Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Spoiler-Free Book Review: "A Conservation of Shadows" by Yoon Ha Lee

I'm bad at math, and I don't mean that in a girlie-girl, giggly, "Tee hee, math is so hard!" hair-twirling kind of way. What I mean is, I think I have some sort of undiagnosed math learning disability. I struggled through pre-algebra, twice. In my junior year of high school I failed algebra II, despite the tutor my mom hired to help me, and had to go to summer school in order to graduate. The only math class I took after that was the one the College of Arts and Sciences at NYU required for gen ed; they might as well have called it "Math for Lit Major Morons." I barely passed with a "D."

So I'm a little bit in awe of people for whom math comes easily: my mom, my best friend of 26 years, and now, Yoon Ha Lee. I now have two reasons to be envious of her: she's good at math, and she's a brilliant writer.

To my mind, math and literature are two separate animals, but Yoon Ha Lee - a Korean-American math major - manages to seamlessly weave the two together in beautiful, almost poetic ways. "Conservation of Shadows" is both the title of the collection of short stories, as well as one of the stories contained within. It took me longer to read than I had anticipated because some of the stories get quite detailed with science and technology, and those are not my native reading languages.

As with most short story collections, some are more hit and some are more miss. With a few exceptions, I tend not to read a lot of space opera. Because of this, the stories "Ghostweight," and "The Unstrung Zither" were not my favorites; I could not finish "The Battle of Candle Arc." Yet I loved "Swanwatch," and "Between Two Dragons," arguably both space operas.

The stories in the collection I enjoyed most were the ones that did away with fancy theories of space travel or complicated technology. "The Shadow Postulates" has a brilliant plot device in the form of living shadows on a university campus. "The Bones of Giants" I wished was a full-length novel, with such strong world-building I was sad when the story ended.

Four stories stand out to me as favorites:

In "Blue Ink," a young woman is faced with a parallel version of herself who requests her help in a war. I love the idea of parallel universes and of traveling between them to visit other versions of ourselves. What would we say? What would we do? Would we be shocked by our otherselves? Would we help them? Would they help us? It's such a rich topic, yet so hard to do well. In this story, Yoon crafts clever and creative answers to those questions.

"Iseul's Lexicon" is my second-favorite story, and probably one of the most intelligent works I've ever read. How would a conquering culture best erase all traces of the previous culture? By, quite literally, erasing their words from existence. Not only was this story hyper-creative and stunningly written, but as an American, with full knowledge of Yoon's Korean-American background, and with full knowledge of my nation's recent history and current cultural hegemony around the globe, it was hard to read this and not feel a potent mix of guilt and sympathy. I mean that in a good way; Americans should not shy away from difficult topics, and white people definitely need to not shy away from stories that present points of view told by the victims of empire and colonization.

I really loved reading "The Book of Locked Doors." It was one of those stories I could have read forever. In addition to the subject matter at hand - what, exactly, is "terrorism" when you are defending your own homeland and cultural identity? - I love the idea of a living book that talks to you, a sort of self-aware Book of the Dead. Again, this story speaks to Yoon's fascinatingly deep levels of creativity and intelligence.

The last story in the collection is the title story, "A Conservation of Shadows," and it is far and away my favorite. Written in gorgeous, but not flowery, prose, it reminds me of one of my favorite short story writers, Cat Rambo. The story, so I've read, was inspired by Yoon's love of the Sumerian myth of the Descent of Inanna, but, like most well-written stories, could be interpreted in any number of ways.

Although this is a collection of unrelated short stories, a few common themes unite them: civil war, military occupation, lost of culture and language. Many of the worlds in the stories have Eastern influences, rather than the usual Medieval European influence, which I welcomed with open arms. One of the reasons I embarked on my "Speculative Fiction by Women of Color" reading project for 2014 was to explore new world building and cultural influences, and I wasn't disappointed here.

I will absolutely be seeking out more of Yoon Ha Lee's stories. Maybe one day, when she invents time travel, she can travel back to the early 1990s and be my math tutor so I don't have to go to summer school in 1993. A girl can dream.

No comments:

Post a Comment