Yoon Ha Lee on Best Writing

Yoon Ha Lee is the author of the IF The Moonlit Tower, which placed 4th in IF Comp 2002 and won the 2002 XYZZY Award for Best Writing. She also authored the StoryNexus game Winterstrike. Her short story collection Conservation of Shadows came out from Prime Books in 2013, and her fiction has appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues.

The Best Writing nominees for 2013 were Coloratura, their angelical understanding and You Will Select A Decision.

Coloratura (Lynnea Glasser)

I am not a musician, but I had the obligatory Korean (Korean-American?) piano lessons in childhood, as well as viola, classical guitar, and just plain messing around with harmonica and ocarina. As a result, I’m interested in fiction that uses musical motives, but also a little wary. I used to complain of Guy Gavriel Kay–an author who’s written a couple works I love, but whom I haven’t read lately–that he would write about music in maddeningly vague terms, usually something along the lines of “high sweet piercing vagueness of ineffability.” I mock with affection, but after the first few examples it grew a little tedious. There’s also a tendency for certain works of static sf/f to use musical terminology in a fashion that seems hamhanded to me.

Happily, Coloratura is deft in its use of sensory imagery to convey an alien’s perceptions of the world, both through its overridingly musical understanding of social order and its palette of emotions. I wasn’t sure whether I liked the opening at first, but what it does successfully is signpost the use of both these elements as things that will recur throughout.

The Song of the Universe envelops you, pulsing through you in the otherworldly aether. You sing, sing, sing the song of ancients, of the unending, of all to come and be. Your semi-aqueous body kneads upon itself, in time to the rhythm: Spread, then fold, spread, then fold. The Universe echoes infinitely your leitmotif: Erupt, engulf, erupt, engulf.

White:

Bliss.

This opening also establishes the POV as an alien. In fact, one of the strongest things about this opening is how much personality it has on several fronts. Even if my initial response was wariness, it’s much better to have an opening that leaves a distinct impression than for the author to be bland.

The colors are also interesting in that Glasser provides a key, but the text is in fact written such that you pretty much don’t have to refer to the key if you don’t want to. The colors are reinforced by adjectives or context, while the use of ultraviolet and infrared in the palette suggest the alien’s different senses.

There are other instances of the alien’s worldview: sometimes conveyed by coinages like “meat-tongues” and “eye-dances,” the beds as “stacked shelves,” the ordinary water as “dead and artificial water,” and generally the almost elevated tone of the descriptions in stark contrast to the humans’ dialogue. And this may be my new favorite depiction of an engine room (?) ever:

The urgent apathy of this room is overwhelmingly confusing. A dead grey creature furiously pounds away: pushing the vessel at a deafeningly loud pace, yet desiring nothing, knowing nothing. The gigantic whirling, chewing machine fills the room with its deafening beat and blistering fever.

I have to admire the tactical deployment of “urgent apathy” right at the beginning. It sets the tone for everything that follows.

In fact, I’m highlighting these specific aspects from the get-go because Coloratura almost did its job too well. I became very deeply immersed in the character. For instance, my reaction to the coloring-of-emotions mechanic was, Oh, how cool! And beyond that, I can even cite the single paragraph where the writing ensnared me the most:

Engineer bubbles into a self-focused gleeful green as the machine resumes its apathetic, mindless life. The entirety of the vessel moves again… away. You warble in despair. You just need enough time so that you can figure out how you can communicate to them. You just need a break. You just need it to stop.

I felt so bad for my character. I was determined to do whatever necessary to get it (?) back home. Attempts to invoke pathos usually make me stubborn, so kudos to Glasser for writing this so convincingly. It was getting captured on my first run-through, however, that really sealed the deal with the final line. Here you are, captured, isolated, but still singing, so

*** You are happy enough. ***

That last “enough” is a surgical strike right there. It made me heartbroken for failing my PC! I was going to try again and do it right this time! WALKTHROUGH HO!

