo's like, “Wait, there's no way for Jareth to WIN.”
T: I mean, I guess that is how pretty much all movies with, you know, that sort of antagonist are set up. They seem impossible to defeat until the last moment.
YHL: But what's compelling in a movie where you're passively receiving the story is not what's compelling in a game where you're trying to win, you know?
YHL: You want to have some sense of agency in the game.
T: Just in my memory, basically what it felt like is, I had so much ability to inflict damage on people and I could sort of teleport around the whole board wherever I wanted.
T: And then suddenly, right at the end, it felt like he just got tied up and they were, like, kicking him or something like that.
J: That’s how it felt to you?
T: Yeah! (all laugh)
J: Being kicked and tied up. Well, yeah, no, there is a board game that I also forget the name of, but it's basically Lord of the Rings and the point of the game - and it says this in the instructions - there was never a great chance at all that anybody but Sauron was ever going to win in this battle. So Sauron is completely OP (overpowered). In the game, that's how it's designed. Like Sauron is almost impossible to beat, and that's just how it is, and you know that if you're playing on the other side you're probably going to lose.
J: And people still play that voluntarily.
T: Yeah, but it's interesting because that's not at all how I felt during the movie. I was pretty much like, “Yeah, Frodo’s got this, obviously.”
YHL: I mean I guess I could sort of see this if you're making a horror game or a horror survival game where the point is to feel very threatened and to feel that you have a low chance of survival. I don't know if you're familiar with solo RPGs, but there's one called The Wretched which uses a Jenga tower mechanic, so every time you do something you're removing something from this Jenga tower and you're always at risk of… basically it's survival on a derelict starship and you’re journaling what happens as everything falls apart, and so that's part of the experience. But you know going in that it's a horror genre, that you're probably not going to live.
J: On a derelict starship, I don't know if I'd want to.
R: I think the only horror game I played before is Betrayal at the House on the Hill, and I get really scared easily, so I was a little freaked out the whole time. When the time came that someone betrayed me, I was like, *gasp*!
R: I couldn’t believe it, even though that's in the name.
T: Yeah! I'm curious when you started writing middle grade fiction.
T: I'm curious, was it easy or difficult to sort of get in a different… because I imagine you have to get in a different headspace to write that kind of stuff. Like do you imagine what it would be like to be that age and read the book? How do you approach it?
J: That’s a good question, yeah.
YHL: Okay, I have to say that when Steph Lurie, my editor at Rick Riordan Presents, picked me up, she asked my former agent “Has Yoon ever written middle grade before?” And Jennifer said, with one hundred percent complete accuracy, “No, Yoon has not written middle grade before.” So, to put it bluntly, Steph knew that I was going to be a fixer upper.
T: I see.
YHL: Because if you look at the Hexarchate books, they’re full of things that are completely inappropriate for middle grade readers. Like extremely gory violence, sexual content that is, you know, unpleasant even for some adult readers. Just all sorts of situations that are not appropriate for middle grade. Plus the vocabulary level is more difficult. So one of the things that I had to learn in writing Dragon Pearl, which went through three rounds of revisions, was how do I write a story that is acceptable for middle grade? And this becomes tricky because when you are selling middle grade books, you're not selling directly to eight to twelve year olds. They don't have credit cards. You are selling to the gatekeepers, which means their parents, their teachers, and their librarians, and those people often have very strong opinions on what is or is not appropriate for middle grade. So, for example, I had a scene in Dragon Pearl that takes place in the gambling parlor. It was my, you know, Star Wars, Mos Eisley Cantina homage. Oh-mahge? I can't pronounce that word. Anyway, I got so much pushback from my editor. She's like, “No, gambling is one of those things that really makes the gatekeepers anxious. If you keep the gambling parlor, you have to make it one hundred thousand percent crystal clear that gambling is morally bad.”
J: So how did you do that?
YHL: You know, I made it clear that this gambling parlor was a bad place. But it's one of those things that you have to deal with when you're writing for middle grade. And the other issue is accessibility. So I remember going back and rereading Robin McKinley's ‘The Hero and the Crown’ a couple years back and I'm like, wow, this is actually kind of a difficult book. It has these nested flashbacks, it uses fairly difficult vocabulary. I loved the book, but I was an avid reader when I was in fourth grade when I first came across that book, and a lot of things that teachers especially are looking for are books that are not that kind of challenging, difficult book, but books that are written accessibly for their reluctant readers, kids who in the past would have been left out in the cold by books like The Hero and the Crown. So that's something else that you kind of have to learn going from adult science fiction to middle grade, and it was a steep learning curve for me.
J: Yeah. I wonder, do you ever feel either the need to, or the desire to, like, delve more into child psychology or adolescent psychology? Or do you find yourself kind of naturally thinking about those kinds of things when you're writing for that audience?
YHL: I think back to my childhood, is what I usually do. So, for example, Dragon Pearl got some negative reviews from adult readers who said, “Min is a terrible role model.” Min is the main character and she's a shapeshifting fox spirit and she can basically mind-whammy people and she lies to people constantly. And you know, they're like, “She's a horrible role model, she has poor morals. That’s bad.”
J: It seems like that's… I don't know that much, but that's what a fox spirit does, right? Like they're supposed to trick you, right?
YHL: Fox spirits are bad people. Like, fox spirits in Korean mythology, anyway, seduce travelers and suck out their lives and eat their livers.
YHL: Some of this was not material I could put into a book for eight to twelve…. We're not having any seductions of travelers in this book. It's not appropriate.
YHL: When you write for kids, it's like, what do kids find appealing and cool? And Min is basically a power fantasy. She spends the entire book doing whatever she wants, thumbing her nose at authority, lying and mostly, but not always, getting away with it. The consequences of her actions do eventually catch up with her, but she's supposed to be a fun character for a kid who, when you think about it, children don't really have a lot of agency in their lives. Like you know, you go to school, the teachers tell you what to do. You go home, the parents tell you what to do. You go to your extracurricular activity, the coach tells you what to do. So having a character who gets to be the hero and gets to choose what to do and have that agency is something that kid readers find very appealing.
