Ken Liu is one of the great names in both Science Fiction and Fantasy. His work on “Invisible Planets”, “The Dandelion Dynasty” or as a translator of the famous work of Cixin Liu, has placed him as one of the most important genre authors. Taking advantage of the release of his next compendium of SF, “Broken Stars”, we had the opportunity to interview him and ask him about many themes of his work.
- You have written both Science Fiction and Fantasy, in which would you say you feel more comfortable? Is there a difference in the approach when you write these genres?
First of all, thank you very much for the interview. It’s always a pleasure to reflect on the writing process with the aid of good questions and to connect with fans.
I’ve never paid a lot of attention to genre labels.
I think of all fiction as unified in prizing the logic of metaphors over the logic of persuasion. In this, so-called realist fiction isn’t particularly different from science fiction or fantasy or romance or any other genre. Indeed, often the speculative element in science fiction isn’t about science at all, but rather represents a literalization of some metaphor. I like to write stories in which the logic of metaphors takes primacy. My goal is to write stories that can be read at multiple levels, such that what is not said is as important as what is said, and the imperfect map of metaphors points to the terra incognita of an empathy with the universe.
- In 2016 came “Invisible Planets” while this year “Broken Stars” will be published, a new collection of Chinese Science Fiction stories also chosen and translated by you. In addition, we also have your own collection “The paper Menagerie”. We know you started as a short story writer, but what exactly about short stories fascinate you so much?
I enjoy telling stories. Some stories require 500,000 words to tell, some 50. I’ve done both.
As a general rule, it’s possible to get away with no plot in a short story, which means the writer can maintain narrative tension through other means. In much the same way the body plan of an insect is very different from the body plan of an elephant, the structure of a short story is very different from that of a novel. It’s fun to explore different structures.
- You have been nominated for many awards and have won a Hugo Award. How was that moment and how has that shaped your career?
I’ve forgotten all about how I felt when I won various awards. This a deliberate choice. My general practice is to thank the jury, judges, and fans and then forget about the awards as soon as possible—so far I’ve succeeded very well in that regard.
I think awards can be very dangerous, especially if a writer views awards as external validation for their work. I try to never depend on external validation; it’s the only way to be sure I’m writing for my own ideals, not someone else’s.
Insofar as some fans come to my work from news of my awards, I’m grateful for that. But since I myself don’t look for what to read because of awards, it’s hard for me to judge how important that is.
- In “The Paper Menagerie” you explore the idea of losing your roots as you try to fit in a society. How important was this story for you to tell and why do you think it has resonated with so many people?
“The Paper Menagerie” is a story about finding out how to define your sense of self in the face of a hostile environment. It’s too bad that it’s sometimes been read as a story about cultural conflict, which it isn’t. Some readers seem to miss the point that all the characters in the story are Americans (mother, son, father, bully)—remember, America is not a “white” country, nor is it an “English-only” country, but a country of immigrants and diverse tongues—and so the story is about competing conceptions of the idea of being “American” and the need for us all to resist racism, both external and internalized.
I suppose that makes the story indelibly American—which is inevitable when it comes from an American writer. But I rather hope that the ideas and themes are universal, especially at a time like this.
I don’t think of stories as being “important” to tell—that implies some instrumentalist purpose to fiction, which I tend to resist. To me, stories are at the same time frivolous (they cannot cure the sick or feed the hungry) and critical (stories literally define how we conceive of ourselves). All the stories I write try to get at the human condition as I understand it, and to me, that is enough justification and perhaps the source of the power of my writing.
- Along with the story “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” of “The Paper Menagerie” we find an Author’s Note in which you tell us you wrote an unpublished work about the profession of “songshi”. Why are you interested so much in the “songshi” profession? Could we say that they were a kind of feudal lawyers?
When discussing songshi, I’ve learned to try to avoid the term “lawyer”—it isn’t a term that can be applied across time or space without distortions. The modern Anglo-American conception of the term, for instance, is quite different from how that term is used in Napoleonic times or Shakespeare’s day. The songshi were certainly interpreters and manipulators of the law—and in that sense, share some of the features we think of as belonging to modern “lawyers”—but I think calling them lawyers outright would confuse the issue rather than clarify.
I find them fascinating because they are ambivalent figures: admired by many, despised by others. They could be seen as tricksters, heroes, unscrupulous corrupters of the truth, henchmen for the powerful and the status quo, or defenders of the weak and powerless.
As a lawyer myself, I find power in all stories about those who must navigate systems of rules and architect symbolic structures to achieve specific results. Rules-engineering is as complex and as critical as mechanical engineering and narrative engineering.
- The Dandelion Dynasty is a fantasy series that deals with mythology, family and brotherhood, and that is just in the first two books! What can we expect from the third one?
You can expect a lot more exciting silkpunk technology as well as rules-engineering and narrative-engineering 🙂 There will be more vain and jealous gods, rebellious children, and heroes who must balance the long view with the needs of the present, to boldly shape the future by embracing the wisdom of the past.
“Silkpunk” is the shorthand I use to describe the technology aesthetic I wanted for the Dandelion Dynasty series as well as the literary approach I used in composing the books.