…of course, this was apparently also so convincing that it only slowly dawned on me that Glasser had persuaded me that running around attacking humans and brainwashing them was completely okay. Especially once I got to the epilogue and its final lines of fridge horror. This impresses me, actually. I have spent IF Comp playthroughs railing at games that try to put me in the position of, e.g., killing a baby (The Warbler’s Nest by Jason McIntosh) and at heart it’s because as the player driving the story that I’m experiencing, I feel responsible. Glasser’s writing had managed to make her alien’s views so immersive that she bypassed my usual objections.

(To be clear: I don’t find it wrong to write games that ask the player to do horrible things, but I find them so uncomfortable to play that I will usually try very hard to be Lawful Good to poor, defenseless virtual constructs. I acknowledge this is a personal quirk.)

There’s another aspect to prose in IF, which is hinting at possible actions. Making puzzles too obvious isn’t necessarily the point, depending on how puzzle-intensive the game is intended to be; rather, the point is to suggest possibilities so that the player doesn’t feel stuck and can think of reasonable things to try within the gameworld. (This necessarily intersects with gameplay, given text as a medium.)

My normal playstyle is to resort to hints or walkthroughs early and often because I am the world’s worst solver of puzzles. In Coloratura, I gave it an honest try at first, died by being caught by the humans (I tried to go the wrong way out during a timed puzzle), and decided, in the interests of efficiency, to restart using the provided walkthrough. This worked out; as it so happens, Coloratura does a very good job suggesting things to try through phrasing in the text. I felt rewarded even when I wasn’t actually making progress toward my in-game goals. For instance, it becomes clear very early that SING is a fruitful thing to try. Or, for instance, this passage:

Sleepers, drifters, each one alone in disharmony, singing a selfish song of apathetic deafness, rejoicing in their discordance. You can’t truly connect while they sing so jarring, but you could help them, help the sleepers. They deserve to Sing too.

led me to try HELP SLEEPERS, to which the game had a fruitful response. Here’s another example of the gracefulness with which this game cues actions:

> x drifter
His connection to this world is fading, quickly. His ties are pulling him back to the physical. It needs to be cut quickly before he is out of your grasp.

This Drifter has pushed himself nearly fully back into the physical.

Also, Glassser does an excellent job using vocabulary in vivid, unusual ways. For instance, “staccato” as a verb here:

The muffled voices swirl yellow and green: intrigue and excitement as they staccato to each other.

Or this use of “ignite”:

> help sleepers
You untether them.
White.
Peace.
One by one, their melodies harmonize: they truly connect to one another in a strong and beautiful swelling of colors. You ignite with hope and pride….

Other descriptions are of great use in getting across the alien’s physiology and its possibilities in visceral ways, such as “tensing surface.”

Once the game gets underway, Glasser’s skill at evoking different moods by writing in different styles becomes evident. Contrast the alien’s POV with a human stream-of-consciousness:

> listen to drifter
…top bunk, snoring shipmates, bed, itchy sheets, top bunk, sweat, intruder? intruder! sheets, some voices, top bunk, other shipmates, snoring, snoring, snoring, bed, wet sweat, sheets, rough sheets, intruder pressing my chest, top bunk, bed…

Once in a great while I’d come across phraseology that didn’t quite work for me:

The disturbance returns. Then another, and another. The rhythm is interrupted. Your connection to the Universe fades.

This is a little close to “There is a disturbance in the Force” for my taste, but given the apparent worldview, that’s hard to avoid. (Also, it’s perhaps unfair to hold the pervasiveness of Star Wars against a work of sf.)

Braincenter
The dead brain of the vessel, all the ship’s information that the Blind Ones can’t see or hear themselves is chewed and spit out here. Unblinking sonar sensors, a large compass, a glowing marked table, the vessel’s controls, and, most prominently, the mechanical voice-box all give the Blind One a shadow-cave-illusion sense of control.

I am of two minds about “shadow-cave-illusion”; on the one hand it’s poetic and well-balanced, and on the other hand, for me I am reminded too strongly of Plato’s allegory of the cave, which is sufficiently specific (and specifically human in origin) as to jar me out of the alien’s headspace.

