Not Just Vast Armies Clashing on Dark Plains at Night: An Interview with Ken Liu
By Luc Reid
25 March 2013
Ken Liu has been making quite a splash recently. In the second half of 2012 alone, his short fiction appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Nature, and many other venues. His novella “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula, and his short story “The Paper Menagerie” was the first piece of fiction ever to sweep the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. Here, Luc Reid interviews Ken on his fictional worlds, his current projects, and the remarkable trajectory of his career so far.
Luc Reid: Back around 2002-2003, you won the Phobos contest (may it rest in peace) and were a published finalist in the venerable Writers of the Future contest. Then things were pretty quiet until 2011, at which point your fiction, in the words of Aliette de Bodard, "was basically everywhere." What happened in the years between, and what so powerfully motivated you to pour new effort into your writing career?
Ken Liu: Briefly: I went to law school, started a new job, and kind of gave up on writing for a while due to a supreme act of stupidity. I wrote this one story that I really loved, but no one would buy it. Instead of writing more stories and subbing them, as those wiser than I was would have told me, I obsessively revised it and sent it back out, over and over, until I eventually gave up, concluding that I was never going to be published again.
And then, in 2009, Sumana Harihareswara and Leonard Richardson bought that story, "Single-Bit Error," for their anthology, Thoughtcrime Experiments (http://thoughtcrime.crummy.com/2009/). The premise of the anthology was, in the editors' words, "to find mind-breakingly good science fiction/fantasy stories that other editors had rejected, and release them into the commons for readers to enjoy."
I can't tell you how much that sale meant to me. The fact that someone liked that story after years of rejections made me realize that I just had to find the one editor, the one reader who got my story, and it was enough. Instead of trying to divine what some mythical ur-editor or "the market" wanted, I felt free, after that experience, to just try to tell stories that I wanted to see told and not worry so much about selling or not selling. I got back into writing—and amazingly, my stories began to sell.
Also, at about the same time, I connected with some Chinese science fiction writers and began to read their work. Reading the genre literature of a non-Anglophone culture was fascinating and provided me with a lot of inspiration. I began to explore East Asian history and culture through speculative fiction, and that remains a theme in my work today.
LR: What kinds of influence has the Chinese science fiction you've read had on your own work? Are there elements of those stories that stand out from Anglophone SF?
KL: I think it's difficult, if not futile, to try to summarize entire bodies of literature in generalities. Qualities in individual Chinese writers stand out for me—Chen Qiufan's trenchant social observations, Xia Jia's poetic voice, Ma Boyong's humorous blending of classical Chinese and Western elements, Liu Cixin's grand feats of imagination—just like qualities in individual Anglophone writers impress me. But I can't tell you how Chinese writers, as a group, are different from Anglophone writers, as a group—beyond banal observations such as Chinese writers appear to make use of more Chinese cultural references in their work.
It is true, however, that seeing Chinese cultural elements used in speculative fiction has helped me see more possibilities for telling the kind of stories I wanted to tell. So perhaps even that banal observation has its place.
For me, the key to literary inspiration is hearing language defamiliarized, made strange. Reading literary works in a language you don't normally write in is one of the best ways to do that. When I read a Chinese work, I pay attention to how the same idea/image/emotion/concept can be expressed very differently in the two languages, and how what can be said in a single word in one language requires a whole descriptive phrase in another. I end up seeing a new way of looking at the world, and I start to hear English like a foreign language. My head becomes filled with fresh images, sounds, rhythms. When these are then used in the service of a story idea, I sometimes end up with my best work.
LR: You've mentioned in other interviews your love for research, and how in the last few years you've come to use nonfiction as a starting point for your fiction. I gather accounts by Chinese mail-order wives were an inspiration for your hugely successful story "The Paper Menagerie." What effect does starting with a factual account have on your fiction?
KL: I use personal narratives (a category that overlaps, but is not co-extensive with, factual accounts) as a way to gain understanding, to train my empathy.
Many of my stories deal with the invisible bounds imposed on us by the legacy of history: colonialism, war, mass killings, power imbalances between different parts of the world and between different populations sharing the same space. These bounds infuse everything we experience and affect the fates of nations, peoples, families, and individuals. History is not just vast armies clashing on dark plains at night, but lived through by real men and women related to us. It is deeply personal.