YHL: And I remember that from when I was a kid. I didn't want to read books about how kids had adults handle all the difficult things for them. I wanted to read books where kids like me got to be the hero.
R: We recently read Winnie the Pooh for our podcast, and we talked about how - Theo particularly talked about how he just loved that the characters, the stuffed animals, will just lie constantly. They just go around bullshitting and making stuff up and they never learn a lesson that you shouldn't lie.
T: And it's just to save face, usually.
R: Yeah, there's no reason.
T: It's not like they're planning something bad with their lies. It's just like, they don't know something, so they act like they do.
J: Well, that's what I'm thinking about with the child psychology piece. Like, I think for kids, those little lies have an adaptive purpose, and it's kind of a natural behavior and it’s not necessarily something you need to squash out. It's just something they need to learn about over time, right?
J: That's why I thought it was cute.
YHL: And also, lying is… I mean in a certain sense, I lie constantly because I bullshit to make up stories. Lying is very closely allied to the ability to tell a story.
T: Yeah. I'm just curious because you said you have a daughter.
T: Does having a daughter change your perspective on writing fiction for younger readers?
YHL: I wrote Dragon Pearl Thinking about my daughter. So my husband is Caucasian, I'm Korean, Arabelle is biracial. When I was a kid in elementary school, you know, thirty years ago, there were very few books that depicted people who are not white, essentially, and very few books that, or maybe no books really, that depicted characters who were queer. And so one of the reasons that the Rick Riordan Presents imprint was attractive to me was that Rick Riordan has written queer characters in his books. So he is very, very accepting of that. And Rick Riordan Presents, as an imprint, is about boosting mythologies and stories from cultures that maybe have not been as highly prioritized in literature. So, for example, the Aru Shaw books are Hindu mythology. And so when I wrote Dragon Pearl it was with the thought that I could write something that was Korean mythology that could connect her to that part of her heritage.
J: So it sounds like she's, if not changed the way you've written, at least kind of thought about what is important for kids to get to see?
YHL: Mmhmm. And you know, it's not like I think that only Korean kids should read Korean mythology books, or only black kids should read Kwame Mbalia's ‘Tristan Strong Punches (a Hole in) the Sky’, which is based on African mythology. You know, I would hand my daughter books from different mythologies. Like John Henry folklore, cultures from all around the world. Because we all share this world. We all live on the same planet, and I think it's important that we listen to each other’s stories.
T: Yeah, wow. So did your daughter read the book?
R: Did you get it out in time?
YHL: Yeah, my daughter is really cynical about the writing process, because she sees how the sausage gets made.
J: You're not the first person to call it a sausage either, on our podcast. That’s so funny.
YHL: Yeah. One of the things that she told me was that she did not want to become a writer, and that was because she saw what my job entailed. So of course she wants to be an artist, which I'm not sure is much better. Anyway, yeah, she knows that my rough drafts are vomit drafts. That's what I call them. I just sort of vomit out the draft and everything's very messy and there are place holders when I can't think of a word and everything's written out of order. So I tell her, you know, you can read this whenever you want, and she inevitably only reads the final published version after everything's been fixed.
J: Yeah, I feel like I wish that more things like those rough drafts got published, because -
R: Or just available for people to read?
J: Uh, either? I don't know.
J: I would like to read a published collection of poems that are shitty because they were the first drafts, and then maybe it's like a translation, right? You get the first draft and then on the next page you get the final version. I would love that.
YHL: I had a collection like that by Wilfred Owen and it showed the first draft of his poems and all the strikeouts and the places where he was looking for a rhyme, and then the final version and you could really see the process. And I've actually, on my Patreon I have shared snippets of my rough draft so that people can see that actually, no, whatever you may think of the published draft, the rough draft was even worse.
R: Oh no!
T: Oh, that's really cool.
J: Yeah, no, I like that a lot because I think it's - especially if you're talking about you know, the younger generation and thinking about what it's like to grow up and be an artist or a writer, it can be hard to realize that your first draft is not going to be good, and that's normal.
R: Yeah. Stephen, my boyfriend, has been asking me if he can read the book that I did for NaNoWrimo this year and I have to be like, please, not now, just not now. And he's like, “No, I want to read it at any stage!” I'm like no, you do not want to read it at this stage.
J: No, you don't. Or if you read it at this stage you're not going to want to read it later.
YHL: You know, it really depends on the writer too. Like I know writers who really feed off getting feedback from, you know, a trusted friend or an alpha reader very early in the process, and for myself that is helpful. And then I know people who, if their draft is not polished and shining and diamond perfect, sharing it too early actually inhibits their writing process. So it really varies so tremendously from writer to writer.
R: Yeah, for me I'm just like, if he doesn't see it right now, he can think that it's good. But if he sees it…
J: You're kind of like Penelope with the loom, like… I can just draw this out forever and he's going to think I'm the most ingenious writer that ever lived. But if I finish it then that might go away.
T: I think it also has to do with the person reading. Like I think you probably have to find the right person to read it, because I'm a classical composer, and the way we learned was we take private lessons, so we see someone every week and show them what we're doing, and there are some teachers that I learned pretty quickly, you know, I just could not show them unfinished pieces. I just had to show them a finished piece, get their feedback on that and I would take that with me later.