In creating the silkpunk aesthetic, I’m influenced by the ideas of W. Brian Arthur, who articulates a vision of technology as a language. The task of the engineer is much like that of a poet in that the engineer must creatively combine existing elements of technology to solve novel problems, thereby devising artifacts that are new expressions in the technical language.
In the silkpunk world of my novels, this view of technology is dominant. The vocabulary of the technology language relies on materials of historical importance to the people of East Asia and the Pacific islands: bamboo, shells, coral, paper, silk, feathers, sinew, etc. And the grammar of the language puts more emphasis on biomimetics–the airships regulate their lift by analogy with the swim bladders of fish, and the submarines move like whales through the water. The engineers are celebrated as great artists who transform the existing language and evolve it toward ever more beautiful forms.
In the third book, the silkpunk aesthetic extends to areas of life not commonly thought of as “technology.” I’ll leave the details to be discovered by readers when the book is out.
- In both of the first books we see the struggle between leadership and family. How to cope with both worlds. Is this a theme we can expect to see in third book?
To be sure—though the stakes are raised and the conflicts even more heart-wrenching. Epics must be about leaders and the peoples they lead, but at the same time, the heroes and villains are also parents, siblings, children, lovers, rivals, and friends. The private and the public cannot be separated.
- In the third book we seem to be headed towards a more adventure filled story as the protagonist heads into an unexplored area of the world. Does this mean there will be a bit of a shift in the tone of the books? Can you tell us how far along in the process of writing the book you are?
My plan was for all three books to be very different from one another in tone. The first book is written in the style of old epics, in which characters are defined by externalized action. The second book is written more in the style of contemporary fantasy (as influenced by so-called “literary” fiction) in which characters are defined more by psychological interiority. The third book is more experimental, and will use a variety of styles to give the sense of contrapuntal, polyphonic narrative.
I’m pretty close to being done with the book, but I can’t stop tweaking it to bring it closer to my original vision. I had conceived of the final scene of the series nearly a decade ago, before I wrote the first word of The Grace of Kings or drawn the first map. It’s so exciting to me that after so many years, the grand story I first envisioned is about to be finished.
- And finally about The Dandelion Dynasty… Can we ask if you have a title -provisional or not- for the latest book?
I do have a title — in fact, the title had been set years ago. But I can’t reveal it just yet, as my publisher would like to hold off on that until everything is ready.
- How did you get involved in working with LucasFilms and the writing of the books? How much of a Star Wars fan are you and how has it inspired your work?
I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since I read the novelization of “The Empire Strikes Back” as a small child. In fact, I used to pull all-nighters in college in order to read Star Wars books instead of studying for exams. After decades of being a fan, it was truly wild when Lucasfilm Publishing invited me to tell stories in the Star Wars universe.
The experience was fantastic. They gave me all the support I asked for, and I was really glad to give the “effervescent giddiness” (Lucas’s own term for the core of Star Wars) my own spin.
- Both in your novels and in several of your stories you explore the consequences of an alternative past, largely steampunk or directly silkpunk as in “Dandelion Dynasty”. While here that kind of stories are quite fashionable right now, what is the reception that you see of this specific genre by the Chinese public?
I try to avoid making generalizations about what’s popular or what’s not—since I’m not a publisher or a market analyst, I don’t have a good sense of what’s popular even in my own country, the US, let alone a foreign country like China.
The benefit of such ignorance is that I’m never tempted to write what’s “popular” — like awards, I think popularity is also really dangerous for a writer if they let it become a guiding star for what they write as opposed to their inner voice.
- We do not know much about Chinese literature beyond the traditional -and not too much- so tasks like yours help us a lot to learn. If you allow us to ask a curious question, we would like to know what are the origins of Chinese Science Fiction, what kind of stories told the first Chinese writers who thought beyond their present and wanted to express new ideas based on near or far future, maybe a technological or biological one. How did these affect the readers of their time? Were they successful? Are their stories still valid in the present?
This set of questions is difficult to answer succinctly, and unfortunately, most of what I’ve read in English on this subject tends to be shallow, sensationalistic, and full of mistakes. Much of the primary material as well as scholarship are in Chinese. (Indeed, one of the authors collected in BROKEN STARS, Fei Dao, is an expert scholar on early Chinese SF).
However, Regina Kanyu Wang’s “A Brief Introduction to Chinese Science Fiction” is a good (if short) survey of the topic (the essay is collected in BROKEN STARS). As well, scholars like Nathaniel Isaacson and Mingwei Song have written extensively on this subject, and readers are encouraged to look up their works.
Thanks for the interview, and I hope you continue to enjoy my work!
Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is an author of speculative fiction, as well as a translator, lawyer, and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he is the author of The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (The Grace of Kings (2015), The Wall of Storms (2016), and a forthcoming third volume) and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016), a collection. He also wrote the Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker (2017).
For us it has been a great pleasure to be able to interview Ken Liu and we hope you like the work done. As you can see, his answers are very interesting and measured, demonstrating the work and passion he feels for these genres. We would also like to take this opportunity to thank the author for his good disposition at all times.
Without any doubt we recommend that you read their works, they will not disappoint you.