Yoon Ha Lee, author of “Swanwatch”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Swanwatch” is about the intersection of life and music and black holes. The concept is that this future interstellar society (or more accurately, collection of societies) holds suicide art in high esteem, and what could be more perfect for the purpose than a black hole?

What’s was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

My original idea was to write a story about a disgraced composer given the task of composing an anthem for an intergalactic empire made of disparate cultures. I had to ditch the idea when I realized that the idea wasn’t inherently science fictional; I mean, you could just as easily (?) write about a composer on Earth trying to write some masterpiece about all the cultures of Earth. And then it hit me that I could do something about black holes, call them fermatas as per music.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

I almost always have the difficulty of making stories comprehensible–not because I’m doing anything brilliant, but because I’m failing to be an effective communicator. In this particular case, the problem was music and the process of composing. I’m certainly no professional, but I play several instruments and compose as a hobby, and I’ve had a little (Western) music theory. So it came down to striking a balance between making my protagonist convincing as a very good composer without getting so technical in describing her thought processes that I confused readers who might not have that particular background.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I’ll name two: The first is music, which I adore; I really enjoyed writing from a composer’s perspective. The second is suicide. I’ve made a few suicide attempts, and I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a couple years ago. It’s something I’m still struggling with–unfortunately, psychiatry’s state-of-the-art is still kind of a crap shoot. I know not all writers feel this way, but I have always wanted my stories to have a kind of moral center–not necessarily in the sense that the good guys have to win, or that the “good guys” even have to be very “good,” but in the sense of presenting a moral framework to the reader that bespeaks a sense of responsibility on the writer’s part. So I wanted to write the ending to reflect the idea that suicide out of depression is double-plus un-good.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I had to brush up on the physics of black holes, which I did online because I’d stupidly given away my two books on the topic. (Ironically, I could have asked my husband–he’s an astrophysicist–but at that particular moment he was really caught up in a computer game.) I’d also bought a piece of music software called Logic Studio several months ago, and learning how to use that gave me some ideas on how musicians in the future might compose, which was especially useful because I usually compose at the piano. Jeanne Bamberger’s Developing Musical Intuitions was helpful in getting me to think about the structure of music. And I used a book I’d never thought I’d reference for a work of science fiction, Lee Hye-ku’s Essays on Korean Traditional Music, even if most of the gritty details didn’t make it into the story, because I wanted the setting to have at least a tiny bit of Asian influence.

What is the appeal of this type of fiction–stories that take place in interstellar societies? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

I can’t tell you why other people like it, but what I like is the vast scale, the sense of grandeur and really high stakes. I like thought experiments about future governments and societies and I like seeing the broader universe used as a setting. I’ve shied away from the future government thing myself, mostly because I don’t feel I’ve read up enough on political theory and so on, but all the other reasons are pretty much why I write this kind of sf.

As for film viewers, I bet that big space battles are at least one reason.

What are some of your favorite examples of interstellar SF, and what makes them your favorites?

Let’s see: Douglas Hill’s Last Legionary quartet, which is actually a series of young adult sf novels. The premise–the dying last living citizen of a mercenary people seeks revenge against those who blew up his planet–really hooked me, and although Hill goes through practically every cliche in the book, he does so with glee. Simon R. Green’s violent and improbable Deathstalker series is fun for the reason that most of his books are: larger-than-life characters, a great sense of humor, nonstop action, and a sly sense of satire. You don’t read Green’s sf expecting any of the science to make sense. Margaret Weis’s Star of the Guardians series has romance, tragedy, laser swords, a snarky ship’s AI, and an awesome female protagonist. And Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, along with being witty, deftly plotted, and full of unusual characters, questions patriarchal social structures.

Also? As far as interstellar-setting computer games go, Eve Online has intrigue, in-game economics complicated enough that they actually hired a professor to analyze it, big space battles, and magnificent graphics. The starships and starscapes look so good that if I lived in a spacefaring future, I’d want my starships to look like theirs. I don’t actually play anymore (I am a coward about getting shot at), but my husband does, so I get to watch.

To learn more about Yoon, visit her website.