“The task of the engineer is much like that of a poet”: A Q&A with SF author Ken Liu

Gautham Shenoy June 1, 2019 13 min

Ken Liu wears many hats. A lawyer and a programmer, he’s more widely known as an SF writer who’s won the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards. He is the author of The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (The Grace of Kings, The Wall of Storms and a forthcoming third volume), The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, a collection and the Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker. His stories can be found in some of the finest SF magazines as also anthologies such as MIT Technology Review’s Twelve Tomorrows. Apart from this he is also an acclaimed translator who’s translated numerous works from Chinese into English, most notably Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, which became the first ever translated novel to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel, in 2015. He has also edited and translated the first English-language anthology of contemporary Chinese science fiction, Invisible Planets, as also the recent Broken Stars anthology of Chinese SF. And now, without further ado, let’s dive straight into the Q&A.

Gautham Shenoy: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview, Mr. Liu. Let me start by asking, as an author, you’ve written science fiction, of both the hard and soft varieties as far as labels go, as also epic fantasy. You’re also an acclaimed translator. Do you approach the writing of each of these differently? What are the common elements and in what respects do they diverge?

Ken Liu: First, thank you very much for this interview! It’s great to have a chance to talk to readers in India, a country I’d love to get a chance to visit someday.

I’ve never paid much attention to genre labels. My style is to structure a story around a literalised metaphor. What I mean is that I take a concept that is often discussed metaphorically and make it literally true in the world of the story, and then explore the consequences of this tangible shift in reality. For instance, we speak metaphorically of seeing the kind of person a child would grow up to be through some toy or object they play with; so, in “State Change” (collected in The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories), I explore a world in which each person’s soul is an object born with them, and everyone must come to terms with the fate predicted by that object. Sometimes, the way a metaphor is literalised is through the use of technology, and the stories would then be classified by some readers as “science fiction.” I’m happy if readers find these labels helpful, but I don’t think about them when writing.

As for short stories vs. long doorstopper novels, there is a distinction for me. For short stories, I don’t rely as much on plot to provide the narrative drive. I can experiment with other techniques for creating tension and satisfying an emotional arc. But epic fantasy novels live and die by plot, and I’ve had to unlearn a lot of habits acquired as a short story writer to create the kind of epic fantasy I want to write.

Translation is really a completely different art, and I don’t approach it the way I do my own writing.

Left: Ken Liu (image ©Lisa Tang Liu). Right: Ken Liu at the 2017 Hugo Awards ceremony (via Wikimedia Commons/Henry Söderlund)

Shenoy: Your story about blockchain and crypto, Byzantine Empathy, is perhaps the best I’ve read on this technology, most definitely in terms of how it’s used and what for. How did that story come about? And what else do you see as a plausible future for blockchain?

Liu: Glad you enjoyed it! I wrote it when Wade Roush, the editor of Twelve Tomorrows, invited me to contribute a piece to the anthology. I’ve long been interested in crypto and VR as two emerging technologies that have the potential to greatly change our lives, and I wanted to tell a story that combined both and said something about our complicated relationship with extremely centralised power, a key characteristic of modernity.

Once you look past the hype, cryptocurrencies really do have the potential to disrupt the extreme concentration of power in modern states and economies (bitcoin is “liquid gold”), but they can also be twisted into tools to reinforce that centralisation (many governments’ proposals for a cashless society point that way). Which future we’ll have is impossible to predict at this point.

As a technical artefact, blockchain is fascinating. The mathematics and algorithmic innovations at its foundation are well worth studying in depth. But unfortunately, it has become a bit of a buzzword, and many projects that utilise blockchains are using them essentially as terrible databases, not taking advantage of the technology’s decentralised nature at all.

ALSO SEE: Twelve Tomorrows: Forays into the future with science fiction that takes science seriously

The Grace of Kings, and The Wall of Storms: Books 1 & 2 of Ken Liu’s The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series

Shenoy: You’ve described your Dandelion Dynasty books as “silkpunk”. Can you elaborate on what makes a story or a novel “silkpunk”?

Liu:  “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. I can only speak about what I meant when I coined the term, not how others may be using it.

In creating the silkpunk aesthetic, I’m influenced by the ideas of W. Brian Arthur, who articulates a vision of technology as language. The task of the engineer is much like that of a poet in that the engineer must creatively combine existing components to solve novel problems, thereby devising artefacts 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. 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 towards ever more beautiful forms.

Similarly, the literary approach itself mixes and matches elements from diverse global literary traditions that I feel at home in, and tropes and techniques from East Asian historical romances are deliberately juxtaposed and combined with elements from Western epic narratives. The text itself reflects the same poet-engineer mindset.

Finally, the “punk” suffix in this case is functional. The silkpunk novels are about rebellion, resistance, re-appropriation and rejuvenation of tradition, and defiance of authority—key “punk” aesthetic pillars.

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Left: Ken Liu’s collection of short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. Right: The Legends of Luke Skywalker

Shenoy: Paper Menagerie was the very first work of fiction to win all three of the major SF awards: the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. Your translation of The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo in 2015, becoming the very first translated novel to do so. How did these landmark wins make you feel? And what is your opinion of awards in general?

Liu: I think awards are great and we, as readers, should continue to celebrate books and stories we enjoy with them. I’m very grateful to the voters who cast their ballots for me.

However, as a writer, I don’t spend much time thinking about awards—I view them as for the benefit of readers, not writers. When I write, the only reader I care about and want to please is myself, so the only awards that really matter to me are awards I would give out to myself. If I’ve crafted a story that is satisfying to me, then I’m happy; if not, then I have to try again. What awards and similar recognition my work may or may not receive doesn’t enter my mind at all.

