Xyzzymposium: Yoon Ha Lee on Best Writing 2014

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. He also authored the StoryNexus game Winterstrike for Failbetter Games. His short story collection Conservation of Shadows came out from Prime Books in 2013, and his fiction has appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues. His space opera novel Ninefox Gambit is forthcoming from Solaris Books in June 2016.

The Best Writing nominees for 2014 were Eidolon and With Those We Love Alive.

Eidolon (A.D. Jansen)

Eidolon begins deceptively quietly, describing the player’s awakening in the middle of the night, then adds poetic flourishes: “The bathroom is at the end of a long hall lined with tilted towers of moon”; there are “livid stripes on the carpet.” The problem your character is having is “insomnia” (mentioned in quotes in-game), which “you imagine [as] a seed planted deep in the ground.” Your character’s fantasies about this ailment foreshadow the stranger adventures that lie ahead:

The symptoms must go something like this, you’ve decided: At first you wake up in the middle of the night and don’t stay awake very long, just long enough to pee or sneak downstairs to steal a snack from the refrigerator. A harmless kernel of insomnia buried where no one else can see it. Come morning you might not remember the episode yourself. But then the seed takes root and begins to sprout, sends out sun-hungry shoots towards dawn and dusk. You start to wake up earlier, and fall back asleep later, until before you know it, you take only two short naps each night, like bookends, and then you stop sleeping altogether. And then—

In general, descriptions are evocative without being overwritten:

Collections of candles, jewelry, and seashells have accumulated on the dresser like sunken treasure half-buried in silt. You know there’s a globe lurking there, too, and a music box, and a terrarium made from a fish bowl, but you can’t distinguish them; all the junk forms a single amorphous mass.

Admittedly here is a rare misstep, as the prose overreaches itself:

Your throat is dry despite the water you drank in the kitchen. You don’t dare reach for the glass on the nightstand. When you do finally form the words, they seem to come from somewhere distant, as though you were a ventriloquist able to cast your voice across the snowy crests of the houses, across snow-cloaked peaks impaling snowdrop moons, across the snow-spattered churning of onyx oceans.

There is great attention to detail, becoming unsettlingly obsessive at appropriate times. For instance,

[w]hen you look at your mother’s picture, you can compare past mother to present mother and see how she’s different now (she looked so young back then, her hair was so short), and there are a million intermediary mothers in your memory you can also compare. You can draw a great long wavy Mother Line between them all: Here’s her fruit breeding phase, her obsession with mushroom hunting, the time when she would seemingly clean the whole house twice a day, the time when she broke her leg falling down the stairs and had to wear a cast and walk around on crutches for two months.

This recalls an earlier segment on imaginary vs. real numbers as two separate systems.

Throughout the game evokes a sense of paranoia through well-chosen detail:

You were having a dream when you woke up, but the moment your eyes opened, it diffused through the room like a drop of blood in bathwater. Now it’s indistinguishable from the real shadows surrounding you, the shadows of your desk, your dresser, your bookshelf, the clock on the wall. The darkness flickers rhythmically with the swinging of the pendulum.

Or this:

The thing in the mirror is barely there, a loose bundle of shadow stitched ineptly with spider silk.

Or, even more succinctly:

The shadows drink your voice to the last drop.

Other details suggest the otherworldly nature of reality the player is plunged into:

The room erupts and the mirror splinters. She is laughing her head off. Each laugh dies a star’s death, in a bouquet of combustion.

“Bouquet” is a particularly evocative word choice, contrasting with the cruelty and violence in the rest of the imagery.

In this example, the player becomes convinced that she, too, is becoming a part of the everywhere-pervasive otherworld.

You know a door is opening because you can see a broadening blackness in the gray. The darkness is dividing itself into shades: your eyes must be adjusting. You wonder if your pupils, thirsty for the few microscopic droplets of starlight that survive this far indoors, have become hypersensitive, swallowing up your irises, the whites of your eyes. You wonder if you might be undergoing a metamorphosis in this cocoon of darkness, if you might emerge and dry crinkled, colorless wings, a fully-formed creature of the night.

