Photo by Lisa Tang Liu
Ken Liu is one of the most prolific and highly regarded authors working in the Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) field today. In just the last five years, he’s published scores of high-quality short fiction pieces in publications ranging from the core SFF magazines to more scholarly venues such as Nature and The Atlantic Council. He is also the only author to have ever won all three of the field’s most prestigious awards—the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards—for the same story, The Paper Menagerie (2011).
2015 saw the publication of The Grace of Kings, the first volume in Ken’s epic fantasy trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty. Ken has also translated several Chinese SF works into English, including Cixin Liu’s Hugo Award-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem.
Ken’s first story collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, was released just this week, and the second volume in The Dandelion Dynasty, titled The Wall of Storms, is due out in October.
DC: Ken, thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. Although you published your first story as early as 2002, you really burst onto the scene with a spray of astonishing work beginning in 2010, and the standing ovation is still continuing. You’re living proof of the saying that “it takes ten years to become an overnight success.” What were you doing in those years between 2002 and 2010?
KL: Thank you, Dario! Always such a pleasure to chat about writing and books with you.
For most of that decade I was involved in the practice of law, first as a law student and then as a corporate lawyer. The legal profession demands a great deal from practitioners, both in time and mental energy, and there wasn’t much room left for fiction writing.
However, I was doing a great deal of writing—papers, memos, contracts, briefs—just not novels or short stories. Yet, in a way, the practice of law turned out to be good preparation for fiction: we like to think that abstract logic and cold reason should be the primary modes of persuasion in the law, but crafting a powerful narrative—telling a persuasive story—is just as important, and perhaps even dominant. Law students are often very good at legal reasoning, but learning how to tell stories that achieve the right result for your client takes a lifetime of dedicated practice. It was the sort of experience that came in handy later when I turned more of my energy to fiction.
DC: Your short fiction can best be described as literary, precise, and intimate. How did you go from being an English major with a passion for the Western Canon to writing Science Fiction?
KL: Ha! You know, the thing is, I’ve never thought of genre fiction as standing in opposition to “literature.” As a result, I’ve never been interested in efforts to carve out some special aesthetic claim for science fiction or fantasy.
To me, all fiction is speculative because all fiction is interested in a mode of rhetoric in which the logic of metaphors is more important than the logic of analysis. What gets marketed as science fiction or fantasy are typically just works that achieve their effect by literalizing their metaphors.
The advent of Modernism has resulted in an intense interiority being read as the (sole?) mark of psychological “realism”; writers who write in the science fiction and fantasy genres, however, can still get away with stories in which the interior drama is played out through literalized external manifestations.
I view science fiction as having a perfectly valid claim on the Western Canon—in the same way that the author of Frankenstein was consciously engaged in dialogue with Milton’s Paradise Lost throughout her text.
DC: Roots, memory and identity, the sense of straddling two cultures and the need to either reconcile them or commit fully to one, is a recurring theme in your short fiction. As an immigrant yourself—I believe you were ten when you arrived in the US—is this a process you still struggle with?
KL: Struggling with narratives of identity is at the heart of the experience of modernity. I would say that resistance to the false narrative of “straddling” two cultures is definitely a recurring theme in my fiction. The notion that immigrants are somehow torn between cultures and act as the contested battleground for clearly defined and irreconcilable dueling cultural narratives from which they must choose one is simplistic, reductive, and to put it bluntly, wrong—and yet it is a notion that shows up again and again in how we discuss cultural difference.
I’m far more interested in stories that explore the ways in which all of us are defined by, but also define, the cultures which claim us, and how we negotiate the boundaries between self and society, between conformance and estrangement. As an American who claims a proud identification with my Chinese cultural inheritance, I’m particularly interested in stories that challenge the assumptions behind what it means to be “American” or “Chinese” and reveal these categorizations as attempts by the powerful to assert dominance over fluid, unstable, always-forming identities.
We live in a world that is defined by historical injustices, and it is a mark of privilege for someone to declare history to be irrelevant—the descendants of historical winners are the only ones who can afford to ignore history. I write stories that stubbornly—and perhaps unrealistically—cling to the hope that it is only by understanding and empathizing with the pains of historical suffering and accepting the burden of historical injustice that we can truly be free.