YHL: Well, not every teacher or not every student are well matched for each other. Like, I'm taking art lessons from a private instructor right now and she's a good match for me because she will notice the tiniest bit of improvement and zero in on it and praise me for it and help me. You know, she'll break things down into the smallest possible chunks so that I can learn them more easily. But I had a prior art instructor in an online class that I took and he would be really good for some people, because he was super disciplined, he knew so much. But you know, he was that guy who, like, if you made the tiniest - there was the tiniest flaw in your sketch, he would home in on it and berate you over it, and I find that sort of thing incredibly demoralizing. But I have friends who would thrive in that kind of environment. So it's really about finding the right match
J: Yeah, I had a poetry professor who I loved, and still love. He was my last poetry professor when I did like the little minor track at UNC or whatever. He had a system of “grading” each poem where it would either get like a check, a check plus, a check... I forget what's below that, but basically, each one is going to have some type of symbol on it that shows exactly what he thought of it. And getting a check plus was incredibly hard. I think I only got one the entire year. And we would all kind of covet these and like, you know, hide them like little squirrels and come to each other after class to be like, “Did McFee give you a check plus? You got a plus on that? You should, you should have gotten a plus on that. That was really good.” And I found myself towards the end starting to frantically be like, “I need another check plus. I NEED it!” And then I would start to just craft my thing, to be like, “I bet McFee's gonna like this!”
T: Oh no.
J: That, I think, is maybe an example of a very good teacher and a student whose anxiety pushed her into writing stuff that she wouldn't normally have written because she was like, “I just need that little blue check.”
T: Yeah, I remember when I decided I wanted to be a composer, I was at this school where they do composition classes, which is not normal. So I was taking like the first year composition classes and we would have a weekly assignment and I was getting checks on all of them. I was like, “This is great!” And then like five weeks in I got a check plus and it was like, “Oh, there are check pluses?”
J: Yeah. What if I never even knew the top of the scale? What if there's like, a check star?
T: Check double plus. Yeah.
J: Yeah. And have you done any teaching, Yoon?
YHL: I used to teach high school math, actually. It was very brief. I had to leave the profession for health reasons. And also, honestly, I would have burned out very quickly because my energy levels are not very good. I was that teacher who would stay until like seven PM and the janitors would say, you know, please go home.
T: We need to mop around you.
YHL: Yeah, I appreciate what hard work teaching is, but it's also hard to do well. I think I have a very long rant that I will spare you about how bad math teaching tends to be in the United States.
J: Having been a student who routinely failed everything in math, I agree. But it's not my teacher's fault, probably.
R: I had one really, really bad math teacher, like he was actually really mean also. And he ended up kicking me out of his class, even though… it's too much to talk about. I didn't do anything wrong. But basically the way he would do it is like, if he didn't think that you could get the highest possible score on the AP exam, like a five, he would kick you out of his class after one semester.
YHL: Oh lord.
R: And he was really mean to me all year because I had a reputation of being loved by teachers and he was a contrarian. So as soon as I showed up, he's like, “Just because other teachers love you, that doesn't mean you're going to get that same treatment here.” He did all kinds of bad stuff.
J: Sorry, does that mean he was really great to the kids who other teachers hated? He was like, “I know that you've gotten a rough reputation, but you're going to become my baby.”
YHL: Or maybe he just hated everyone.
R: Kind of, but he made me announce in front of the entire class that I had gotten my period.
T: Oh my god.
YHL: Jesus Christ!
R: Because I wanted to go the nurse, because I tried to whisper it. I was like, “Can I please go to the nurse's office?” And he was like, “Why?” And I tried to say why, and he's like, “Say it louder.” And he made me say it louder and louder.
T: That's terrible.
R: Anyway, it was bad.
J: That’s when you yell it and you embarrass the teacher.
R: It embarrassed me! But he got fired because he called a girl a hoe during a sporting event!
YHL: Oh my god.
R: He was a bad guy, but anyway. So he was my worst math teacher and I thought I was really, really bad at calculus and then I took calculus in college and I got like, a 104. So I was like, I'm gonna show this to him!
T: A check-plus!
J: Yeah, a check-plus.
R: But he had already gotten fired. So anyway, teachers can be bad.
T: Yoon, were you thinking math teaching in the United States is bad because of individual teachers? Or are you saying like, compared to what you experienced in Korea growing up? Is it just a curriculum thing?
YHL: I mean, it's complicated because in the United States, math teaching or any kind of teaching is not really controlled on a national level. You know, it goes down to state versus district. So individual schools can be quite good and individual schools, as some of you have experienced, can be quite bad. But also there's a tendency to teach towards the test.
YHL: Okay, one of the things I experienced teaching high school math was that we had a list of topics that we had to get through by the end of the year and it did not matter if the kids understood how to do X, Y, Z, we just had to cover the topic. So I don't know how much linear algebra you've had, but one of the topics was matrix multiplication, which… you know, the first time you see it, it's kind of a difficult topic.
J: I just got upset.
YHL: It kind of tends to throw people for a loop the first time you see it. It's the sort of topic that you want to spend like a week or, really two weeks on the first time people see it so that they really understand how it works. I was on day three trying, you know, working with the kids improving their understanding of how matrix multiplication works, how it applies to things like linear transformations, and one of the veteran teachers said, “Look, you have a list of topics to get through. You've already spent three days on this. You need to move on.”
J: Three days.
YHL: Even though the kids didn't get it. They didn't understand it, except, you know, one or two of the very bright kids who were naturally good at math. But I did not have any choice but to move on, even though it was a waste of everybody's time. I spent three days on a topic. Nobody understood it. As a result, when they saw it on a test, they weren't going to be able to do well on it. It was prioritizing “coverage” over people actually learning math. And I mean there are just systemic problems in the United States with teachers generally. The things you want to make teaching attractive are good working conditions, which do not exist for many teachers, good pay, which does not exist for many teachers, and respect for the profession, which does not exist for many teachers. So you know, people who go into teaching usually do it either because they're… I mean in some cases because they're desperate, but the people who really love it tend to burn out. I got my teaching degree from Stanford University and even among graduates from the Stanford teaching program the statistic was within five years 50% of us would drop out of the profession because of the bad working conditions. And I was a statistic. I didn't even last a year.
