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[Herald Interview] ‘Nine Fox Gambit’ author highlights history, gender in sci-fi fantasy romance

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Feb. 4, 2023 - 16:00

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Yoon Ha Lee (Hubble) Yoon Ha Lee (Hubble)

The Korean edition of the science fiction fantasy novel “Phoenix Extravagant” by Korean American author Yoon Ha Lee hit local bookshelves on Jan. 17.

The book was published by Hubble, a sci-fi imprint of East-Asia Publishing Co. The English edition was released in October 2020.

The three-time Hugo Award nominee for his space opera trilogy “Machineries of Empire” -- which includes “Ninefox Gambit,” “Raven Stratagem” and “Revenant Gun” -- returned this time with a history-inflected romance story set in the alternate universe of Hwaguk, loosely based on Korea under Japanese occupation (1910-1945).

For the fantasy sci-fi writer, bringing actual history to the pages was a challenge. However, Lee said he wanted to go back and look at the period that was important in shaping modern Korea's development.

“I’m mostly known for science fiction set in the distant future, but history always informs where we go. You can’t understand the present or the future without understanding the past,” Lee said during an online interview with The Korea Herald earlier in the week.

The author cautiously said that the connection here was personal because he suspects his grandfather was a Japanese collaborator during the colonial period. His grandfather was fluent in Japanese and had gone to university in Japan.

“I didn’t put the pieces together as to what that meant. He passed away some years ago and I never had a chance to talk to him about this -- what was that like, what were the compromises (he) had to make. It was kind of hard to process,” Lee said.

Korean edition of Korean edition of "Phoenix Extravagant" by Yoon Ha Lee (Hubble)

Lee said that he wanted to know more and write about the colonial period, which is not as well-known in the West.

Many parts of the book's setting and plot are reminiscent of Japanese initiatives at the time to eradicate Korean culture.

The Empire of Razan has conquered the land of Hwaguk and renamed it Administrative Territory 14. The empire strives to erase the names, language and art of the defeated Hwaguk. While the Razanians turn their eyes to the empire’s borders under the looming threat from Westerners, the Hwaguk people gather strength to fight for their independence.

The themes of art and colonialism are interwoven in the journey of the protagonist Jebi, an ordinary artist trying to get by in her conquered homeland.

Jebi is not cut out to be a fighter -- she is a painter, yearning for a chance to paint and explore art. But she fails the entrance examination to the Ministry of Art and is thrown out of the house by her sister, Bongsunga, for taking the test.

A desperate Jebi accepts a mysterious job offer from the Ministry of Armor and is tasked with bringing a dragon automaton named Arazi to life through painting. The dragon ironically turns out to be a pacifist.

Lee’s strength in featuring elements from Korean mythology, legend, culture and lifestyle shines through in the story. For example, characters’ names like Jebi and Bongsunga mean swallow and balsam in Korean. Other Korean elements naturally thrown into scenes include a nine-tailed fox, Korean-style pottery, the taegeuk symbol and a tea similar to yulmucha.

English edition of English edition of "Phoenix Extravagant" by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)

The characters are nonbinary, an umbrella term for not identifying as male or female as one's gender identity.

“Actually nonbinary characters have not been very prominent in American science fiction and fantasy until comparatively recently,” Lee said. “I also only learned about nonbinary identities several years ago when my friends came out. And they were telling me that they didn’t see themselves in books.”

Although Lee himself does not identify as nonbinary, he wanted to write a story with nonbinary protagonists whose identities are accepted as “just a part of the daily fabric of life."

“It is interesting because in English, people talk a lot about pronouns and getting them correct, and this is important. But in Hangeul, you can talk about people without saying 'he' or 'she,' and still you have that concept of gender,” Lee said.

“It was interesting how gender and language intersect and this was something that I tried to come to grips with and feature in my book.”

Lee also said the American and the Korean understanding of certain concepts like dragons or war were culturally different.

"I grew up with a lot of Western fantasies where the dragons were basically the bad guy where they come in and breathe fire destroying villages. ... And then I saw more benevolent dragons in Korean and Asian mythology. I thought it would be fun to have a dragon who is a friend," Lee said.

Lee shared that he is working on a new space opera trilogy, the first of which is due out in the US in 2024. But Lee was firm in keeping "Phoenix Extravagant" as a standalone.

"I am flattered when (readers) ask for the sequel, but you know, I ended the book where it does for a reason because if you know anything about Korean history, the next thing up is the Korean War. And that is depressing."