Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee
Reviewed by Richard Larson
05 July 2013
The stories in Yoon Ha Lee's debut collection, Conservation of Shadows, are fantasies steeped in history—disguised histories, made-up histories, invented histories, however you want to describe them—taking place in worlds strikingly imbued with a rich sense of the past. The present moments of these stories are so rife with narratives of the past that they provide a real sense of a setting as lived-in, fully realized. These aren't historical fantasies, but rather history fantasies: stories that engage with the idea of history by employing the fantastic, creating worlds with pasts as rich as that of our own so as to engage our innate conceptions of history, our often conflicted relationship with our own past.
Yoon Ha Lee is a mathematical writer. Not only because she has studied math and imbues these stories with a mathematical precision, always structurally sound and ending with the right answer, almost like the stories are equations busily solving themselves. Her characters, too, are mathematicians, mostly in the loosest sense of the word—people who want to explain the world, people searching for formulas to unlock hidden truths—but sometimes literally, too, and always in creative, surprising ways. "The Shadow Postulates" features one such protagonist, Kaela, a young girl who navigates a world of shadows which are "instantiations of past magistrates" (p. 43), "[shapes] in the moving world reduced to a projection of possibilities" (p. 46)—a mathematical way of describing the presence of a ghost, ghosts both literal and metaphorical being a consistent presence in the collection. Kaela applies an ancient theorem and comes to understand a historical event in a new way. And in "Ghostweight," we meet Lisse, a girl taking revenge in a ruined world, accompanied always by an actual ghost—grafted onto her by her parents at birth—who may not be everything it seems to be. There is a sense here of lost worlds, "the dregs of autumn, decay from the inside out" (p. 12), as Lisse wanders through a place she only knows from stories—stories the ghost has told her:
Lisse thought of long nights with the ghost leaning by her bedside, reminding her of the dancers, the tame birds, the tangle of frostfruit trees in the city square; things she did not remember herself because she had been too young when the jerengjen came. Even her parents only came to her in snatches: curling up in a mother’s lap, helping a father peel plantains. (p. 31)
The above passage reflects a consistent concern in Lee's fiction: the fact that we learn so much about the past through stories, a notion which also raises the question of how much we can actually trust the stories that are told to us. Lisse sees the remnants of what once was, and she has a desire to know more about the way things used to be—a desire the ghost can satisfy, or at least Lisse thinks so at first. She imagines the wars of her ancestors and "in her dreams she heard their pleas in her birth tongue, which the ghost had taught her" (p. 28). But later, after enacting a revenge which it turns out she doesn't fully understand, her world is turned upside down and she wonders if anything the ghost had told her—anything Lisse thought she knew about the past—was actually true.
Other stories in the collection also address this notion of the unreliability of history—or, rather, the unreliability of what we think we know of history, history itself composed only of stories we tell each other about the past. "Between Two Dragons," a loose retelling of the Japanese invasion of Korea in the sixteenth century, explores the idea of turning historical events into a narrative, weaving stories out of the past and then living the present in the context of that imagined history. The narrator reminisces on the feats of a great hero, telling the story of his accomplishments as it is told now, even as she doesn’t "know how much of it to believe. Surely it is impossible . . . but the royal historians say it is so" (p. 91). History is never true or false, but instead is fluid, always changing. The past can be rewritten.
"Effigy Nights" is the story of a peaceful city full of "connoisseurs of writing," which comes under attack by enemy starships who "have set their dragon eyes upon Imulai Mokarengen, desiring to possess its arts" (p. 104). History, here, is a story of conquest, and our "city of stories" (p. 107) is doomed to obscurity unless Seran, our protagonist, can succeed in defending the city by bringing legendary characters back to life by cutting them out of paper and imbuing these sudden effigies with physical form. But he "hadn't made adequate preparations for the sheer aggravation of sharing [the city] with legends and historical figures" (p. 111), and the stories—physical stories, stories with a real presence in the world—take over, scissors suddenly imbued with the power to cut through all the stories until nothing is left: "Having denuded the city of its past, of its weight of stories, they began cutting effigies from the living stories of its people" (p. 118). The city is literally consumed by its own history.
While there exists in these stories a sense of mistrust towards what we know of historical events, there is also a reverence for ancestry, the idea of honoring those who have come before. We’ve already seen ghosts and shadows, and in "The Bones of Giants" we see bones, a very literal and symbolic relic from the past, come to haunt the present in the form of animated giants controlled by necromancers. A mysterious sorcerer controls the Pit, "a place in the world where Death has a home" (p. 77), ruling with the help of acolytes anxious to tap into his power. Tamim, a soldier with nothing left to lose, is attempting to enact revenge for his mother's death at the hands of the sorcerer when he encounters a necromancer who may, in spite of first appearances, be able to help him on his mission. She is able to control the giants—literally giving life to dead bones, bending them to her will. There's a sense here of a reclamation of the past, a reclamation of history, using it to help solve problems in the present: "A necromancer is only as useful as the bones she can call to her service" (p. 56), the necromancer notes, acknowledging her debt to history. The world here is full of ghouls and giants, magic and war, but Lee also renders it as a very human place, her characters deeply affected by loss. History marches on, after all, and all we can do is try to keep up: "It's about going from one to the next, no matter how small the interval of time, or how long" (p. 79).