J: And you know, when Rachel was talking about her super mean math teacher, I was kind of thinking, “Well, maybe he's just been beaten down,” but then she said he called a girl a hoe and uh… I feel like that's not the system…
R: No, there’s no excuse.
YHL: No, that’s just a bad person.
J: Right, but just to say like, yeah, probably it is the system a lot of the time that just makes people ineffective.
R: One of my many, many sisters is an elementary school teacher. So she's…
J: Three. It’s three.
R: It's a lot in, you know, 21st century America. It's a lot of sisters. But she teaches second graders. They're very cute, but she doesn't make enough money.
R: North Carolina is one of the worst states, too, for paying teachers.
J: It is.
R: If she moved across the border in any direction she'd immediately make, you know, 12,000 more dollars. But she has a master's and you know, she makes no money. But the kids are cute. She always sends us the funny things they say. Okay, I've been kind of taking notes when I think of a question that I want to ask you, but I feel like, oh, now's not necessarily the time. This is sort of my impression of science fiction, which is that there used to be… it used to be that space operas were like very prominent, maybe even the majority of the stuff that was published and read. Or at least you know, when you think about kind of pulpy sci-fi, I feel like a lot of those were space operas.
R: And then these days there's almost a sort of pushback and people are sort of sometimes talking about how they want like, smaller, more personal stories, and I'm wondering if you have seen that at all or if I'm totally off base.
YHL: I mean, I don't think it's off base, but I think there is still a market for space opera, but there has been a movement towards you know, more cottagecore sorts of stories. When 2020 hit and the pandemic was a thing, for example... The kind of fiction I normally like to read is the sort where you have horrible people doing horrible things and then they come to a horrible end and you get to feel good about horrible people coming to a horrible end. I mean, my husband hates this kind of book. He's like, “This is depressing.”
J: I was gonna ask about your husband, because you're like, “Are you having fun with this game?” And then your husband is like, “Are you having fun reading this?” Why do you do this to yourselves?
YHL: Yeah, my husband likes heroic characters and I'm like no, I want to write and read about terrible people coming to terrible ends. But in 2020, because of the state of the world, I spent all of 2020 reading paranormal romance, like shifter romance. Like, ‘The Billionaire Werewolf’s Curvy Bride’ stories. Because they were funny and they were uplifting and they were really cute and they had, you know, nice people having a happy ending, and that was what I really needed in 2020.
J: So you didn't read ‘Kissing the Coronavirus’. Sorry.
YHL: No, no, I did not.
J: Okay, good.
YHL: No, I have friends who write shifter romances. Some of them are making six figures doing it.
J: I was going to say, those make a lot of money.
YHL: Yeah, I know some people mock the genre, but you know, if you go into it with a sense of humor, I really genuinely enjoy those books and I needed something that was lighter reading. So I think right now, when… the world is basically on fire right now, and people don't necessarily want to read stressful books. They may want to read something like Becky Chambers’ ‘Wayfarer’ books, which are very cozy. You know, something that… or Katherine Addison, I think, ‘The Goblin Emperor’. Or books that are in that vein that are basically about nice people doing the right thing. So I do think that exists. But space opera is certainly not dead.
R: Oh no, I wasn't - I didn't mean to imply that. I think what I meant more was that it used to be basically.. sci-fi WAS space operas, but now it's more mixed.
YHL: I'm not sure it was all space operas. Certainly a lot of the pulpy sci-fi could be filed under that category, but we also did have a lot of hard science fiction according to the science of the day. I mean, some of those stories have not aged well simply because technology has moved on. There was an anthology by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer called ‘The Ascent of Wonder’, which is this big book of hard science fiction through the history of science fiction. And there was this one really creepy story in which people had isolated the principle of life in what was called an “animalcule”, like an animal molecule. And it escapes the laboratory and it takes over and you know, it's this creepy horror story, but the story is completely obsolete because it was written before the discovery of DNA.
YHL: So nothing in the story works anymore.
R: So formerly hard sci-fi, currently, like, fantasy.
J: When I was researching space operas and just trying to educate myself from like, the depths of the bottom of nowhere where my knowledge was, I came across the term for the genre planetary romance, which is like… is that the same as like, cottagecore in space?
R: Explain, Jackie, elaborate.
J: I'll try, but I'll probably need Yoon to fix it. But just like how space opera is not actually an opera, planetary romance is not necessarily romance, but instead of having like, great powers fighting each other in space, a planetary romance just takes place on the one planet. And I think a lot of some of my favorite - what I had considered sci-fi - books are probably actually planetary romances. So like, Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan. Like, yes, they're traveling between different worlds, but a lot of the time it's more about, like you said, just personal things that are happening on a different planet or in a different kind of context. So is that how you would explain it?
YHL: I think planetary romance… I mean, I'm not an expert on science fiction subgenres, but planetary romance, the term probably comes from romance in the earlier sense of the word of sort of like an adventure, like the way that King Arthur and his knights are a romance, you know, in the Medieval sense. So a planetary romance might be like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ‘Barsoom’ books, where you have people on you know, back when they thought Venus was made of swamps and had a breathable atmosphere and people have adventures. So it's sort of like adventure fiction but set on another planet.
J: Like, the otherness of the planet is what kind of gives rise to the ability to have the adventures.
R: Gives it the spice.
J: Well, don't talk about spice. Now we're going to get back into Dune.
YHL: You know, I have not actually read Dune. I got fifty pages into it in college and said, “I don't like this book. It's really boring.” And I put it down. And my husband's like, “You are missing out on one of the classic books of science fiction!” And I'm like, there are fifty million classic books of science fiction.
R: So true.