In the West, I have detected a tendency to dismiss or minimize the effects of history on the present, as if history can be made irrelevant by a simple act of individual will. Such views, it seems to me, are signs of a perspective colored by the very privileges conferred on those who have been dealt a lucky hand by history.
My point isn't that history is a prison from which we cannot escape. Rather, to be truly free, we must embrace the past and understand it, and to view the past (and those still suffering with the weight laid on them by the past) with empathy.
Nisi Shawl, while talking about writing postcolonial fiction, said, “I know I’m treading on the bones of those who went before me. It’s unsteady ground, even if I’m related to the giants beneath my feet. I walk respectfully, carefully, listening with my outer and inner ears. Repeating what I hear, what you already know, but saying it in my way” (http://djibrilalayad.blogspot.com/2012/06/i-hear-different-frontier-by-nisi-shawl.html).
That's what I tried to do when I wrote "The Paper Menagerie" and "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary"—the one work I'm proudest of. Starting with personal narratives and working with care and sensitivity is the best way I know to tell the stories I want to tell.
But understanding the past alone is insufficient. Thought must also be given to how such understanding can be used to affect the future, to making history. This is where imagination comes in. Many of my stories are really future histories, and they are about empathetically understanding our possible future selves. I don't think it's possible, actually, to have a story that is only based on imagination; for imagination must have something to work with, and we can't help being the sum of our experiences, which includes the experiences of our families, tribes, nations.
LR: I hope you won't mind my putting it this way, but it sounds like you're on something of a quest, that you're working through your fiction to show readers a way of looking at their role in the context of all history. If that's accurate, where does that drive come from in you—what does it mean in your own life?
KL: I think of it as more of a personal quest—though I certainly hope readers find my fiction meaningful as well. Some of the trends we've discussed in my fiction began to take form after I became a father (though hints of them existed before as well). The experience of being a parent has been very humbling. It made me realize my role as a link in a chain of transmission from the past to the future.
One of my great fears is that I will disappoint my children. Children can be very hard and judgmental about their parents, and disappointment is often the result of misunderstanding. So how do I pass on my culture and experiences to my children in a meaningful way? How do I give them a sense of connectedness, of purpose and context, especially in a dominant culture that often devalues what I value, that is often ignorant about things that matter to me, that is often callous and dismissive to what I care about? The questions made me think about the experiences of my grandparents and parents, and my own process of gradual understanding and empathy with them. How to make the past meaningful for the future is both a big question—it's the task of history—and a very personal, intimate one—it's the narrative of family.
And so as I work through these issues, as I read and learn and think and write, I'm speaking both to my children and to my ancestors. Each of us is the culmination of generations of brave men and women who have struggled and won at the game of life: they survived to give life to us. It is up to each of us to take up that legacy and pass it on to the next generation in a way that empowers them and enlarges their spirit.
Each of my stories, in some way, can be understood as an apology (in its Latin/Greek root sense of being a formal justification, an account, a story) to my children.
LR: I understand that you and your wife, Lisa Tang Liu, are collaborating on an epic fantasy novel. The stories that come to mind first when I think of your writing (for instance, "State Change") strike me as personal and purposely small-scale. What drew you to the novel project, and what do you expect to get out of it personally or as a writer?
KL: The novel began as Lisa's idea. Neither of us has written novels before. However, to grow as a writer, I feel that you have to experiment with forms and genres that you haven't done. You tend to learn the most when you're working just a bit outside of your comfort zone. So we took up the challenge.
One of the great attractions of fantasy literature for me is worldbuilding, and I enjoy doing that in short stories. But the limited scope of a short story means that you get only glimpses of that new world, not a comprehensive tour. I want to use the scope that a novel affords to explore a world more fully, to map out more of its territories and ramifications.
Our novel is set in a fantasy archipelago with a strong dash of East Asia-inspired elements. The technology is pre-steam mechanical engineering based on East Asian models—a kind of silkpunk. The magical elements are muted but crucial, as they tend to be in most of my stories. Finally, the plot, about two friends who become enemies as they fight to bring down a tyrant, is based on a retelling of some historical Chinese legends around the founding of the Han Dynasty. I hope the mix pleases readers.
LR: You had me at "archipelago." By the time you got to "silkpunk," I had already preordered a copy.
With an entire world to build, what's guiding your choices as to what that world will have in it?