DC: As well as being an amazingly prolific author and translator, you have a wife and two young children, practice law as a litigation consultant, and write software as well. Assuming you don’t have a time machine, how do you do it all?
KL: Ah, you give me too much credit. My biggest problem is that I’m not very efficient. Almost every writer I know writes faster than I do, and context switching is expensive for me—I’m not a good multitasker at all.
I do think I’m pretty good about picking meaty, rewarding projects and saying no to everything else. I translate only stories that I’m enthusiastic about, and I write only when I think I can make an interesting, impactful contribution. When I take up a novel, as you know, I ended up writing a very big, very long book. (smiles)
DC: Given this incredible schedule, what suffers? What do you wish you had more time for?
KL: I wish I had more time to write software and play with technology! I used to be able to spend a great deal more time writing apps and simply exploring code. The combination of being under contract with a publisher as well as having a demanding day job means that I value time with my family even more, and I’ve had to give up my coding time.
Luckily, my daughters are getting old enough to be introduced to robotics and some basic programming, so I’m hoping I’ll be “forced” to do more playing under the guise of “teaching” them something.
DC: What do you do for relaxation?
KL: I play games on my Nintendo 3DS. I especially love puzzle games (Box Boy is wonderful).
DC: Your Epic Fantasy trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty, which is a radical departure from your short fiction, has given rise to the wonderful term “silkpunk”. Can you define it for us, and tell us who coined it?
KL: That’s my term. It’s a shorthand to describe the technology aesthetic I wanted for the novel as well as my literary approach.
Here’s the tweet-sized sound bite: “War & Peace with silk-and-bamboo airships; Iliad with living books and sentient narwhals; Romance of the Three Kingdoms with u-boats.”
If you want to hear more, let me start with what The Grace of Kings is about: It’s the story of two unlikely friends, a bandit and a duke, who grow to be as close as brothers during the fight to overthrow an evil empire, only to find themselves on opposing sides of a struggle for the definition of a just society once the rebellion succeeds.
When I describe the novel as a “silkpunk epic fantasy,” I mean that I’m writing with and against the tradition of epic fantasy—as begun by Tolkien—by infusing it with an East-Asia-inspired aesthetic that embraces, extends, and challenges fantasy/historical tropes that are assumed to have medieval European or classical East Asian origins. Epics are foundational narratives for cultures, and I wanted to write a modern foundational narrative that draws as much on Chinese epic traditions like Romance of the Three Kingdoms as on Western tradtions from Beowulf and the Aeneid.
The tale I tell is a loose re-imagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty in a secondary world archipelago setting. This is a world of politics and intrigue, of love purified and corrupted, of rebelling against tyranny and seeing one’s ideals compromised, of friendships forged and sundered by the demands of war and statecraft. There are vain and jealous gods, bamboo airships and biomechanics-inspired submarines, battle kites that evoke the honor and glory of another age, fantastical creatures of the deep, and magical tomes that tell the future written in our hearts.
In writing this book, I devoted as much care to technology as to magic, as much attention to art and writing as to war. The text is consumed with the exercise of power while also imbued with the hope that society is capable of progress. I had such a blast writing it, and I think at least that authorial joy comes through.
DC: I know that your wife, Lisa Tang Liu, worked with you on creating the universe for this series. What sparked the idea?
KL: When I was looking for a subject for my first novel, Lisa and I had many conversations about what might be an interesting tale. One day, she said, “I’ve never read a story in English that gives me the feeling of those historical dramas in Hong Kong.”
Lisa and I both grew up imbibing Chinese historical romances as our foundational narratives (she did it by watching TV dramas, and I did it by listening to storytellers on the radio). This conversation sparked in me the thought that it would be interesting to transpose a foundational narrative in one culture—the founding of the Han Dynasty, for instance—into a narrative structure built with elements adopted from both the Western and Chinese literary traditions. It had to be done in a way that felt organic, lively, distinct, instead of being just another “magical China” story that merely validated the Western gaze.