YHL: I cannot read them all. I'm just going to put down the one that I don't like and I may be missing out on some of the history, but again, it's not possible to read every book.
J: Well, have I got a podcast recommendation for you!
R: Yeah! Hate to plug, but we did… in one episode we summarized everything you need to know about Dune so that you don't have to read it, basically. And I will say it was the most unpleasant episode that I have ever prepared for.
J: Rachel hated it.
R: Because I had to condense five hundred pages into like a two page outline and be like this is what we have to talk about on the episode.
YHL: I mean the thing about Dune is that it's historically important, like it influenced a lot of things, and also I don't have to read every book that's historically important. I'm not a literature professor. Literature professors can deal with that. I'm just a writer. I have a math degree, I don't even understand how literature works, arguably.
J: Eh, does anybody? I don’t know.
R: I have to say I think that personally, I like the new Dune movie more than the book, so I would recommend… If someone is like, “Should I read it?” I would probably say, “Just watch the movie and then, in the time that you save, read some other books.” Unless you watch the movie and you loved it and you're like, I can't get enough, then okay, sure, read the book. But now, at this point, I've had to read it twice and I wish that I had only read it once.
YHL: I actually picked up a graphic novel adaptation of the Dune book, which is like part one of three, because the book is so long, and I actually really liked it in graphic novel form because there was less exposition. Everything was in pictures and so it was sort of made accessible to someone like me who just did not get along with the prose.
J: It's funny because every time I mention Dune, and every time it starts to get to this point, I say, “Let's not talk about Dune.” And then we always end up talking about Dune.
R: We have to!
J: But I end up enjoying it anyway.
R: I really like talking about Dune and like making Dune references much more than I liked the book. I just love to be like, oh my gosh, it's a Gom Jabbar or something. Just, if I see something in my everyday life that could be a Gom Jabbar, I suppose.
* Interstitial -
T: Hi everyone, I hope you've been enjoying what you've been hearing. If you have and you would like to support us, why don't you hit up our Patreon. It's Patreon.com/firethecanon. You can find all sorts of great stuff there, bonus content, there's stickers…
R: Plus Theo needs a sponsor patron again, so now could be the time.
J: Yeah. Ha, womp womp.
T: My sponsored patron bailed on us. I haven't confronted her about it yet.
R: But we all await your story about what happens with bated breath.
J: If you have a bone to pick with Theo and you’d just really like to confront him about something, become his patron, cancel, and then wait for him to come to you.
R: Yeah, easiest way to get in touch with Theo.
J: The only thing he’ll respond to.
T: Check us out on all our social media platforms. We’ve got Twitter, Instagram and Tik Tok @firethecanonpod. We got a Facebook group and a Facebook announcements page at Fire the Canon Podcast. We have an email address - firethecanonpodcast@ gmail.com, and a website. It’s firethecanonpodcast.com. All right. Now back to the episode
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J: Space opera, I feel like the whole interesting thing about it is that it's so grand and so big and on such a huge scale. Like, how do you keep track of all of that in your brain and how, what leads a person to be like that?
YHL: I don't. I don't. I'm working on the third Dragon Pearl Series book and there are these major characters that I introduced in chapter two, and every time they turn up in chapter seven and I'm like, “[name]” in brackets, because I can't be bothered to look up their name. I'll fix it in the revisions. I don’t care.
J: That probably breaks people's hearts who are like, “I love this character!” And then it's like, oh, the author doesn't even remember what they were called.
YHL: You know, with Machineries, I got to this point where I was trying desperately to create a series bible for the trilogy and then like midway through, I think it was the second book or something, a fan showed up and made a Wiki. And like they put in so much work, like they made a Wiki for the entire trilogy. Almost everything's on it, and I'm like, I have lost all motivation to put together my own series bible. Someone has done that for me. I can be lazy and just go to the Wiki.
J: That's amazing.
YHL: Yeah, I'm very grateful to that fan.
J: Did you ever contact that fan and just say, “You've saved me”?
YHL: I have met that fan. They're wonderful.
J: Okay, wow.
T: Nice. I'm curious, you know, I imagine because there's time between books when you're writing a series, do you feel like you're ever influenced by fan reactions to things? Like if people seem to like a certain character, do you feel like you end up writing that character differently in the second book or something like that?
YHL: Machineries actually had a very obvious case of this. So Ninefox Gambit, at the time I sold Ninefox Gambit, I had a complete draft of Raven Stratagem and I had half a draft of Revenant Gun. That said, I was going to revise books two and three and when Ninefox Gambit was actually published, the one thing that took me by surprise was that a lot of readers really loved the servitors, the little robots that have their own society, you know, their secret society that the the people in power don't know about. And I was like, I did not expect the robots to take off! But that’s mainly because, this is a bad thing to admit, but I'm not really into robots in science fiction. I just don't find them very interesting on their own. But the readers loved the servitors so much that I gave them a bigger role in Raven Stratagem.
YHL: And I added a servitor POV to Revenant Gun, because I was pandering.
R: It works for me. I always love little robots. If I hear little robot, I'm in.
J: Little anything. Like you go to a grocery store - Oh, there's a tiny lemon? I want that. I don't need it, but I want it though. And yeah, again. It's just kind of like being a god. Like maybe God's like, “I didn't… I really don't like kittens, but you know, they seemed to be a hit, so I guess I'll just keep making more and more and more of them!”
T: They’re all over the Internet. God’s scrolling through his Facebook seeing all the cat pictures, and he’s like, “I gotta make more of these.”
YHL: I have to admit, part of the reason I got turned off robot stories is that in a lot of science fiction, frequently science fiction written by men, you have robots that are sexy women. Robots that exist to pander to the you know, male hero. And I was like, I'm kind of done with this. I'm out. Tiny robots like R2-D2? I like R2-D2. But the sexy lady robot thing… eh, not my fave.
