Ken Liu

Poet, translator, lawyer, computer programmer... Heman Chong quizzes the American sci-fi and fantasy writer on his multiple activities

By Heman Chong

Ken Liu. Photo: Lisa Tang Liu Legal Bookshop (Shanghai), 2016, framed documents, books, display tables, neon light, dimensions variable. Courtesy Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai

Earlier this year, American sci-fi and fantasy writer Ken Liu conceptualised the Chinese legal tradition as a library of loosely associated books for an exhibition by the artist Heman Chong in Shanghai. Here Liu tells Chong about some of his other interests and activities: poet, translator, lawyer, computer programmer.

Heman Chong I’d like to start by talking about a material that you often use in your narratives. This material is paper. Historically, paper has played an important role in the development of certain technologies in China, but in recent years it has been important in numerous developing countries as well. For example, when you talk about paper, I immediately think of the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who has cleverly reused paper tubes as the base material for temporary structures that are built at disaster sites. You talk about your narratives being located between fantasy and a feat of engineering. How has paper, as a material, been used in your stories?

Ken Liu Paper is a pretty amazing material. For most of us, it is the closest thing to a two-dimensional surface in real life, and it is intimately tied to our memories of schooling. It’s the surface on which we learned to read, to write, to compute sums, to draw figures and to accept the judgement of others, in the form of grades and scores.

Yet the flat sheet can also be given surprising strength and form intricate three-dimensional structures. Indeed, origami is a fascinating branch of contemporary mathematics that has found multiple applications in our high-tech world. For example, astrophysicist Koryo Miura devised the ‘Miura fold’, which is the basis for the design of solar panels for Japanese space-craft and allows a large flat surface to be folded into a compact form for launch and then to be deployed in space with little assembly or human intervention. The Miura fold also plays a role in the design of modern metamaterials with microscale structures.

In many of my stories, paper shows up at a critical juncture as the metaphorical portal between dimensions, generations, cultures, ways of thinking and knowing

Because paper is so bound up with notions of literacy, numeracy and construction, it’s a natural metaphor for many of the concepts I like to explore in my fiction. For example, in ‘The Paper Menagerie’, paper is the medium for a mother to speak to her child, both through paper animals that come to life and through words of love written in a language that he cannot read. In ‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species’, paper’s presence is felt by its absence from the imaginary books of diverse species. In many of my stories, paper shows up at a critical juncture as the metaphorical portal between dimensions, generations, cultures, ways of thinking and knowing.

HC A stack of papers when bound together becomes a book, which is a vessel for information and knowledge, which is later transmitted when read. Have you always been drawn to writing? When did writing enter your life? Your biography puts you down as a science fiction and fantasy writer, but also as a poet, a lawyer and computer programmer.

KL Ha. I generally don’t pay much attention to stories about how writers become writers –origin stories tend to have a retrospective neatness that doesn’t really tell me much. So let me answer this question this way: I think I’ve always written and I also think I’ve never written – both are true. I’ve been telling stories as long as I can remember; yet I’m still striving towards the realisation of the ideal story seen only dimly in my mind.

I call myself a speculative fiction writer but I don’t much care about genres – they may be helpful for booksellers, but I don’t think in genres. In some ways, even the name ‘speculative fiction’ is inaccurate, since all fiction is speculative – so called ‘realist’ fiction also privileges the logic of metaphors over the logic of persuasion. I just think that speculative fiction writers tend to be more willing to literalise their metaphors. Just as it is more visceral to work out a mathematical proof in geometry by manipulating compass and straight-edge over a piece of paper, there’s something compelling about working out the implications of a metaphor by literalising it. I think that is a large part of why we’re drawn to fiction marketed as magical realism, science fiction, fantasy, wuxia or other speculative categories.

I call myself a speculative fiction writer but I don’t much care about genres – they may be helpful for booksellers, but I don’t think in genres

As for my other professions, I think they’re all related. All involve constructing artefacts in symbol systems that adhere to evolving rules. The programmer, the poet and the lawyer are all trying to build objects out of symbols (a programme, a poem, a contract or a brief ) that achieve a certain goal (trade stocks, give the reader an emotional experience, facilitate the terms of a collaboration or persuade a judge) within a rule system (the syntax of the programming language, the stock of linguistic tropes and images, the rules of the legal system). They share certain mental patterns and value similar aesthetic qualities: elegance, concision, precision, novelty.

And fiction writing, of course, is also a form of symbolic engineering.

HC I think I missed out a role in that previous question, which is of course that of translator. Translation can also be read as a kind of engineering, a transposition between forms. How did the idea of a translation of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem come about? Did you pitch the idea for the translation or were you asked by the publisher? It’s really a great translation, by the way. I can’t read Chinese very well, but I manage, and it’s fascinating to see how you’ve coped with translating terms and conditions that I can imagine might be extremely tricky between the two languages. Words like ‘Trisolarans’, for example.