It sounded like a tough challenge, which is also a sign that it was a project worth pursuing. Lisa and I discussed how such a world should be built and what it would look like and what sort of Orientalizing pitfalls had to be avoided to thwart the expectations of the dominant Western interpretive framework. She helped me to define the language, culture, and geography of Dara until it felt like a world that could support our dreams.
DC: This enormous landmark work (The Grace of Kings clocks in at around 650 pages) is eclectic, multilayered, and daring in so many ways. In approaching this story of upheaval and revolution you chose a narrative voice strongly reminiscent of the oral storytelling tradition, which carries echoes of Homer and other classical authors; the way these are blended is uniquely Liu. I was both engrossed and awed by how well you pulled this off—you own the narrative voice in these novels. What made you settle on this narrative strategy?
KL: Thank you! I’m so glad my choices paid off for you.
I wasn’t interested in writing a “contemporary” genre novel, by which I mean a novel whose narrative strategies are deeply influenced by Modernism, with a focus on psychological interiority and tight, intimate POVs. As I mentioned earlier, I’m more interested in exploring the idea of trans-cultural foundational narratives, the logic of metaphors, and playing with epic structure and omniscient POV. I wanted to tell a story that was self-consciously engaged in conversation with both Western and Chinese literary forerunners, both ancient and modern.
I don’t believe there is only one kind of “good story.” I wanted to write something that feels as different from the contemporary genre novel as a brush painting feels from an oil painting. Indeed, in a lot of ways it is closer to something like Moby Dick or the wuxia classics—I certainly ignored a lot of “rules” of genre writing.
DC: Looking at some of the reader reviews it’s clear than not all readers have either the background or insight to appreciate what you’re doing here, with some grumbling about too much exposition, too much telling and not enough showing. Did you know you were taking a risk with this approach?
KL: (grins) Did I ever! The Grace of Kings is a departure from much of my short fiction (as you alluded to earlier), and I knew going in that the choices I made wouldn’t work for every reader. I appreciate every reader who tried my book, and if the book didn’t work for them, I can only say that I’m sorry and I hope to write a book that will be more appealing to them in the future.
But in order to tell the story I wanted to tell, it was necessary to make use of a narrative structure and adopt techniques that melded the different epic traditions I wanted to converse with. I was sailing into the unknown, and taking risks is absolutely necessary when you are interested in terra incognita.
And I’m incredibly gratified by the many readers who have written to me to tell me how much they enjoyed what I did with Dara.
DC: I know you’re a great fan of Milton’s Paradise Lost. What is it about this work that so appeals to you?
KL: I think Paradise Lost is the greatest poem in the English language. In composing it, Milton was forced to create a new aesthetic that melded the Classical and Biblical epic traditions, and elevated vernacular English to a level formerly reserved for Greek and Latin. He was building a new world as well as a new language and a new set of narrative techniques, challenging reader expectations as he conversed with the literary traditions he claimed for himself and irrevocably changed them in the process.
This is, as you might have guessed, a project that very much resonates with me.
DC: I believe you also write poetry, but I’m not sure in which language?
KL: I only write in English. My formal schooling in Chinese ended in elementary school, and though I can appreciate poetic Chinese writing, writing in Chinese at that level would take decades of dedicated practice. If I live to be a hundred and fifty, I might give it a try.
DC: Here in the US, the climate in the core Science Fiction community has become particularly toxic in the last few years, with a brutal internecine war that has caused deep and lasting divisions within the community. Despite having strong views and beliefs, you’ve wisely avoided making enemies. Why do you think people can’t have a civil dialogue over their differences?
KL: There’s a tendency in modern rhetoric to reduce complicated, multidimensional differences into simplistic, binary oppositions. The genre community is divided along many different dimensions, some aesthetic, some political, and others even more fundamental than either. Trying to flatten all of these differences into a matter of two “sides” or “factions” is, in my view, the reason why many of these debates just involve the participants talking past each other.
I do want to note that “civility” by itself is not a virtue. It is possible to be perfectly polite in discourse while utterly disrespecting the humanity of others.