J: I'm sure somebody finds R2-D2 sexy. No kink shaming, it's out there.
R: BB-8 is cute. I'm going to ignore what Jackie just said, but I love R2-D2 and BB-8. I don't really like very humanoid robots. Sorry, C-3PO.
YHL: I think the other reason I find robots difficult as a writer is that when you're writing a robot, it's sort of in the same category for me as writing an alien. You're writing about an intelligence that works fundamentally differently than a human intelligence, and I find that very difficult and kind of tricky to do. Seth Dickinson has the opposite opinion. He's like, “No, no, aliens and robots are great because no one can tell you you're doing it wrong.”
J: That's true. But I mean, can people really tell you you're doing people wrong? I mean I feel like people are pretty varied. I mean, I guess they could say that, but they'd be wrong I think.
R: I mean if you try to talk about like, “Oh, you know… the gills that everyone has,” yeah. Something like that, I think you might get a little pushback.
J: Eh, there's primordial forms.
T: Yeah, you talk about how their characters can retract their ears inside their head, and..
J: But yeah, so I don't know. I just think it's interesting, this conception of how something becomes popular because people love it, or just not because the creator wanted to put it there. Because I think a lot of times I fall into this, like I just assumed that if something is in a work of art or a book or something, it's because the author wanted it to be there. And you probably know from… maybe not from teaching math, but you know, literature teachers are always like…well, the trope is, “What does each thing symbolize? Like I have to teach the kids each of these things as a symbol and all of them are really important.” But then you just have, “Well, the robots just keep coming back because… people like the robots?”
J: Like, the author doesn't really love the robot so much.
YHL: Or something like Spenser's “The Faerie Queene”, which was this poem written during Queen Elizabeth's era, mainly for the purposes of sucking up to the Queen.
J: Yeah, or I was thinking of the Porgs from Star Wars, the new version where it's like, they just had a bunch of puffins. And they couldn't get rid of them in the film, so they had to cover them up with some type of CGI, and that's how Porgs became a thing. Like that's one of my favorite facts. It's so funny to me.
R: It's cute too. I just really like cute things, I guess.
T: She does.
R: I’m finding out more and more.
J: I haven't even seen the movie that has Porgs and I really just want a Porg. I just love them.
YHL: Hexarchate has cats. One of the characters has cats, and the cats became extremely popular. But that one at least I was prepared for, because I'm a cat person.
R: Not a robot person, though.
YHL: Not a robot person. I'm willing to write them, it's just, I don't know, I don't have an innate affinity with robots.
J: That's probably good.
R: I recently went to the Smithsonian with a friend and they have a new exhibit called The Futures Exhibit that's very much sponsored by like, Marvel and Virgin and all these other companies, but it also has some good stuff in there. But we were looking at an exhibit that was like, in the future robots are going to be a big thing and what would you think if your kid brought home a robot for a friend? And I was with a couple friends and I was like, “Oh, that would be fine with me, no problem. I love robots, I'd love it.” And my friend was like, “I would hate it.” And I thought she was joking, but she went on at length and I was like, okay, she is prejudiced against robots. Like I guess it's not a problem now because they're not really around, but this is going to be a civil rights issue in about fifty years.
T: She's primed.
YHL: Yeah, no, I’m thinking about AI and sentience and putting restrictions on what an AI or a sentient robot could do. And I'm like, is this really ethical to do when they’re our creations? But they… if they have a mind of their own, they should have the ability to exercise free will. And to what extent does that turn into a Battlestar Galactica Cylon situation?
YHL: You know, it's a very interesting question.
J: Or a Never Let Me Go situation?
R: Never Let Me Go? Are they robots?
J: No, they're not -
R: Aren’t they clones?
J: But they're created for a purpose and yeah.
R: Sorry, spoilers. They’re clones. Well, yeah, I feel like when you put very intelligent robots in a book, it almost has to be like all about that or set way after the answer has already been decided, because it kind of takes over everything. So I had another space opera question. If you don't mind…
R: ... talking about space operas a little more. There is, I'm sure you've read this list before, if you're a space opera person, but the writer, Brian Aldiss had a checklist of ten points saying like, the ideal space opera has these ten. And I was thinking for the audience who still maybe isn't familiar, I could kind of read through it and you let me know if you agree or disagree.
YHL: Sure. I don't think I've seen this list, actually.
R: Oh, okay.
YHL: I mean I'm familiar with Aldiss’s work, but I have not seen this list.
J: Well, then I guess you're not a space opera person! No, I’m just kidding. (all laugh)
R: All right, number one: “The world must be in peril.”
R: Okay. “There must be a quest.”
R: Okay. And then the original list says, “A man or woman to meet the mighty hour.” But I guess I would just say person, probably.
YHL: Yeah, person. Space opera is one of those genres where… so, I almost majored in history before I realized that I wanted to be able to eat. One of the things you learn is that a lot of historical movements are due to masses of people doing things instead of like, that one individual… you know, the ‘great person’ theory of history. But space opera really thrives on that great person. It really lionizes the influence of an individual. So that is definitely a characteristic.
R: All right.
J: I have a follow up question about that. So in the space opera, like you said, it seems like that really tends to hold on to that one great character, that one individual. I'm curious, like again, coming from South Korea and living in America for a long time and… like you know, we always hear about how the West is so much more individualistic and focused on the individual. Do you feel like space opera is, I don't want to say a Western invention because I don't really know where it came from, but do you feel like space operas can also not be individualistic? Do you kind of see what I'm asking?
YHL: Yeah, no, I think that's actually a very good question. I would agree generally that Korean culture is more collectively oriented, more societally oriented, than American culture. Certainly when my parents immigrated to the United States they had a lot of culture shock around that. So space opera is a very western genre, I would say. The other thing that makes it very American specifically is the high levels of violence. I sent my books over to a friend in Germany and she was like, “You know, these levels of acceptance of shooting things to solve problems would not be acceptable in a German book.” Because they're more sensitive to the implications of violence, whereas violence is highly normalized in American entertainment and media. The other issue with trying to show mass movements of people versus, you know, the effect of the individual, is that it's really hard to write a compelling story about, like, you know, 10,000 people all at once.
