YOON HA LEE
SFX|December 2020
The American-Korean writer can’t visualise, but he sure can imagine…
Jonathan Wright

WHAT EXACTLY DOES IT MEAN TO SEE a scene in the mind’s eye? It’s one of the questions that keyed off Yoon Ha Lee’s Phoenix Extravagant. At the novel’s center lies a painter, Gyen Jebi, yet Lee is someone who “really cannot visualize things at all”, a condition known as aphantasia.

“When people read a book, and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I see a movie inside my head,’ I thought for the longest time that they were pulling my leg,” he explains. “Then I talked to my husband and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I see a movie inside my head.’ I said, ‘You’re pulling my leg,’ and he’s like, ‘No, it’s really happened.’ So [in the book] I try to imagine what that experience was like.”

Lee goes on to explain how he paints watercolors “as a hobbyist”. This focus on the visual arts seems like new territory for someone who made his name writing military SF with the Machineries Of Empire sequence. An early iteration of the novel was set during the Renaissance. “I got 40,000 words into it and realized that I’d written the wrong setting,” deadpans Lee.

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