Horror and uncertainty are not the only moods the prose evokes; it changes with the situation. Here is nostalgia:

You are playing with your dollhouse beneath a star-dusted, angel-crowned evergreen tree in a warm, reddish room where candles sprout in clusters like toadstools. It is early morning and the world outside the window is dyed indigo. There are three members of the doll family: mother, father, daughter. You are putting them to bed one by one.

While the protagonist is characterized primarily by her narration and descriptions of the world around her, the mysterious girl is largely characterized through her dialogue. Her unfamiliarity with the rules of our world combines with her arrogance in this description of a TV:

“You people have the most delightful inventions,” she says coldly. She’s regained her composure quickly enough. “A box that blinds you and makes a horrid noise. Whatever will you think of next?”

Her tyrannical nature is no secret:

“I ought to have you locked away forever. I should melt the key to your cell and have you wear it as a ring around your finger! Who would miss you?” She laughs like a jackal. “But, luckily for you, I’m in a merciful mood. Even though you don’t in any way deserve my charity, I will allow you to leave this place if you can perform three tasks for me.”

In terms of prose, clever use of repetition brings unity to the text. For example, this segment appears both early in the game and toward the end, almost a chant centered upon the work’s title:

There’s an eye that opens when everyone else is asleep, and the name of that eye is Eidolon.

There’s a seed that sprouts in midnight soil, and the seed spawns a forest, and the name of that forest is Eidolon.

There is a hole in the sky, and the name of that hole is Eidolon.

Finally, the author shows mastery of the use of rhythm and onomatopoeia to emphasize key segments. Here “Listen closely,” “Snow is falling,” and “Stars are dying” all have four syllables, reinforcing the image of the clocks ticking.

. . . Hush now. Listen closely. Snow is falling. Stars are dying. All the clocks on all the almost-Earths are ticking . . .

In another example, the syllable counts hit like drumstrokes carefully measured out.

Boom. Hush. Groan. [three syllables]

“Come with me.” [three syllables]

Her hand flutters. [four syllables]

The door hinges howl. [five syllables]

A thousand eyes slam shut. [six syllables]

With its imagery at turns surreal and playful, its supple prose, and its distinctively depicted characters, Eidolon does an excellent job of using the written medium in a narrative game. I was especially impressed by the tactical use of rhythm, something that I don’t often see employed to such good effect. As a player, I came away most satisfied by this aspect of the game.

With Those We Love Alive (Porpentine, Brenda Neotenomie)

With Those We Love Alive has prose characterized by vivid, often gruesome imagery, startling and pointed shifts in register, and unusual neologisms. This not only paints a violently beautiful and unsettling world, but serves a rhetorical purpose as well. While the game setting gives an impression of baroque and decadent lushness–I was reminded at times of Michael Moorcock’s Melniboné–this effect is accomplished with admirable efficiency, as in this description of the garden:

Glass flowers on iron stalks. Canopy of leafbone. Statues sunk into the earth.

Or the contents of the ropes that crisscross the spaces between the buildings:

Laundry, drying meat, lanterns, festival ribbons.

This particular description doesn’t change as far as I was able to determine, but in a list of four items it suggests a busy city. On the other hand, the combinatorially ever-changing contents of the dream distillery suggest synesthetic horrors and pleasures, as in this example:

A bouquet of agorophobia, a powerful flavor of defiance, and an aftertaste of broken promises.

On occasion there is a grace note of beauty, as in the taste of three red berries, a gift from the empress:

Their juice stains your fingers. It lingers on your mouth, sweet turning to bitter like sun to evening.

Or this:

Moons roll across the water like phosphorescent marbles.