KL Indeed! Translation is an engineering project that involves taking apart a work in its source linguistic community, ferrying it across a cultural divide and reconstructing it in a new target linguistic community. When done well, the work can take on a new life in translation. Much is lost in the process, but even more is gained.

William Weaver [who translated modern Italian literature into English] once described translation as a performance art. I think that description is very apt. The kind of creativity demanded of a performer is quite different from the kind of creativity demanded from a composer, and I’ve definitely enjoyed solving the sort of linguistic and cultural negotiation puzzles that are the stock in trade of every translator.

I’m glad you enjoyed the translation of The Three-Body Problem! I can’t take credit for ‘Trisolarans’ myself, however, as that was a collaborative effort between me, Joel Martinsen (translator for book two in the Three-Body trilogy) and Eric Abrahamsen (originally the translator for book three, but he had to drop out due to other commitments). The three of us got together and worked out the translations for some terms common between the three books before we started.

I got into translation by accident. My friend Chen Qiufan asked me to review an English translation of one of his stories, and after making copious notes, I decided that it was just easier for me to start from scratch. In literary translation, what is said is just as important as how it’s said, and not all translators who are skilled at the translation of technical and business documents have the skills or temperament necessary for fiction. As a writer who is often published in SFF magazines, I have a better sense than most of which techniques work in fiction and which don’t. The Chen Qiufan story, ‘The Fish of Lijiang’, was my first translation, and it received excellent reviews and won the World Science Fiction & Fantasy Award. After that I thought I would try to do more translations, since there is a great deal of interesting SF being written in China, but little of it is known in the West, mainly due to the lack of quality translations. Sharing works we enjoy with other readers is a great motivator.

By the time the owner of the foreign rights in the Three-Body trilogy, China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation Ltd (CEPIEC), approached me, I had already published more than a dozen translations in some of the top markets in the US and the UK. CEPIEC asked if I would be interested in taking up the translation of book one of the Three-Body trilogy, and I was delighted to do so. I’m a fan of Liu Cixin’s wonderful hard SF, and The Three-Body Problem presented interesting challenges of translation. It’s a book that seamlessly melds Chinese history and Western metaphysics, conundrums in mathematics and tropes from crime thrillers, observations in astrophysics and meditations on political futures – to do the book justice required me to research many subjects and consult experts in various fields, and to communicate with Liu Cixin himself to devise the best way to render the book’s concepts and exciting scenes for an anglophone audience.

I very much enjoyed the process of translating the first and third books in Liu Cixin’s masterpiece, and since then I’ve done even more translations of shorter works. I have a collection of translations coming out later this year from Tor Books in the US and Head of Zeus in the UK, which I believe will be the first major commercial English anthology of contemporary Chinese SF. I’m looking forward to introducing more readers in the West to the work of China’s most exciting SF writers.

HC Speaking of performance art, or art in general, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about the collaboration we made recently for my solo show Ifs, Ands, or Buts at the Rockbund Art Museum [in Shanghai]. So much of contemporary art today deals with ways of altering and translating one object into another. A lot of it is done via specific instructions transmitted between artist and manufacturer, or artist and museum. The work Legal Bookshop (Shanghai) required you to react to an email that I wrote to you about the prospect of hiring you as a lawyer to select books for a functioning bookshop that would allow a visitor to navigate the legal system in China. I wanted to ask about your process regarding the selection of the books for the bookshop. Was there a masterplan in your head with the selection? If so, what structure did this plan take on?

KL Oh, that was such a fun process. Once I got your email, which encouraged me to think about ‘law’ and ‘system’ in nonliteral ways, I knew right away what I wanted to do. I was going to follow the associative tendency of the human mind and approach this project as though I’m constructing a memex.

A memex is an imaginary device invented by Vannevar Bush, who imagined it as a device that would help us think by amplifying the associative potentials of the human mind. The machine would allow the user to build links between disparate texts and to follow associate trails laid down by others. It would weave all human knowledge into a giant web in which the associations are as important as the anchors.

Sounds a bit like the web we have, doesn’t it? But our hyperlinked World Wide Web is but a pale imitation of the ideal of the memex, in which the trails are semantically rich and all users are curators and creators rather than mere passive consumers. I wanted to curate the bookshop for your show using the principle of memex associativity.

To begin with, I thought about laws (both manmade and natural), code (moral, ethical and even machine-oriented), rules (including the trivial, such as games, and the nontrivial, such as government regulations), customs, principles and so on. I made liberal use of puns and free association, taking into account the rich Chinese tradition of stratagems and cunning in crafting solutions for problems within systems of rules.