And in "Swanwatch," a group of exiles on a space station take on names in the context of "tradition based in an ancient civilization's legends" (p. 93), and the protagonist, Swan, sings other ships to their death as they are absorbed into a black hole, doing the disparate cultures a justice she thinks they deserve by honoring their legacy: "And if I am to do each swanship justice, shouldn't I draw upon the musical traditions of their cultures?" (p. 100). Honoring the dead is "the greatest form of immortality" (p. 102). And yet for all its attention to the past—the characters wallowing in this responsibility for the legacies of fallen civilizations—the story ends with "a song for the living" (p. 103), a decision on the part of the characters to live in the present and preserve what they have now, rather than simply remembering all that they've lost. As we learn in "Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain," one of the collection's most poignant and beautiful tales, "To become extinct, something has to exist first" (p. 124). And in "Iseul's Lexicon," one of the longest stories in the collection (and one which has a distinctly novelistic feel, its world vast and filled with nuance and detail), we follow a spy, Iseul, who has infiltrated a nation her own people are at war with. Lee often describes large-scale conflicts between two or more groups who have more in common than they’d like to admit—perhaps a situation similar to human history, especially since Lee frequently nods towards real historical conflicts in her fiction, most often between Japan and Korea. In this story, Iseul is very interested in poetry, specifically the idea that Chindallan poets (from her homeland) are often read with great zeal by the Yegedin (their enemies). "It would have been easy to hate the southern poets for abandoning their own language, but she knew that resistance carried a considerable risk" (p. 133), and so the colonized here adopt the language of the colonizer. Lee presents a magic system based on language, thus allowing for the revelation that as language evolves, so is magic lost; "we've been trying to use the wrong words for magic" (162), she notes, setting up the story's heartbreaking ending—an accidental genocide, the unintentional erasure of history.
There's an inevitability of destruction present in any intelligent discourse about history; a sort of civilizational entropy, the idea that what goes up must come down. In "A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel"—a story which is clearly a riff on those collected in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, a suspicion the author confirms in the story notes—we meet the Iothal, a people who
treasure chronicles of all kinds. From early on in their history, they bound forest chronicles by pressing leaves together and listening to their secrets of turning worm and wheeling sun; they read hymns to the transient things of the world in chronicles of footprints upon rocky soil, of foam upon restive sea. . . . Some of their visionaries speak of a surfeit of knowledge, when it will be impossible to move or breathe without imbibing some unexpected fact. . . . [But] the underside of this obsession is the society's driving terror. One day all their cities will be unordered dust, one day all their books will be scattered like leaves, one day no one will know the things they knew. One day the rotting remains of their libraries will disintegrate so completely that they will be indistinguishable from the world’s wrack of stray eddies and meaningless scribbles, the untied heat of death. (pp. 246-7)
This here is perhaps a key to understanding Conservation of Shadows, as a love letter to scribes and historians even as the whole enterprise is doomed to failure—beautiful, perhaps, because of the way history ultimately folds into itself, an origami sculpture of stories upon stories, the truth buried somewhere therein. Lee's worlds, and her invented histories, are worth throwing yourself into, not the least because you'll find much to recognize. Each of these stories—while fantasies—mirror our own world in startling, poignant ways. Lee also builds her worlds with the well-chosen detail. One problem inherent to such deep world building, especially in the form of the short story, is that the extensive and exhaustive recitation of background details sometimes feels tedious, requiring possibly a greater investment for the payoff than the casual reader is willing to put forth. However, Lee's stories are worth the investment. Consider the collection’s namesake and closing story, "Conservation of Shadows," a gorgeously evocative retelling of the Mesopotamian myth of Inanna's descent into the underworld told in the language of a video game, the character complete with inventory slots and levels to beat in order to advance further. The original myth tells of Inanna, already a complicated figure, descending further and further into the underworld, far from the heavens which she calls home, offering her clothing as exchange for passage through each gate until she arrives naked at her sister's throne. In Lee's hands, the narrator of the story is the sister who taunts Inanna, just one of many clones of herself (she is the 75th version of Inanna, actually), on her journey down below:
Let me tell you a story to distract you from the useless fable you are telling yourself. Long ago, the people of a great and fertile land resolved to explore worlds that circled the god-stars that they had watched and worshipped since their people first set brick upon brick to build cities. But for all their ambitions, they were loyal, and did not forget their gods. They knew they would need their gods to guard them from the dangers that lie in deep space. So they made sure that their gods would follow them into that shining darkness, a pantheon of gods for each world. They made you, all of you, and they made me. (p. 314)
We end the collection, fittingly, with a showdown between two sister gods fighting for nothing less than the whole world. It seems that the stakes have never been higher, but as we reflect back on the stories in the collection leading up to this one, we realize that the stakes are always the same: history casting long shadows even as we try to overcome its influence; the past always an equation that can't truly be solved. The world is always what's at stake, because the stories we create are what make the world what it is. History is the story here—as well as the way we write it, over and over and over.