But at its best, the prose achieves a certain poetry, as in this description of the Cellarium:

A block of anhydrite cut into a perfect cube and etched with the intricate harmonics of the timeless Universe.

And the alien’s enjoyment of the “hot prison” (dryer?) is pure delight:

You enter the machine. You tumble and stretch and fold in a fascinating new kind of pattern while the mechanisms of the prison blast you with heat. You soak it up in gleeful vibrations as you feel your every molecule excite. It’s not the same experience as singing to the Universe, but it was definitely novel. You emerge infused with the heat of the prison itself.

Wonderfully playful.

All in all, I am impressed by what Glasser has achieved here.

Their angelical understanding (Porpentine)

CAVEAT: I managed not to access the text during a small portion of the game, which is the segment where you have shaking sizzling aqua text against a white background. I realized about a day after playing the game through that I could have tried a conventional copy-paste (I don’t know if that would have worked), but while I don’t have epilepsy, I do get migraines, so my immediate reaction was OH HELL NO HOW DO I MAKE THIS STOP by clicking around madly while trying not to look at the screen. Please note, I’m not faulting Porpentine, who included content notes for just this reason. But I had not expected that scene to be quite so startling.

Surrealism is a difficult genre to pull off; my favorite examples (in static or interactive forms) succeed on the strength of the writing. Terry Carr’s sf story The Dance of the Changer and the Three is not strictly surrealism, rather an attempt to depict truly alien aliens, but the world works by such vastly different rules that I find it hard not to feel as though I’m traveling through a chancy dreamscape when I read it. IF-wise my favorite surreal IF is Dan Schmidt’s For a Change, although it has more of the feel of a consistent alien world than the twisty breaks of logic that are characteristic of the better dreamscapes. Their angelical understanding is largely successful, with a few stumbles.

Their angelical understanding opens with a cryptic bit of text art, suggesting someone in a cage, or a lantern, or perhaps an angel and its wings, who knows:

({o})

The first location is written in deceptively functional–not unbeautiful, but functional for all that–language that takes advantage of sensory detail:

A courtyard of pale dirt and blue grass. Sea breeze pours over the high stone walls.

The monastery, squat, wooden, caulked, spired, sheltering a fountain, dangling with chimes and cages. In the opposite direction, the gate.

I especially like “pours” for the breeze. Of course, the language shifts in tone over the course of many disparate scenes.

Porpentine has a gift for striking imagery and word choices, from the beautiful

Moths cluster at opaque windows, nibbling on tarnished light.

or “the ocean like melted grey metal” or “[y]ears of regret burnt to homogenous ashes” to the macabre sequence with the hands, and even the piercing, visceral ugliness of “[s]mells like angel eyes,” an elevator “drooling a cable down through the wood and into the mist,” the basket that “will contain the sum of your veins” in the tense Red Tile game.

For all the bleakness of the protagonist’s inner world, Porpentine even glides occasionally into sardonic humor:

So you have a mountain full of casinos but next to none of them are used that way. Most were stripped out and converted to residences, garish floors divided into living quarters, people eating their meals on roulette tables.

Zoning standards are still enforced by the League (ever devoid of pragmatism), so it is customary for residents to keep a small token slot machine in their room, carved from stone or wood, squatting like a family idol.

I just had to grin at that parenthetical.

Not all passages worked for me. This one struck me as disappointingly generic compared to the lush, ferocious inventiveness of the rest of the text:

You can’t think of anything to say that will do honor to your friendship. It was made of so many gentle gestures. So many subtle understandings. Broken people supporting each other’s weight.

