Interview with Author Ken Liu

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Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won the Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy, and Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation awards, and been nominated for the Sturgeon and the Locus.


Iulian: Ken, you are a programmer, lawyer, translator and a writer, and you seem to be someone who does things out of passion. What brought you to these vastly different careers, and how did you find your way back to writing?

Ken: Let me start by saying that any “life story” told by a writer is going to be a lie, because the narrative of our lives is constructed in retrospect. The events that form the bulk of our lives—as they are lived—are contingent, random, arbitrary, and often have no real narrative logic.

Be that as it may, I think the story I’d like to tell about my professional life is one of unity. All the professions I’ve practiced in involve symbolic manipulation to construct artifacts that lead to specific results under a system of rules. As a programmer, I built programs to implement specifications under the rules of the programming language; as a lawyer, I built briefs and contracts to persuade or compel certain positions under the rules of the legal system; as a translator, I perform a work written in one language and one culture under the rules of another language and culture; as a writer, I create stories to evoke in readers certain ideas and feelings under the rules of tropes, genres, narrative logic, and language. Perhaps there is an underlying desire and aptitude that connect all these choices.

Or maybe I’m just trying to rationalize how I couldn’t make up my mind…

I’ve always engaged in some form of story telling, but I didn’t start writing somewhat seriously until college. Since then, I’ve never stopped-except for one long break that I’ll get to later.

A lot of your fiction stems from deep family connections (or disconnections); there’s a sense of family bond that oozes from your stories, and the emotional buildup comes, in part, from that. Are you consciously returning to those motifs and themes, or is there something else, more instinctive, that draws you there?

I think the short fiction written after the birth of my first child does consciously explore the theme of family and parenthood. I don’t think there’s anything particularly surprising about this, as I tend to write about what interests me. I also try to resist a certain cultural tendency in the West to prize romance above all other forms of love as a topic worthy of exploration in fiction; perhaps that explains my (relative) focus on the family.

Another part of your writing Universe has roots in ethnicity and plays a lot on things that are non-Western. When I read your stories, I sometimes feel transported in a place where I feel like a stranger, but in the same time I feel compelled to learn more. Do you see your ethnic-based fiction as a way for you to spread a message to the world, maybe of unity?

I wouldn’t call some of my stories “ethnic-based”—I understand what the question is getting at, but if I use that label myself, I would be conceding a certain view of “default” coding that I resist. So let me try to talk about all my stories together, for I think they’re all equally ethnic-based (or non-ethnic-based).

One way to understand fiction is to treat every story as an attempt to make an argument (Helena Bell has written more extensively about this concept). That feels like a natural fit with my way of thinking, colored by my experiences as a lawyer. But the “message” in fiction is harder to pin down than the “message” in a brief or essay, for the ways in which stories attempt to persuade are different from the ways in which traditional rhetoric attempts to persuade. I would say that my stories do make an argument about my view of the world, but it is a view that resists easy summation; I find the most effective way to communicate that argument is through fiction.

An argument made through fiction can be subtler and more tolerant of ambivalence, more cognizant of emotion and more accommodating of uncertainty; but, because of these advantages, such an argument also tends to lose precision and can be open to (mis)interpretation. Sometimes, a reader will dismiss a work because the argument is too at odds with the reader’s own assumptions (hence the resistance to so-called “message” stories); other times, a reader will not even perceive the argument because their own stance and interpretive lens will not even allow them to see that their assumptions are being challenged.

And so I find that my argument is often interpreted in ways that are revelatory of the larger social contexts and discourses in which fiction participates as but one strand. In that sense, my fiction has served as antennae through which I have learned more about the world as well.

How do you see today’s speculative fiction compared to that of past? I am talking about the Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury, and Asimov era. Do you see a change, a shifting of genres and blending of boundaries, and is that change positive or is it disruptive?

First, I would say that I generally resist attempts to summarize works that span a broad range (such as an era or culture)—e.g., “Chinese science fiction,” “the Golden Age,” etc. For every declaratory judgment about such broad groupings, there will be counterexamples and countertrends.

