An interview with Ken Liu
Posted November 11, 2014on:
I first discovered the fiction of Ken Liu in 2012 in Lightspeed Magazine, with his “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (I highly recommend the audio too!), and soon after I found myself deliberately seeking out his work. Some of my favorites of his include “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King”, “Knotting Grass, Holding Ring”, “The Plantimal” (co-written with Mike Resnick) and “Tying Knots”, and of course the multiple award winning “The Paper Menagerie” and Hugo Award winning “Mono no aware”, just to name a few. (by the way, the links in this paragraph and elsewhere in this blog post go to where you can read his fiction online)
Writing much faster than I can keep up with, his fiction can be found in Apex Magazine, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and recently in the anthologies Kaleidoscope, The End is Now, Upgraded, Long Hidden, and Dead Man’s Hand, among others. He puts out more high quality fiction in one year than most authors put out in ten. Highly prolific and brilliantly talented, he’s got the awards and nominations to prove it. One of my favorite short fiction authors, Ken is also friendly and humble.
Also very active in translating Chinese science fiction, he has translated short stories and novels by the award winning Chinese authors Chen Qiufan (a.k.a Stanley Chan) and most famously, The Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, which comes out today. [edited to add: An in depth article on The Three Body Problem was posted in the New York Times this morning. click here to read]
With all that, I’m sure you can understand how excited the science fiction world was earlier this year when Liu announced that his first novel, The Grace of Kings, would hit bookstore shelves in Spring of 2015. I do not envy the code monkeys of Netgalley the day that e-Arc goes up, that’s for sure! Even better news is that The Grace of Kings is but the first book in a trilogy.
Have I whet your appetite? Ready to learn more about Ken Liu? Read on!
LRR: Where did your love for science fiction come from? Who are some of your favorite science fiction writers?
KL: The first work that’s typically classified as “scifi” I read was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, and I remember being utterly entranced with the way the book used genre techniques to give substance to abstract questions like what it means to be human, to be alive, to have faith. Literalizing metaphors is something literature of the fantastic (including scifi) seems particularly good at.
As for my favorite writers who are generally considered to write “scifi,” there are simply too many to list. PKD will always hold a special place in my heart, however.
LRR: What titles might you recommend for a reader who is new to science fiction?
KL: Since I personally don’t pay too much attention to genre labels, this is a hard question to answer. A lot of times, works I consider “scifi” are not marketed as such.
My recommendation would depend a lot on what the reader is generally interested in. I’ve found that readers who don’t think they like works marketed as “scifi” usually find the works of Ursula K. Le Guin to be enjoyable when they give them a chance.
LRR: What are some of your favorite topics or themes to write about? Are there certain events or traditions in your life that have inspired your fiction?
KL: Many of my stories tend to deal with the consequences of the unequal distribution of power in the world due to history, and the long-lasting harm of such inequality on the present and the future. As well, a lot of my stories tend to focus on family relationships and the stresses and transformations in those relationships brought about by technology.
Perhaps becoming a parent has influenced my thematic interest. As a father, I think a lot about the role played by history in our lives, both personal and social. I am a link in a long chain that connects my ancestors to my parents to my children to the future, and the reverberations of an individual’s actions can be felt many generations down the chain.
LRR: Although your novel, The Grace of Kings will be available next spring (more on that in a minute), you primarily write short fiction. Which short story of yours are you most proud of? Which is your favorite?
KL: The story I’m most proud of is “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (available at http://kenliu.name/binary/liu_the_man_who_ended_history.pdf). It was an incredibly difficult story to write, since it deals with the legacy of a historical atrocity that continues to generate massive amounts of denial. It also crystalizes a lot of my views about our responsibility to history.
As for my favorite story? It’s always the next one to be written.
LRR: Let’s talk about The Grace of Kings! What can you tell us about The Grace of Kings and the Dandelion Dynasty series? How is working on a novel different from working on shorter fiction?
KL: The Grace of Kings is the first in a planned silkpunk epic fantasy series coming from Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new SFF imprint. You can see the cover reveal here: http://io9.com/take-an-exclusive-peek-at-the-most-anticipated-scifi-im-1591612349
It’s a loose re-imagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty in a new fantasy archipelago setting. My wife Lisa and I did a lot of the worldbuilding together.
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, fantastical creatures of the deep, and magical tomes that tell the future written in our hearts. I hope readers have as much fun reading the novel as I had writing it.
I’m currently working on the sequel, and it’s also a blast. There are new peoples to create, new civilizations to craft. For me, writing novels demands a lot more planning and stamina than short fiction, and I’m still learning the tricks as I go.
LRR: You are also very active in getting Chinese science fiction translated into English, and most recently you’ve translated Liu Cixin’s famous novel The Three Body Problem (which releases today!) and the short fiction of Chen Quifan and Xia Jia. Why is it important for English speaking readers to read fiction from other parts of the world?
KL: I wouldn’t quite say that it’s “important” to read fiction from other parts of the world—some readers might think that we’re suggesting that they read fiction from other parts of the world as a kind of literary vitamin because it’s “good for you.”
I think it’s just fun and stimulating and enjoyable to read fiction from different literary traditions and to see glimpses of the full range of human imagination and understanding of the world.
LRR: For readers interested in translated science fiction, can you recommend some sources?
KL: I think it’s getting easier and easier to find translated science fiction as an anglophone reader. Many of the top science fiction markets, such as F&SF, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex, Interzone, and so on, have published translated fiction in recent years. As you know, Clarkesworld is now going to publish a story translated from Chinese with each issue, and they may also branch into translations from other languages. I hope this welcoming stance to translated fiction expands and infects other markets!
For readers who are interested in reading some of the Chinese SFF I’ve translated, they can visit my page on translations at http://kenliu.name/stories/#translations
Best of all, anglophone readers now have a chance to enjoy China’s most successful hard scifi series, Three Body, by Liu Cixin, because Tor Books is publishing the English translation. I was the translator for volume one of the series, The Three Body Problem, which comes out on November 11. This opening chapter of an epic series about humanity’s march to the stars begins with a secret METI (or active SETI) project sponsored by the Chinese military during the Cold War, and quickly shifts into a present-day mystery about the frontiers of physics. I hope readers find it as fascinating and wonder-inducing as I did.
Thank you so much for having me!
LRR: Thanks Ken!