I mean, it could almost come from really bad rock song lyrics. One of the things I generally felt equivocal about was the narrative’s tendency to go into poetry fragments:

No bruises, just reached inside my heart and touched it with a finger of white-hot light and

burned me

where nobody could see

But me

Sometimes this moved me, sometimes less so. It often felt like odd formatting for the sake of odd formatting. And I’m someone who likes poetry (not all poetry, obviously, but in general, as a genre). I acknowledge that I am somewhat allergic to a certain type of angst-ridden poetry as a lingering side-effect of having been on my high school literary magazine’s editorial staff. (Short version: we were always scrambling to fill pages so we would publish ANYTHING, including a lot of bad to mediocre poetry.) Sometimes the language veered uncomfortably close to that type. In general, I felt the prose succeeded most when porpentine used short sharp imagery (“finger of white-hot light” is good, for instance) and least when it went to more generic sentiments (“where nobody could see/ But me”).

In one segment, the mechanics (?) interfered with the gracefulness of the prose: by listing the number of hands explicitly, countdown fashion, I at one point came to this:

There are 0 hands on the cottage floor.

The effect was not harmonious with the rest of the text, reading more like a quasi-inventory in a more standard game. Other odd textual effects–I’m flailing for terminology here–didn’t bother me and strike me as within the bounds of reasonable gameplay in a textual medium, but for some reason the “0 hands” threw me out of the game. I don’t know if my response was idiosyncratic.

As with last year’s Writing finalist by the same author (howling dogs), Their angelical understanding is ambitious. I didn’t always feel that the prose achieved what it set out to do in framing the narrative and the strange world, with its varying themes of revenge, anger, redemption, and other options no doubt available upon additional playthroughs. But the level of ambition is high, and when the prose succeeds, which is most of the time, it’s quite impressive.

You Will Select a Decision (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)

This game (a two-parter) advertises itself pretty accurately from the get-go:

In 1987, an anonymous team of computer scientists from the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic wrote a series of children’s books based on the popular Choose Your Own Adventure series. The books were hastily translated into English and a small number were exported to America, but the CIA, fearing a possible Soviet mind control scheme, confiscated them all before they could be sold.

Now declassified, the books have been lovingly converted to a digital hypertext format and put online for the English-speaking world to enjoy. What follows is the first book in the “You Will Select a Decision” series: Small Child in Woods.

For all I know, these really were Kyrgyz CYOA pastiches. There is such conviction that I am almost convinced. And then I hit “fearing a possible Soviet mind control scheme,” and I am even more almost convinced because God knows my government (I am a USAn) is, ah, a little weird sometimes. I genuinely can’t tell! It’s the quirkiness of this that makes it so compelling: not just the mind control, but the fact that the books haven’t just been “converted,” they’ve been “lovingly converted” (emphasis mine).

Now note, I’m completely fine not knowing. (Well, okay. Madly curious. But that’s fine!) My curiosity is piqued and from a writing standpoint that’s the key.

So the first one opens with a small child, folktale-fashion, and this delightful refusal to explain petty anthropological details:

You live your life in the traditional style of a Tash-Bashat child, which needs no introduction.

So I hit up the internet to see if Tash-Bashat is…real? Because I’ve never heard of Tash-Bashat anything before, but face it, the world is big and I am small and I have never heard of most everything. And sure enough, either it’s real or the internet is having one over on me. I’m persuaded, anyway.

The second one opens by talking about that “magical place” Wyoming and, among other things, the fact that “your horse is in the range of thirsty to dead” when you set out. This time, of course, I have a better idea of what kind of hijinks to expect.

It gets even better as the language fractures. I have no idea about Kyrgyz languages (?) and how language patterns transfer over into English, but the non-native-speaker quality is, again, weirdly convincing:

As a child you are no stranger of precocious activity. At the ends of the week you are known to be going from farmer’s field to farmer’s field without any leave or approval. Eating of the same spirit tonight, you sneak out of house and enter woods.

Even if not, I especially love the punchiness of “[e]ating of the same spirit tonight.”

Really, my favorite example of the language degenerating is here:

“my only regret… is that I couldn’t see one last circle… before I passed on into that night.”