KL: Ha, our guiding principle is pretty much: is it cool?
Somewhat more seriously, we want to create a fantasy world that feels different from the high fantasy tradition and is more suitable for the kind of story we want to tell. We don't want humanoid "races" enacting stereotypes or nostalgia for a political system modeled on Medieval Europe. Instead, we want a world that encapsulates some of the problematic as well as redeeming qualities of Classical China, but with the introduction of magic and technologies that avoid a simple mapping of history to fantasy.
LR: What is there about Classical China that makes you interested in building a story on it, apart from the relative novelty? We could just as easily ask what it is about Medieval Europe that drives so many writers to want to embrace some imagined version of it as a fantasy setting, but most of us have probably read enough of that kind of thing to have thoughts on that subject already.
KL: The historical legends of China's dynastic past play a large role in Chinese fantasy. Genres like wuxia and the more modern chuanyue (a specific subgenre of time travel/alternate history that involves using modern knowledge to alter the past) draw upon these elements much like high fantasy in the West draws on European history. When I was a child, I read many Chinese fantasy works that play with Classical Chinese settings and themes, and they still form the foundation for my own speculative imagination.
Beyond superficial trappings like clothing, weaponry, and customs, I'm more interested in the themes that are important in the Chinese fantasy I read: ideas about loyalty, family, friendship, the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, the legitimacy of the state. I think the themes are universal, but the emphasis in Chinese fantasy may be different from that in Western high fantasy.
It seems like a fun challenge to try to incorporate some of these elements into my own work and retell the founding of the Han Dynasty as a fantasy story in an imaginary world.
LR: To quote Aliette de Bodard again—she mentions "the paucity of stories [in science fiction and fantasy] where family is important, and in particular family outside the nuclear family," but your work is an obvious exception to that trend. What role do you see family playing in speculative fiction?
KL: I find families fascinating because they're a hybrid of choice and inheritance, old and new. The definition of family has changed a great deal, a result of and resulting in changes in the larger society. Speculative fiction is uniquely suited, I think, to explore the ways in which the meaning of family can change with altered circumstances, be they cultural, technological, or philosophical.
LR: In addition to writing your own work, you've also been involved in translations. What have you been working on in that area, and what if anything have you learned from that work?
KL: Right now, I'm finishing up a translation of Liu Cixin's hard sci-fi novel, The Three Body Problem. This is China's most popular science fiction novel (it's the first in a trilogy), and I've had a lot of fun working on it. The novel spans the years between the Cultural Revolution and the early 21st century, and chronicles a top secret Cold War-era Chinese project to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. To do the translation properly, I've had to read up on the history of the Cultural Revolution, math, astrophysics, online games in China, and various other subjects. It's been challenging as well as rewarding. The plan is to publish it later this year in the US, and I hope readers here enjoy it.
I've also just finished translating two science fiction short stories. One, "Invisible Planets," by Hao Jingfang, has been bought by Lightspeed. The other, Chen Qiufan's "The Endless Farewell," will be published by Pathlight Magazine.
Translations engage a completely different part of my brain. Adopting the voice of another writer and trying to convey it in a different language is a really fascinating experience. One benefit for me of doing this work is, again, defamiliarizing everyday language and allowing me to see fresh ways to express things.
LR: What do you think it is about Mr. Liu's novel that has made it such a success in China?
KL: The Three Body Problem is a novel of grand imagination. For example, it constructs a fully-formed alien civilization (without ever physically describing a single alien, amazingly enough), invents a computer where the logic gates are made of people, and speculates on fundamental physics in interesting ways. It also captures the excitement of scientific discovery and technological development in a plot that is reminiscent of the adventure/sci-fi tradition. It asks big questions about the relationship between humanity and extraterrestrials and tries to answer them. It takes the "sci" in sci-fi seriously and delves into technical details in a way that many Chinese fans with an interest in science and engineering appreciate. And finally, it uses Chinese elements in an organic, authentic way that is not available in Western sci fi imported into China.
LR: Thanks for talking with me, Ken. I've enjoyed the discussion. When can we expect to see your translation of The Three Body Problem out in stores?
KL: They're still working out the details, but I understand it's going to be some time in the second half of this year.
And thank you very much for talking with me about these subjects. I’ve really enjoyed the discussion.