Shenoy: How did The Legends of Luke Skywalker come to be? What was the experience like, both as a writer and as a Star Wars fan?

Liu: I was invited to write for Star Wars by Lucasfilm Publishing, and as you can imagine, that call was unforgettable.

I’ve been a lifelong fan of Star Wars, and to be invited to join a galaxy far, far away was a dream come true. I was so excited that before my initial meeting with the Lucasfilm Publishing team I had trouble going to sleep. And as it turned out, it was even better than I imagined.

They gave me all the editorial and background support I needed to write a book that would show my love for the universe as well as express some of my ideas about foundational narratives and the importance of stories about heroes.

I wrote it for my daughters, who were growing into the target age range. I think it’s important to show them that if you love something grand and beautiful, there’s a way you can become part of it. I’m so grateful to have been given a chance to contribute my little piece to the growing Star Wars universe and to tell tall tales about my favourite Jedi master.

Chinese science fiction novels translated by Ken Liu. Left & Centre: Books 1 & 3 of Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. Right: Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide.

Shenoy: The success, both critical and commercial, of The Three-Body Problem seems to have opened the floodgates for science fiction from China to make its way to the West and elsewhere, the translated works at least. And they’ve all been well received, be they short stories or novels. As someone who’s had a ringside seat to these developments, what do you think explains the rise and rise of Chinese SF in the West?

Liu: I don’t actually think in terms of “Chinese SF” or “American SF”—I feel that when discussing large, diverse nations full of internal contradictions and competing national narratives like the United States or China, these analytic categories are meaningless. If one were to ask a hundred American authors to define the characteristics of “American SF,” I think you’d get back a hundred different answers, many of them mutually contradictory. The same would be true of “Chinese SF.” I can’t be sure, but I suspect that the same would be the case for “Indian SF”.

I also think it’s dangerous to make generalisations about large bodies of literature unified by nothing other than the national origin of their authors.

My preference is to talk about individual authors and works. Liu Cixin’s Three-Body series is breath-taking in its imaginative scope and unapologetic in its adherence to the author’s own aesthetic standards. I can’t see any other author I’m familiar with writing these books except him. As a fan of the series, I’m utterly delighted to see it achieving both critical and market success.

I’m also overjoyed to see my friends Xia Jia, Hao Jingfang, Chen Qiufan, Baoshu, Ma Boyong, Anna Wu, and many others getting great reader response in the English-speaking market. I got into translation in the first place in order to help them find new readers in the West and to share good fiction with my fellow Anglophone readers, so it’s been very gratifying to see that many readers apparently share my taste.

ALSO SEE: The Three-Body Problem deserves to be at the top of your to-read list

Shenoy: You’ve been exposed—to put it mildly—to contemporary SF literature both from the US/UK and from China. What, according to you, are some of the fundamental differences between these two in terms of their outlook, themes and approaches?

Ken Liu: See above. I try to resist the (very natural) human tendency to make generalisations at the level of “national” literatures; I don’t think this approach is a good way to gain useful insights, and we do the authors and works a disservice in the process. I far prefer to focus on specific authors and works, and treat them as unique, individual visions. It is the respect I would expect readers to grant me, and so I will give it to everyone I read.

Invisible Planets and Broken Stars: Two anthologies of contemporary Chinese science fiction, edited and translated by Ken Liu.

Shenoy: I see a lot of people reading science fiction from China hoping to learn more about the country itself. Is this a useful thing to do, and to what extent? Also, how right—or wrong or misplaced—is it to read Chinese SF stories and treat them as a commentary on the state of things in China?

Liu: I actually wrote an essay for Locus about this subject. In short, I don’t think it’s very controversial to note that SF, like all imaginative literature, is reflective of the author’s particular milieu and experiences. Indeed, some Chinese authors have explicitly stated that they are using fiction to offer social commentary, and just as many have said the exact opposite. Insofar as all imaginative literature seeks to offer some insight into the human condition by distorting reality through a lens, how can any work of literature be said to be free of social commentary? All fiction is “message fiction.”

If readers enjoy learning about another culture through translated fiction, I don’t see any problems with it. The problem only comes when readers forget that imaginative literature works by distorting reality, and one’s ability to gain insight through that distortion, to understand the cultural and political conversations in which that work is embedded, and to appreciate the story underneath the story, is dependent on one’s preconceptions and interpretive frameworks. Translated literature comes to the new readership without that context, so drawing conclusions about the reality behind the story should be undertaken with great caution.

Shenoy: Have you read any SF from India? If yes, which ones and what did you think about them?

Liu: I’ve read and enjoyed works from Samit Basu, Indrapramit Das, Vandana Singh and others. Each is an amazing storyteller with a wondrous and unique world. I can only hope that we continue this global exchange of stories.

ALSO SEE: ‘No poster and no flag’: An interview with Samit Basu

Shenoy: In closing, any tips or words of advice you’d like to share with aspiring writers?

Liu: The most useful advice I ever got was to keep in mind that every writer’s journey is different, and what worked for someone else wouldn’t necessarily work for you. That adage has been vastly freeing for me in my own journey.

Thank you once again, Mr. Liu, for your time and for doing this interview.

That’s it then, Dear Reader, for this week. I hope to see you here again next weekend for yet another edition of New Worlds Weekly as we further explore this wondrous genre we call SF. Live long and prosper!


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