With Revenant Gun (paperback, Kindle), writer Yoon Ha Lee has concluded the sci-fi space opera trilogy he began with 2016’s Ninefox Gambit and continued with 2017’s Raven Stratagem. But in the following email interview about it, he mentions how the end of this trilogy isn’t the end of the story.
For those unfamiliar with this series, what is the Machineries Of Empire trilogy about, what is Revenant Gun about, and aside from being the third and final book in the trilogy, how else does it connect both narratively and chronologically to the previous books?
Machineries Of Empire takes place in a despotic star empire called the hexarchate whose technology is fueled by the adherence to the imperial calendar. The trilogy kicks off when a disgraced captain of the hexarchate, Cheris, tries to retake a fortress from heretics with the aid of an undead advisor, General Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle. The bad news is that he massacred his own army in a former life, and Cheris has to make use of his advice without becoming his next victim…or being corrupted by him. The trilogy as a whole concerns a revolution against the hexarchate originally masterminded by Jedao and continued by Cheris when she decides to turn against her former masters.
Revenant Gun takes place about a decade after the events in Raven Stratagem. In Revenant Gun, we discover that the immortal scientist behind the evils of the hexarchate, Kujen, has created a new version of Jedao — I call him Jedao Two — in order to reconquer his empire. Jedao Two quickly discovers that he has grave ethical concerns about Kujen and his regime. At the same time, Cheris is determined to assassinate both him and Kujen to save the fledgling democracy she’s worked so hard to establish.
Where did you get the original idea for Revenant Gun, when in the process of writing the trilogy did you come up with it it, and how different is the finished book from that initial concept?
Originally, I was going to quit with Raven Stratagem. But I realized that having a mentally teenaged amnesiac version of Jedao facing off at an extreme disadvantage against the immortal scientist Kujen would make for a fun adventure. I came up with the idea for it after I drafted Raven Stratagem. The initial version of Revenant Gun was about 80,000 words; the published version is more like 120,000 words. I attempted to write some segments from Cheris’s viewpoint, but couldn’t get it to work, so got rid of those chapters. The original draft also didn’t have Brezan’s POV chapters, any Inesser, or the servitor Hemiola, who was a late addition. I also ended up switching the roles of two side characters, Talaw and Dhanneth.
Revenant Gun and the other books in the Machineries of Empire trilogy have been classified as space opera. But do you think there are other subgenres of sci-fi, or combinations of them, that better describe Revenant Gun or this series as a whole?
I don’t really pay much attention to subgenre definitions; to my mind, they’re mainly useful for marketing and not much else. But I suppose Ninefox in particular had elements of military SF. Revenant Gun has bildungsroman elements — both Jedao Two and Hemiola grow up in a way — and perhaps thriller elements in the buildup to the confrontation with Kujen.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Revenant Gun but not on Ninefox Gambit or Raven Stratagem?
Yes. Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes In Amber, which I first read in high school and remains one of my favorites of his novels. I adore the amnesiac protagonist trope, and especially loved Zelazny’s handling of it as well as the intrigue in The Chronicles Of Amber series, so I couldn’t resist trying an amnesiac protagonist myself.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big impact on Revenant Gun?
Planescape: Torment for sure, a computer RPG based on the AD&D Planescape setting in which your PC is an immortal called the Nameless One; he spends the game searching for an answer to his existence. Among other things, he comes back from the dead — unless you do something super stupid — and you can use this to solve certain in-game puzzles. There’s a character in Revenant Gunwho regenerates even from death and I found it hilarious to shoot and otherwise maul them repeatedly. Sorry, as a writer I am very bloodthirsty.
I suppose indirectly the TV show Angel had an influence on the servitor [robot] character Hemiola, too. Hemiola makes fan vids, which I threw in there because back when I was in Buffyverse fandom, I used to make fan vids myself, mostly for Angel. I was only a middling vidder at best, but I had a lot of fun.
Along with Revenant Gun, you also have a short story, “A Vector Alphabet Of Interstellar Travel,” in the upcoming anthology, Worlds Seen In Passing: 10 Years Of Tor.com Short Fiction. First, what is that story about, and is it part of the Machineries Of Empire trilogy or connected in some way?
“Vector Alphabet” is a weird beast. It is a story with no characters because it’s a list of descriptions of interstellar civilizations. It was heavily influenced by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities — and in fact the story is dedicated to the man who introduced me to Calvino, Sam Kabo Ashwell — as well as Olaf Stapledon’s Last And First Men, which does a similar thing except on a much larger scale. It’s an entire novel about the rise and fall of a staggering number of alien civilizations. It has no connection to Machineries, though.