YHL: Human brains are wired to focus on the specific and the individual, like our relationships with specific people, and I think that is probably the biggest practical reason why space operas and many narratives focus on that one individual hero or group of heroes.
R: I was going to say, Jackie, if you're interested in reading for example… there is a really, really famous Chinese sci-fi book that's in translation now called The Three-Body Problem.
J: The Three-Body Problem.
J: Yeah, it's on my list.
R: And I was just kind of thinking about how that would relate to your question, because it has multiple great people who were pivotal, I think. Have you read it, Yoon?
YHL: I have not read it, but I have certainly heard of it. The other thing I find interesting about Chinese science fiction… I've read a couple examples, is that they have a very long sense of deep time, like the sense that hundreds of years of history or even thousands of years of history have culminated in this moment, and I often find that American science fiction tends to have a very shallow sense of time.
J: Because we haven't been around that long. And I guess, you know, my first question, I could have also just said, instead of Western, like it's… there is no society that I know of that's more individualistic than America.
R: To our detriment.
J: And I just came from visiting my boyfriend in Singapore for a few weeks and I was just… you know, obviously it's a couple weeks, it's not that much. But I just came back and I was just like, “...Why can't we care about each other?”
J: There's obviously problems wherever you go, but it's just I've been thinking a lot about our individualism lately and it just kind of made me wonder about how that relates to literature and science fiction.
R: Huh, there you go.
J: Yeah, thank you for answering that.
R: All right. Number four! “That person must confront aliens and exotic creatures.”
YHL: I think most space opera does those. I would not say it's mandatory in a modern space opera, but you know, your mileage may vary.
R: I guess technically, humans, if they're from another planet, are aliens.
YHL: Haha. Yeah.
R: Okay. “Space must flow past the ports like wine from a pitcher.”
YHL: I don't even know what that means.
T: It suddenly got very poetic.
R: I guess that's a no. Okay, number six…
YHL: I think - I'm guessing what he's saying is that space is big and like, you travel across a lot of it and it's easy to get around.
R: A lot of stuff is happening.
J: So it's not like you're just for a long time traveling and traveling and traveling, and the motion parallax of this one star moves like one degree. Like you kind of have to see everything.
YHL: Yeah, no, I mean if you notice in the Star Wars movies, they hop from planet to planet. You know, travel is not really a difficult thing. It's not the situation where you have a generation ship and it'll take them two thousand years to get there.
YHL: So I think if that's what Aldiss meant, then I agree with it. It's just that it’s phrased in such a weird way.
J: Because everything else is like, “You’ve gotta have an alien.” You know? Why did he get all poetic on this one?
R: I think you're gonna love the phrasing of this one: “Blood must rain down the palace steps.”
J: Like wine?
R: Yeah, everything's like wine from now on. All right, so that's a yes. And the next one: “And ships must launch out into the louring dark.” L-O-U-R-I-N-G.
YHL: Oh, yeah, the glowering dark, the sort of dark and brooding darkness. Yeah, no, I think I would generally agree with this.
YHL: If you have a space opera and like they don't have starships every in every direction, it's not as space opera-y.
R: Yeah, okay. Last three. These are, well, I was going to say these are a little less poetic, but I was wrong. “There must be a woman or man fairer than the skies”.
YHL: I think that's a product of its time.
R: These days you can have a character who's just AS fair as the skies. No need be any fairer.
T: That’s the difference.
R: All right. Number nine: “There must be a villain darker than a black hole.”
YHL: Generally, yes. Space opera is not really known for moral subtlety. Like Star Wars, there is good and there is evil, you know.
R: No shades of gray. And then the last one: “All must come right in the end.”
YHL: Yeah, it tends to be a happy ending. Sort of, evil things happen, they go out and fight it with their spaceships or lightsabers or robots or whatever, and then there's a happy ending. If it ends horribly, it could be military science fiction. You can certainly have a downer ending in military science fiction, but space opera really is sort of a happy melodrama. So I think these are pretty much on point, despite the weird phrases and sort of…
J: They just got weirder and weirder!
YHL: Yeah, for sure.
T: It’s kind of like, what am I agreeing to here?
R: Thank you, yeah, I consider you all to have signed The Contract.
J: So you agreed with those ten things, it sounds like. Are there any that you think it's missing?
YHL: Um, no, but I mean, I'm not a librarian. I'm not good at categorization.
R: Okay, well, I wanted to… what I like to do is, with our podcast, usually, since we're reading the Western Canon of literature, most of the books we read tend to be older and for the most part, written by straight white guys, although of course there are a bunch of closeted white guys as well who wrote a lot of classics. But that's part of the reason we like to do interviews. Because I like to read everything, I like to read a lot of contemporary stuff as well, and I like to give people options for things to read, ideally with a more diverse writer base. Especially as someone who grew up as like, a small brown girl who wanted to read books with other small brown girls in them.
J: And also because we've tried emailing those dead white guys and they just never respond.
R: Yeah, they never get back to us. But so whenever we have writers on, I like to kind of ask, do you have any recommendations? If there's anything you know in your genre that you think is another great example, or books that influenced you that people might not have heard about or, honestly, just stuff you're reading that you think is really great?
YHL: I'm sure you've heard about this book - ‘Gideon the Ninth’ by Tamsyn Muir. So this is science fantasy/space opera, and basically it's lesbian necromancers in space.
YHL: So that’s the pitch.
J: I don't know, that sounds kind of overdone.
