In science fiction, the big thing the last few years is for books not to be stand-alone novels, but the first in a series. But while most sci-fi writers conceive of their tales with this in mind, in talking to writer Yoon Ha Lee about Raven Stratagem (paperback, digital) — the second novel in his Machineries Of Empire trilogy — he revealed that his plans for this series were quite accidental.
What is Raven Stratagem about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the first book in your Machineries Of Empire trilogy, Ninefox Gambit?
Raven Stratagem picks up just after the end of Ninefox Gambit. The mass murderer and tactician Shuos Jedao has escaped by possessing the body of Captain Kel Cheris, and the very first thing he does is hijack a fleet. Jedao claims he’s going to fight off the latest foreign invasion, but no one is sure if they can trust him. The protagonist of Raven Stratagem is Kel Brezan, who escapes the takeover and is convinced that Jedao is up to no good, so he’s trying desperately to intercept and stop Jedao.
Should we read anything into the fact that one of the characters is named Shuos Jedao, and Jedao sounds kind of like it could be the plural of Jedi?
In the land of fake fantasy/sci-fi names, it’s hard to come up with something that doesn’t sound like some other name someone more famous has already come up with. I’m afraid this one’s just a coincidence.
As you know, there are a lot of subgenres with science fiction. Where did you think Raven Stratagem falls?
Space opera with a side of space politics and space knitting.
Ha! So do you think there are any writers or specific books that were a big influence on Raven Stratagem, but ones you feel are not a big influence on your style as a whole, or were not as big an influence on Ninefox Gambit?
I would say that the influences for the two were pretty similar, though I toned down the military action that we see in Ninefox Gambit in favor of a broader, less claustrophobic approach in Raven Stratagem. One writer who influenced me greatly is Lloyd Alexander, whose novel The Kestrel is one of my favorite novels. I love the elegant spareness of the prose — I only wish I wrote a tenth so well — and his finely tuned sense of irony.
How about non-literary influences? Do you think any movies, TV shows, or video games had an impact on Raven Stratagem?
Video games: Planescape: Torment and the associated Dungeons & Dragons Planescape setting for the faction politics and the deadly nature of consensus reality. For TV shows, the British spy show The Sandbaggers was inspirational for writing about my faction of spies, the Shuos. Though the Shuos are not particularly realistic.
Raven Stratagem is the second book in your Machineries Of Empire trilogy. When in the process of writing the first book, Ninefox Gambit, did you decide that it would be the first book of three, and what led to that decision?
Actually, I sort of accidentally backed into a trilogy, which I don’t recommend. Ninefox Gambit was originally going to be a stand-alone, but then I had an idea I couldn’t resist for a sequel, so I revised Ninefox to allow for the sequel and went ahead and wrote Raven Stratagem. And then when I hit the end of Raven Stratagem, I had an idea for a sequel to that. It really was a case of being struck by an idea that was too fun to pass up.
So without spoiling anything, what can you tell us about the third book? Do you have it figured out, do you know how it ends…
The third book, Revenant Gun, has already been written and turned in, so yes, I know how it ends. It features a new protagonist who should nevertheless be very familiar to readers, and one of my favorite tropes, amnesia. I don’t know for sure when it’ll come out, but my guess is that Solaris will release it in 2018 sometime, probably in June.
Aside from Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, you’ve also published a collection of short stories called Conservation Of Shadows. Are any of these stories part of Machineries Of Empire trilogy?
Only one of them from Conservation Of Shadows, “The Battle Of Candle Arc,” though I wrote it to stand alone. It details an incident in the past of Shuos Jedao, who is a major character in the trilogy. I’d written Ninefox Gambit first, and made an offhand remark about how Jedao had won a battle outnumbered eight to one back when he was alive without talking about how he did it. I grew bothered by the fact that I’d never gone into detail, so I decided to write that as a story and send it in to Clarkesworld.
There’s also a standalone story about Jedao, “Extracurricular Activities,” which ran on Tor.com. This one also takes place back when Jedao was alive, and is a spy caper story with bonus flirting.
Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem are both published by Solaris, which is a division of Rebellion, who make video games, and a sister company of the comic book publisher 2000AD. So, has there been any talk of making either video games or comic books out of the Machineries Of Empire trilogy?
Nothing that anyone’s told me. Though I would certainly be flattered if any such thing happened. I’m terrible at video games, but maybe I could volunteer my husband for playtesting? He does nothing but play big space battle video games at home…
How about movies or a TV show, has there been any interest in that?
Again, I haven’t heard of any such thing, though I certainly wouldn’t complain if it happened.
So which do you think would work best for these novels: a movie, a TV show, a video game, or a comic book?
I would personally go with comic book, but perhaps that’s my bias. I can’t help but think that the effects for a movie or TV show would be very expensive, even though it would be fascinating to see the setting and characters on-screen. As much as I love the thought of a video game, I’m not sure how you would differentiate it from all the other video games out there in terms of interesting gameplay. With a comic book, you could have someone come up with interesting visuals that would probably make the world clearer from the outset, “special effects” don’t really cost more the way they would in movies or TV, and you would have the scope to tell the story however you needed to.
Finally, if someone’s read Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, and they need something to read while waiting for Revenant Gun to come out, what would you suggest they check out and why that?
Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch books [Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy] if they haven’t already, because it’s a space opera deeply concerned with the questions of personhood and imperialism. If they like fantasy grimdark, Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant for its twisty plot, devious heroine, and terrifying dystopian empire. If you like fast-paced military action with great characters and are in the mood for a more humane world instead of grimdark, Jay Posey’s Outriders. Finally, Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality Of Man short stories for their musicality of language and unusual setting and characters. My favorites are “The Game Of Rat And Dragon” and “The Crime And The Glory Of Commander Suzdal” [both of which are included in The Rediscovery Of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction Of Cordwainer Smith].