Having said that, I think it’s not surprising that many of today’s SFF stories feel “different” from works by the writers you listed. I don’t think SFF is as distinct or special as some fans seem to feel—the genre is influenced by shifts in the larger society, just like every other form of literary production. But for me to reduce these differences to a few sentences would be to do a disservice to the rich, complex history of the past half-century. I will say only that I think all cultural trends, both positive and negative, can find echoes in the ways in which our fiction differs from the fiction of the past.

I have to admit that I haven’t read a lot of Chinese literature, especially not speculative, and I believe there are a lot of people in my situation. Through your work as a translator, are you hoping to bridge that gap somehow? Is the lack of easy access to good translators the only thing that prevents foreign work from being published in English?

Well, I can only speak about Chinese works, since that’s the one non-English literary tradition where I know something more than what you can read in the papers.

Translation is not simply a linguistic act, but a cultural performance. What the translator must do is to re-create a world rooted in the assumptions of one culture for readers coming at the work with the assumptions of another. The closer these assumptions are to each other, the easier the translator’s job.

Contemporary China has a vibrant, diverse SFF culture, but it is virtually unknown in the West. There are many reasons for this, some cultural, some historical, some political, but I don’t think it’s a gap that will be “bridged” in the near future.

Going back for a minute to the idea that all stories try to make arguments: I think the question to ask is what does the West want to get out of Chinese speculative fiction-in other words, which argument(s) is the West receptive to?

In my experience, a lot of the time, Western readers are primarily interested in the ways in which Chinese speculative fiction can confirm their view of contemporary China as a science fictional dystopia—a view derived from media reports and partly driven by deep-seated Western assumptions and beliefs about China. It’s no surprise that Chinese science fiction works making such arguments are among the easiest to translate into English, for their assumptions are closest to the ones held by Western readers. Works that make different arguments are harder to translate (and, even if translated, Western readers would have a harder time picking up such arguments).

Thus, even with adequate translation—which is not a value-neutral act because a translation is always a performance colored by the translator’s own beliefs—I think only certain translated works that conform to this set of assumptions will be successful in the West. (Alternatively, only aspects of translated works that conform to this set of assumptions will be understood and commented upon-which amounts to the same thing.)

And the result will be a biased and incomplete picture of the full range of speculative fiction that is written in China. The gap will remain.

I have tried to narrow the gap somewhat through my work as a translator, but ultimately I think the effort is futile. It’s impossible to talk about contemporary China without the distortions imposed on the viewers’ gaze—on both sides of the Pacific—as a result of the political wrangling between the West and China.

Since you are a lawyer, among other things, how come you’ve never gone the John Grisham way? There’s a huge market for legal thrillers, as proven by so many successful writers. Have you ever thought or attempted to write something like that? And the corollary question to that: what is it about fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal that you love, versus something less-speculative. I am aware of your aversion towards labeling genres, so perhaps instead you’d prefer to explain why my question is wrong?

I enjoy reading legal thrillers, but I feel it’s a crowded field in which I can’t say much of interest.

I conceive of fiction as a structure built upon the logic of metaphors. I write SFF because these are the genres in which overtly literalizing metaphors-look, how “human” you are can be measured with this machine! Your faith and love are world-changing forces (literally) because of “magic”-is accepted and considered interesting.

You are mostly known through the multiple short stories published in award winning magazines or in anthologies edited by famous editors. Recently, it is rumored that you work on one, or more, long pieces. Can you tell us how difficult was it for you to leap from short fiction to long fiction? Can you share anything about your upcoming novels and how you managed to work together with your wife on this project?

I’ve long been interested in writing long-form fiction, but I was at a loss for a story that really deserved such extensive exploration. My wife first suggested to me the idea of basing a novel on the historical legends surrounding the founding of the Han Dynasty in the third century B.C.E.—a set of legends known to every child in China but relatively obscure in the West. And I loved the thought.