YHL: So it's not to everybody's taste. It's very in your face, but I enjoyed it tremendously. I think the author is kind of a mad genius, probably. I've never met her.
R: Oh yeah.
J:I love how you just like, didn't even have to think for a second. You were like, “Here it is, and I have it on camera!”
R: “Oh, let me grab this!” Yeah, no, I love Gideon the Ninth. Tamysn Muir is one of my authors on my list of people I really want to come on the podcast, but she doesn't have any contact info!
R: But I'll never give up. Do you have anything else that you'd like to suggest? Anything else you want to foist on our listeners while you have them?
YHL: My latest book is Tiger Honor. This is an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) because, I don't know, I like to scribble in the margins and I feel less bad if it's an ARC. It is about Sebin, a nonbinary tiger spirit who wants to become a starship captain one day. And the day that they get accepted to become a cadet is the same day that their beloved uncle, who they've looked up to all their life, is revealed as a traitor.
R: Very dramatic.
YHL: So they have to navigate, you know, being basically a child soldier on a spaceship, and the fact that the ship has been hijacked by their uncle.
J: Gosh, it's like ‘Into the Spiderverse’, but like, a lot different.
R: Just because there's an uncle?
J: An uncle that betrays, yeah.
YHL: So that's my latest book.
R: Well, regardless, I think anyone who's listening should definitely read at least one of Yoon’s books. ‘Phoenix Extravagant’ is a standalone, correct?
YHL: Yes, that's correct.
R: Okay, so if you're someone who's like, I don't want to read a whole trilogy, like I'm not into getting involved in that at the moment, you should check out Phoenix Extravagant. Check out the middle grade reader books if that's more your bit, and Ninefox Gambit if you want some very cool, math-y sci-fi with a very interesting sort of villain antihero. Very good stuff. It's on my list of sci-fis I recommend to everyone.
J: Yeah, I think you have a real knack for titles. How do you decide on titles, or is it something that your editors have a lot of…
YHL: My editors help me. Because my - okay, Ninefox Gambit was originally titled “Ninefox and Suicide Hawk”, and one of my friends commented that the sounded like two superheroes who couldn't come up with any good names, and I'm like, okay, this title has to go. So actually, I'm really terrible at titles and my editors hold my hand.
R: Oh no!
YHL: But see, you can succeed as a writer if you suck at titles, because the editors will bail you out.
R: For me, I can come up with great titles, but I just can't write a book to save my life.
YHL: Team up with someone.
R: No, I'm just kidding, I don't… I don't… I can't really write. I can't come up with titles either.
J: What you need to do is pair up with somebody who can't do titles for shit, but has plots all over the place.
R: Plots all over the place.
YHL: Honestly, it's practice, you know, it's like roller skating or playing basketball or playing the piano, or, I don't know, brain surgery, hypothetically. That's not something I do.
R: Oh no!
J: Yeah, all things that I'm terrible at! Thanks, Yoon!
YHL: You know, really anything, like even mathematics. Mathematics, people think that math is something you're either born good at or you're you know, you're all, you always stuck at it. But unless you have dyscalculia, which is very real. Some people have, you know, learning disorder issues. It's like anything else, you practice it and you learn to be good at it. The stories I was writing when I was in third grade were really terrible. Thirty years later I'm a little better than I used to be.
J: Yeah, you have to foster that growth mindset, which is another little psychology bit coming out.
J: But I think it is a thing that especially girls learning math in America do tend to have this idea of like, you're born with math skills or you're not.
R: Yeah, which, unfortunately, you know, when you look at math scores in elementary school they're pretty much the same across the board, and it's when you hit high school that girls’ grades take a drop. So it's definitely a social pressure thing. One of my other many sisters was a math major in college. She loves math, but she's going to be a dentist instead.
J: You only have to count so high when you're a dentist.
R: Right. Ideally.
J: If you major in math, you might have to… count really high? That doesn’t make any sense.
R: Yeah, if you have to count higher than thirty-something, you've got a problem.
J: As though math is just like, being a vampire and you have to count everything you see. Sorry, I'm loopy.
R: Okay, well, any other questions? Jackie, Theo?
T: We're good.
R: Think we're good?
T: We got a lot of good stuff in there. Yoon, you were a great guest.
J: Yeah, thank you, Yoon, so much for your time.
YHL: Yeah, thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure talking to y'all.
T: Thank you.
R: Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, we had a very nice time talking to you and I look forward to buying your newest book to give to myself and a middle schooler.
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R: All right, everybody, thank you so much for tuning in. We had a really great time with Yoon Ha Lee and we're just so thankful to him for agreeing to come on the podcast and we hope he will come back at some point in the future.
T: Yeah, he was great.
R: I know.
T: So much insider info.
R: Seriously, a lot of robot talk.
J: Yeah, he's just done so many things that it's like, “Eh that's a thing I could probably ask about.” All our guests are great.
R: So if you like this episode and you've never listened to us before, we highly encourage you to go back and check out some of our back catalog.
T: Maybe our Dune episode?
R: Yeah, check out our Dune episode. If you want to like, make my suffering worthwhile.
J: Other sci-fi writers, because they are just a really nice group of people and they're the ones who always love to come on and talk with us. So we do have a lot of those.
R: We've had a lot of really great other writers come on and talk to us. So scroll on back through, check those out.
T: Get your scroll on.
R: And stay tuned because I'm sure we'll have some more of your faves coming down the pipeline any day now. And yeah, as always, we really appreciate all of our listeners and guests and Patreon supporters. We just appreciate everyone who appreciates us. So thanks so much.
J: It just makes us feel warm and fuzzy, we love doing this. Thanks, guys.
R: It really does. Thank you so much. All right, bye, everyone!
YHL: Goodbye, audience.
R: Bye, Nell.
T: Bye, Nellulair.
J: Bye, Nell! I know you’ve been waiting to hear that for a while.