Unsettling coinages spill through the text, such as the “estroglyphs” and “spiroglyphs” contained in the player’s chest, and which must be periodically reapplied to maintain their form. In the nightmare factory, nightmare damage “unreal[s]” the wood, suggesting that dreams are more powerful than matter. My favorite eyeball-kick was the “kittenblind” princess spores.

The brutality of the empress’s rule is reinforced throughout by details large and small. For instance, the player contemplates a choice of material for one of the empress’s commissions:

You swirl the marrow. These are fairly pristine for heretic bones. No fire damage, only slight splintering from pressure. Rack? The placing of many heavy stones over a long period of time? Torn apart by horses?

It’s hilarious how many ways there are to destroy someone.

After the matter-of-fact speculation, the adjective “hilarious” is jarring, and deliberately so. At another point, when the player considers another material (angel leather),

You hear the empress removed the bones without breaking the skin. One of her better party tricks.

Even beauty is laced with cruelty during the new year celebration:

The sky is full of jellyfire like disemboweled rainbows.

The old year is ending.

Alliteration reinforces the terror of the empress’s hunts:

At the rear of the procession you listen to the always weapons and the sometimes screams.

The empress herself is depicted in terms that make her singularly unappealing:

You can smell her from here. She smells like dead candy.

And strength of word choice makes Sedina’s assassination attempt all the more gruesome as the blade exits the wound “drooling red.”

This game is extremely good at evoking horror, especially when it reveals what has been done to the protagonist. It’s the matter-of-fact “because she was your mother” that kicked me inside the head when I first read this passage:

When you were very young, it was popular among the rich to distill the dreams of children. This practice is no longer in vogue, but back then, every month or so, some children would be taken.

One night your mother stood over the stove and crumbled leaves into a cup of hot water. She stirred and stirred until it was dark green.

She gave you the cup. You drank it, because she was your mother.

That night you fell into a horrible fever. You sweated until it felt like strings threaded with broken glass were being pulled through your pores. You hallucinated. You fried. You could see nothing but the inside of your own skull.

When you woke up, you could no longer dream. In one night, it felt like you had dreamt all the dreams of a lifetime. It felt like an eternity of fire. Like what should have come slowly, gently, unfolding delicately at the whirling dance of your years, had instead been accelerated at a ruinous speed, burning away.

When the player’s old friend arrives, their conversation is in a shockingly different register:

“Hahah. Seriously. Really overrated. Breathing sucks too.”

In their conversations, the two sound like nothing so much as alienated teenagers–except they are artificer and witch under the power of tyrant. It comes as a thrill when it turns out that the witch has a plan, using a weapon so improbable as a “non-existent knife,” and whose operation is elegantly explained in this exchange:

A non-existent knife is lying on the floor. Your skin tingles.

“When is that knife going to exist?”

“Tomorrow.”

The following passage, however, is the keystone of the piece, to which everything else builds–the empress’s inhumane demands, the habits of the city, the necessity of rebellion:

To attack the sovereign body and fail is the same as wounding the sovereign body, because the body is not a body of flesh and blood, it is a body of power.

Power is wounded by anything that refuses to be destroyed by it.

In other words, the empress is the reification of tyranny.

And the ending is pitch-perfect, giving the choice of two equally valid answers to the dead person who has haunted you this whole time, representing, perhaps, your perceived inability to act in the face of a greater power. (I’m sure there are other interpretations; here the image’s polysemous nature reads as a strength rather than as vagueness.)

“I’m sorry, dead person, but you must leave.”

[choice] “Because you are dead.” / “Because I am alive.”

Either choice is equally valid–as the game says early on, there are no wrong chocies–and equally affirms the theme, but with differing emphases.

While there are only two contenders for XYZZY Writing this year, they’re both extremely strong. I was delighted to have the opportunity to review both. If I had to make a pick out of the category, I lean toward With Those We Love Alive because of its thematic unity, but one could make an equally strong case for Eidolon. Congratulations to both authors!

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