Molecular Biologist turns Fascination for Science Fiction into a Hugo Award Nomination

Published on 1 June 2018

By: Victoria Tay

Image courtesy of JY Yang


What started out as a love for the Star Wars series has now blossomed into a career for writer JY Yang, who was recently nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award for her novella The Black Tides of Heaven.

The book is the first of three novellas in the Tensorate series told in silkpunk (a sub-genre that blends science-fiction and fantasy that is inspired by classical East-Asian culture). It spins a fantasy about gifted twins – one who can see the future, and one who can see the possibilities of what will become the future – who live on Ea, a ring-shaped planet where magic contends with technology.

Described as a “joyously wild” tale by the New York Times, the novella has been making waves in the fantasy fiction world. A coming-of-age story about the complexities behind sibling relationships, The Black Tides of Heaven will suck you into the expertly craft world of Ea.

This year, JY Yang is one of two Singaporeans shortlisted for the Hugo Awards. Fellow writer, Vina Jie-Min Prasad has also been nominated for the prestigious award under the category of ‘Best Short Story’. The Hugo Award is one of the highest honours a science fiction writer can receive, and is presented by the World Science Fiction Society.

The A List had the honour of speaking to Yang ahead of the final award announcement in August. Find out what she has to say, and get tips for how to build your own fictional universe!


What was your inspiration for the Tensorate series?

A mixture of influences, really, from Journey to the West to all those Channel 8 period dramas I watched growing up, as well as Jurassic Park, Star Wars and Dragon Age.

What was your process when you crafted the Ea planet and world?

The idea for the planet came from a single article on io9 [a blog] where a physicist theorised about what life on a toroidal (ring-shaped) planet would be like. I started building a world around that, with a magic system and a calendar. I also envisioned how this planet’s shape might affect the way society is built around it.


What got you interested in the science fiction genre?

I liked the Star Wars movies and I had a couple of friends in secondary school who shared the same love; they introduced me to a much wider range of science fiction. I remember going through the list of novels that had won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and trying to read them all.

What are some of your tips for building a believable fictional universe?

Read a lot of history books. Read books on sociology. Think about resource allocation. Spend a lot of time thinking about the way human societies operate. In the end, a believable fictional universe is one that contains a society that is recognisable as a mirror of one’s own. But you can’t build something like that if you don’t understand how your own society works.



You were previously a molecular biologist. Has that background come in handy in your writing?

I think my background as a scientist has helped a lot, not just with the technical, scientific side of things but as a way of thinking. Science, in my opinion, is a lot about looking at things from a broad point of view, and then isolating a very specific problem to untangle. I think books are also like that— you have to take a very wide view of the world when you conceptualise them, but they’re also about solving a very specific set of problems.

What was your first piece of writing, and at what age did you write it?

My memories of writing extend as far back as I have discrete memories. Even in kindergarten I was grabbing blank sheets of paper and writing silly stories on them.

When did you first start submitting your work?

Probably somewhere around 2013. I’d submitted short stories for specific open calls before that, but 2013 was the year I regularly started writing fiction and submitting it to professional magazines.

What is the difference between a good and a bad story for you?

A good story is when I enjoyed the process of reading it, and if I’m still thinking about it days or weeks later. A bad one is when the story is tedious, with overwrought prose and flavourless characterisation. I also dislike it when writers create or replicate oppressive structures in society without sufficiently interrogatig them.



Writing can be such a personal thing. How do you handle feedback constructively? 

It depends on the feedback, who’s giving it and why. I usually seek feedback on my stories from people whom I trust and who know what they are doing. I also generally seek feedback on specific aspects of the story, and pay no attention to unsolicited feedback. There is a surfeit of opinion in this world. I don’t have to consider it all.

What are some “traps” that you think a writer can fall into?

The main pitfall for writers is thinking that they’re beyond criticism or that their art is a work of genius. Once you no longer think your craft needs improving on, your work will stagnate.

When you learnt that you were nominated for the Hugo Award, how did that make you feel?

I felt honoured and grateful. It’s not easy for people to break into the Anglophone publishing scene from outside the Western hemisphere, so I knew how lucky I was.

And finally, what advice would you give any aspiring writers? 

Simply to never give up. Never surrender.

Read an excerpt of The Black Tides of Heaven here.

Buy the whole Tensorate series online here.

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