We wanted to avoid a “magic China” story, however, which would have been inextricably entwined with issues inherent in the Western gaze on China, and so we decided to create a new fantasy setting—complete with airships, whales with scales, jealous gods, magical books, silkpunk technology—and to transform the story in ways that highlighted both the positive and negative aspects of our understanding of that society. It also became a vehicle for me to explore my thoughts about power, history, performance, narrative, and the traditional tropes of epic fantasy.

I found novel writing to require a very different mindset. There’s a kind of doggedness required in writing a novel that was quite foreign to me, and I learned a great deal about myself going through the process.

The result is A Tempest of Gold (it had the working title of The Chrysanthemum and the Dandelion, which I used earlier), the first book in the Dandelion Dynasty series. It should be coming out from Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new science fiction and fantasy imprint, sometime in 2015.

Tell us a little bit about the story “Single-Bit Error” that appeared in our magazine. The story’s inspiration seems to come from multiple places. Why did you write this story and what did it mean to you?

I wrote this story early on in my SFF career, and I was really proud of it. It was a response to three things: Ted Chiang’s short story, “Hell is the Absence of God”; Heather O’Neill’s prose-poem, “Before It Had a Name,” which she performed on This American Life; and Sudhakar Govindavajhala and Andrew W. Appel’s paper, “Using Memory Errors to Attack a Virtual Machine.”

I’ve described it as a story about a rational person’s response to faith.

But after I wrote this story, I couldn’t get it published at all; every market I tried rejected it. I became obsessed with the story, and instead of writing new stories, I kept on tweaking it. Finally, I stopped writing altogether for years, concluding that I was wasting my time.

This lasted until 2009, when Sumana Harihareswara and Leonard Richardson called for submissions to their new anthology, Thoughtcrime Experiments, which was specifically focused on stories that had been rejected multiple times by other markets. Their theory was that there are many publishable stories circulating in slush piles that don’t get published simply because there aren’t enough markets: “Every story needs an editor to champion it. One thing we conclude from this experiment is that there aren’t enough editors.”

For me, the acceptance of the story by the anthology was transformative. It made me realize that it was okay to not be published; you cannot write for “all readers”; you can only write for the reader you want to love your story. For me, my ideal readers became just myself and a hypothetical editor who would champion it—it was enough to have one other person love the story, to make one connection.

The understanding was freeing, and the vast bulk of my short fiction has been written after that publication. So this story has always held a special place in my heart: it is the story that almost ended my career before it even got started, and also the story that jump-started it.

You are obviously a successful writer and I know you will continue to be. Is there any kind of advice you could give young writers who aspire to someday hold that Hugo in their hands? Perhaps you could also mention what the various awards meant to you, and what was their influence on your writing career?

I honestly don’t think much about the awards. I’m very grateful for the readers and writers who have nominated me and voted for me, but I don’t think awards are things one can strive for or aim for—a writer can only tell the story that they’re passionate about.

As for advice, I think the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten comes from Tobias Buckell. He wrote a great blog post about the distinction between goals (things you can control: writing this story versus that one, sticking to a schedule, etc.) and milestones (nice things you’d like to have happen to you: winning awards, getting published, etc.). Focusing on things I can control and forgetting about things I can’t have freed me to tell the stories I want to tell, and I think other writers may also find the advice useful.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Thank you very much for having me—as I mentioned above, the field needs more quality markets and more editors to champion great stories. You may do for another writer what Leonard and Sumana had done for me, and rescue a career that almost died before it could get started.

I hope you pull out of the slush pile a story that will make readers shiver and think and re-think.

Ken, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us. I personally wish you good luck in your career and I hope we can read a lot more amazing stories from you soon. No pressure.

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Iulian Ionescu

About Iulian Ionescu

Iulian is the Editor-in-Chief and publisher of Fantasy Scroll Mag. He is a science fiction and fantasy writer who enjoys blogging and technology. He runs the fiction writing blog Fantasy Scroll and if you want to know more about his works, check out his author page.