Ultimately, I’m more interested in working on projects that interest me and pleasing readers who enjoy my work. Everything else is just noise.
DC: It’s not unusual to see SFF “insiders” openly slam the genre’s hugely popular writers—fantastic storytellers like Andy Weir (The Martian), Stephanie Meyers (Twilight), and, a decade ago, J.K. Rowling—as mere popular hacks lacking craft. Is SFF a popular art form or should it be the property of a highly educated elite?
KL: I think most writers would prefer their books to be both critically acclaimed and best-selling. Personally, I just don’t find it interesting to slam other writers for their success, even if what they write isn’t to my taste.
Whenever there’s a book that I don’t like—but whose fans are passionate—I try to learn why the book is so successful. Popular books inevitably do something really well and scratch an itch for their fans. It’s fascinating to figure out what that itch is.
DC: A few unkind reviewers familiar with Chinese culture have accused you of simply rehashing the Chu-Han struggle of Chinese history in your Dandelion Dynasty series. How would you reply to these critics?
KL: I’m actually not interested in replying to these critics at all. I don’t even bother reading my reviews. Writers who argue with critics rarely come out ahead. What matters is writing another book for readers who would enjoy my work.
But I will say to potential readers sitting on the fence about trying my book that Paradise Lost is also just a rehash of the first few chapters in Genesis, and Journey to the West a rehash of old oral traditions that came before it. There are no new stories, only new ways to tell them so that we are transported to new realms.
DC: In stories such as The Man Who Ended History, The Reborn, and Ghost Days, you address some difficult themes—genocide, the destruction or assimilation of peoples and cultures. We should never forget, but should we forgive?
KL: I think we bear a responsibility towards history, and it’s our duty to construct a future that is better than the past.
When we speak of historical atrocities, it’s worth remembering that their effects still govern the lives of the descendants of perpetrators and victims. The past is not past. “Forgiveness” is often touted as a way to lead to forgetfulness, and I’m leery of it when used in that way.
DC: Last year you were honoured at the Beijing Xinyun Awards with an award for special contribution to Chinese SF. What was that like for you?
KL: Incredible. The enthusiasm of the Chinese fans was deeply moving. I was deeply moved by how much Liu Cixin himself took the trouble to thank me, when I really didn’t do much of anything as a translator.
It was Liu Cixin’s powerful imagination and skill as a writer that allowed The Three-Body Problem to replicate its success among Anglophone readers. I hope that in the future, translation of works from Chinese into English would become so routine that no one will remember the translators.
DC: What’s the best part about being a dad?
KL: Seeing the world through fresh eyes! My daughters constantly make observations about the world that remind me how full of wonder everything around us is, and how miraculous is the universe. They’ve taught me to be appreciative of the infinite joy that fills every second of existence.
DC: Ken, thanks so very much for spending time with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?
KL: Thank you so much for having me, Dario. I love our deep conversations.
This is a pretty exciting year for me, as I have four books being released.
On March 8, 2016, my debut collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, came out from Saga Press. This volume collects some of my favorite stories as well as one previously unpublished story I wrote just for the collection.
In August, Death’s End, my translation of the third and concluding volume in Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy, will be released by Tor Books.
For fans of The Grace of Kings, the sequel, The Wall of Storms, will be coming out from Saga Press in October of 2016 (and it’s bigger and better in every way, with even more intrigue and silkpunk technology!).
Finally, in November, Tor Books will publish my collection of translations of contemporary short-form Chinse SF, Invisible Planets. This volume will contain translations of award-winning stories by such luminaries of the Chinese SF world as Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Hao Jingfang, and others.
To find out more about my plans, readers can go to my web site (http://kenliu.name) and/or sign up for my newsletter (http://kenliu.name/mailing-list/)
Did you enjoy this interview with Ken? Let us know with a comment!
You can read my own review of The Grace of Kings (vol. I of the Dandelion Dynasty), here: https://dariospeaks.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/review-the-grace-of-kings-by-ken-liu/)
Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with SARA ALEXI, bestselling author of The Greek Village series, live right here on Saturday March 19!
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