“what about the moon?” u ask

“A gibbous moon is not circular….” it says and then dies.

where the lack of capitalization and “u ask” are just on the precipice of degenerating into netspeak. Or possibly already there. A similar example is the Saturn death ending’s use of “kooky” to describe humans, which is so at odds with the initial premise of a fairytale of a child lost in the woods (to say nothing of landing on Saturn through a wish) that it might as well be written in neon colors. (I consider this a plus, just to be clear.)

These games have a really cracky sense of humor. As if the foreword weren’t warning enough, my first ending got that across:

You try to find a path for a lot of time, but the only thing you find is a leopard.

DEATH END

(To be clear — the leopard eats you, leading to death.)

The “DEATH END”! The complete redundancy of the parenthetical clarification! Unsurprisingly, the “DEATH END” has its happier counterpart:

You wisely adhere to parental strictures. No doom befalls you and you go on to live healthily.

VICTORY END

But there’s more:

You have completed this story in the optimal number of page turns. To claim your merit badge, write “I have done this” on a 76x127mm index card and post it to:

Building 34
7th Microdistrict
Bishkek, Kyrgyz SSR
Soviet Union

(Limit of first four hundred children to request merit badge.)

I really want to know if this address existed. It’s the utter conviction of the details (“76x127mm index card,” limiting the badge to the “first four hundred children”) that does it.

Or how about the terrain assessment:

“Woods!” You cry out “Are you primarily composed of A) grass cover, B) tree cover, or C) tractless desert?”

You patiently wait for ten seconds and then dutifully circle B.

“Woods!” you cry out a second time “Do you appear to A) have an easily discernable edge or B) go on forever into the distance, closing off all reasonable possibility of escape.”

You circle B again. This could be a real prickly time for you.

It’s not just that you’re assessing your surroundings, it’s the fact that the POV is directly addressing the woods, complete with multiple choice. This game is full of zigzag randomness, up to the elf that lectures you on how gender is a social construct and the editorial note in brackets on the elf love of circles.

The second game features a very gamebook-like roll-the-die decision:

You take your gun out of your gun holder and point it square at the distant person or object.

Take out one standard dice and roll it.

If it lands on 1, 3, or 7, turn to page 88.
If it lands on 2 or 4 or 6, turn to page 35.
If it lands on 5, turn to page 12.

Of course, those who are paying attention will have noted the “1, 3, or 7.” Perhaps a “standard dice [sic]” is seven-sided in Kyrygz?

The two games in You Will Select a Decision really only do a single thing, writing-wise, which is cracky parodic humor. I mean, I could cite more examples (I’m leaving out one of my favorites, which is the rules for the “Cow Farmers and Arapahos” game, and the entire color-coded ORB sequence is noteworthy as well). But they would be more examples of essentially what you already see in this review. Happily, this game does that single thing very well. I did a lot of laughing and came away well-pleased with the author’s comic inventiveness.

Overall

It’s hard to pick a favorite! As with last year, the entries are all so different, and trying to achieve different effects with the writing, that comparing them directly is difficult. I’m personally deadlocked between Coloratura and You Will Select a Decision, in that both games succeed admirably in marrying prose to the overall experience of the game, and both demonstrate versatility in style-shifting (albeit in very different ways). That isn’t to say that I didn’t think highly of Their angelical understanding; quite the contrary. It too is highly polished, and honestly I feel like I’m nitpicking when I say that the writing wasn’t always quite as sharp as I wanted it to be. It’s more of a case of “this could have been even better” than “this had notable flaws,” if you see what I mean. It is perhaps as well that I am not voting on the XYZZYs (these are the only three games I have played and I will not have time to play the rest of
the field) because having to choose just one to vote for would be murderously hard. My kudos to all of this year’s finalists.

2 thoughts on “Yoon Ha Lee on Best Writing

  1. Lynnea Glasser

    Please, someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that the ({o}) was supposed to be a vulva.

    (And thanks for the awesome review!)

    Reply
  2. Yoon Ha Lee

    Hello, Lynnea!

    …I never even thought of that, uh, interpretation, and now I can’t *un*see it…

    (Doing these reviews was my pleasure! I was thrilled to play all three games.)

    Reply

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