Do you think fans of the Machineries Of Empire trilogy will enjoy “A Vector Alphabet Of Interstellar Travel”?
I think it really depends. “Vector Alphabet” is more of a series of vignettes and doesn’t really have a plot as such, and as I said, it has no characters either. So people who enjoy more experimental forms of fiction might like it. On the other hand, it’s really short, only about 2,000 words if I recall correctly, so it’s a fast read.
Speaking of short stories, in the previous interview we did about Raven Stratagem [which you can read here], you said there were two connected short stories in this series: “The Battle Of Candle Arc” from your short story collection Conservation Of Shadows, and “Extracurricular Activities,” which was published on Tor.com. First, are you planning to write any more?
I’m currently working on a collection of hexarchate stories that’s due to Solaris, er, very soon now. It will be about half reprints — including “Candle Arc” and “Extracurricular Activities” — and half new material. One of the new things is a novella that I have jokingly given the working title “Jedao Lives,” it’s a direct sequel to Revenant Gun, and has Cheris and Jedao Two going on an adventure together, squabbling all the way.
I don’t know what the planned release date is, though; I don’t think Solaris has scheduled it yet.
And what about more novels; are there any plans to write, say, a second related but separate trilogy in this universe?
Well, I certainly have a fairly clear idea of what would happen in a follow-up trilogy, but I haven’t committed to writing such a thing. I need a break to do something different for a change of pace.
So, what is next for you?
The next thing after the hexarchate story collection will be another novel for Solaris. This one takes place in an empire where magical paints are used to give automata special qualities, like bravery or obedience, and a painter-turned-revolutionary teams up with a rogue mechanical dragon against the empire. The idea came to me because I was screwing around with watercolors and made the mistake of falling in love with Daniel Smith’s Quinacridone Gold, whose original formulation was made with a pigment called PO49. It turns out that the world supply of PO49 ran out a couple years ago and there is no more, and that got me thinking about where paint pigments come from and how they’re used.
As you know, a lot of people have been waiting for Revenant Gunto come out so they can read all three books in the Machineries Of Empire trilogy. But is there any reason why someone should not read them all in a row? Or a reason they should?
I think the trilogy probably does read best all in a row. Personally, I have a terrible memory and have fallen out of a number of series because I read slowly and can’t keep track of what’s happened from volume to volume, so from the reader’s perspective, waiting for the whole series can be smart.
We also, in that previous interview, talked about whether there was any interest in turning these books into movies, a TV show, or some video games. At the time you said there was nothing in the works. Is that still the case?’
Alas, no movies or TV show or video games, though if anyone wanted to make any of those, I would be thrilled and they should talk to my agent, Jennifer Jackson. I will say that there are a couple game designers who have a prototype of a hexarchate-based board game that they’re shopping around. They showed it to me at Gencon just a couple days ago and it looks really cool. Fingers crossed!
Finally, if someone enjoys Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem, and Revenant Gun, what sci-fi trilogy of novels would you suggest they read next and why that?
I’d suggest Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch books, which kick off when Breq, who was formerly a sentient ship and is now confined to a human body, plots revenge against the immortal who killed her beloved captain. There’s also Margaret Weis’ Star Of The Guardians quartet, which features the hidden heir to a fallen empire re-emerging with the help of a starfighter pilot who used to be the lover of the warlord who struck down the heir’s family. There’s Iain M. Banks’ Culture books; I’ve only read two of them, Player Of Games and Surface Detail, but they depict a fascinating far future with quirky sentient robots and ships, and intrigue, and posthuman characters. There’s also Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, with its baroque politics and strong human focus. I’m convinced that Miles Vorkosigan would mop the floor with poor Jedao. As Napoleon said, go with the lucky general over the good one, and Miles is both good and lucky. And if you like a more magical take on space opera, try Simon R. Green’s wonderfully swashbuckling Deathstalker Saga.
And because I’m a tease, I’m going to suggest Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, which is forthcoming from Tor. I was lucky enough to read it in ARC and it’s fantastic. A woman accompanied by the mind-print of a dead ambassador has to figure out how the ambassador was murdered and how to stop a vast star empire — which has both Aztec and Byzantine influences — from conquering her nation. I’m personally dying to find out what happens in the sequel.