I sometimes wonder if the best medium for associative narratives isn’t the written word at all, but something more visual or even virtual reality-based. I’m very excited about the potential for virtual reality to transform the way we experience stories

The resulting selection is only tangentially related to ‘the legal system’ of China, as that term is commonly understood, and yet, I think, may provide more helpful guidance than books literally about laws in China.

HC Have you ever attempted to produce a narrative using a memex? What would it look like? Would it even work?

KL I haven’t, and I have not seen attempts at hypertext fiction that really work. Some poetry does work this way, and works well.

I sometimes wonder if the best medium for associative narratives isn’t the written word at all, but something more visual or even virtual reality-based. I’m very excited about the potential for virtual reality to transform the way we experience stories. Just as film taught us an entirely new vocabulary for telling and understanding stories, I think virtual reality is poised to do the same.

Another possibility is the rise of intelligent machines that either assist human authors or strike out on their own. Machines make associations that would never occur to humans, and I can envision a collaboration between a machine and a human that would lead to truly interesting narratives. For example, what if a machine generated sentences that it found to be semantically or syntactically ‘related’ in some way to a piece of text written by the human author, and the human author was then able to prune and guide this process of machine generation? A great deal of digital art is done in this experimental manner, in which the human artist guides and prunes the effects generated by machines. I’d like to see something similar happen with text.

HC It sounds like a project that I’m totally infatuated with! In 2012, the late Aaron Swartz and the artist Taryn Simon collaboratively produced a work for the New Museum in New York called Image Atlas. The core, the engine of the project, is deceptively simple: to visualise a comparative table of how Google churns out different images in each country for the same term. Let’s play a little game here. Have a look at it, and write me what you think about this work in 300 words or less.

KL Fascinating! I love this. To play with the system a bit, I went meta and put in the English term ‘search’ and observed, first, how much the Internet has unified our semantic mapping of this concept.

Pretty much everyone has converged on ‘search’ in the search-engine sense, with even the same Sherlock Holmesian magnifying glass iconography. 

Screengrabs from Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz’s 2012 Image Atlas project for the New Museum, New York. ARA Summer 16 Feature Ken Liu

But then you see the rows for India and Korea.

Screengrabs from Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz’s 2012 Image Atlas project for the New Museum, New York. ARA Summer 16 Feature Ken Liu
Screengrabs from Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz’s 2012 Image Atlas project for the New Museum, New York. ARA Summer 16 Feature Ken Liu
Screengrabs from Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz’s 2012 Image Atlas project for the New Museum, New York. ARA Summer 16 Feature Ken Liu
Screengrabs from Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz’s 2012 Image Atlas project for the New Museum, New York.

Here is an interesting metaphor shear. In Korea’s case, it seems that the English term ‘search’ has been mapped to something that more narrowly refers to searches conducted by the military (reconnaissance? search-and-rescue?), and I don’t understand what happened in India’s case at all.

I can imagine myself sitting in front of this for hours, typing in different terms and trying to figure out what these images can tell us about our globalised culture, about persistent localism, about transcultural metaphor shears, about the quirks of machine translation and parsing, and all sorts of other interesting topics. This is very much an art project for our machine-mediated existence in the village known as earth.

HC You’ve recently published your debut novel and a collection of short stories. Perhaps you’d like to talk about the two books, in relation to something that you’ve coined, which is the term ‘silkpunk’?

KL Writers love to talk about their books! :) ‘Silkpunk’ is a shorthand to describe the technology aesthetic I wanted for the Dandelion Dynasty series (which starts with The Grace of Kings) as well as the literary approach I used in composing the books.

Here’s the tweet-size soundbite: “War and Peace with silk-and-bamboo airships; the Iliad with living books and sentient narwhals; Romance of the Three Kingdoms with U-boats.”

If you want to hear more, let me start with what The Grace of Kings is about: it’s the story of two unlikely friends, a bandit and a duke, who grow to be as close as brothers during the fight to overthrow an evil empire, only to find themselves on opposing sides of a struggle for the definition of a just society once the rebellion succeeds.

When I describe the novel as a ‘silkpunk epic fantasy’, I mean that I’m writing with and against the tradition of epic fantasy – as begun by Tolkien – by infusing it with an East Asia-inspired aesthetic that embraces, extends and challenges fantasy/historical tropes that are assumed to have medieval European or classical East Asian origins. Epics are foundational narratives for cultures, and I wanted to write a modern foundational narrative that draws as much on Chinese epic traditions like Romance of the Three Kingdoms as on Western traditions like Beowulf and the Aeneid.

When I describe the novel as a ‘silkpunk epic fantasy’, I mean that I’m writing with and against the tradition of epic fantasy – as begun by Tolkien – by infusing it with an East Asia-inspired aesthetic

The tale I tell is a loose reimagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty in a secondary world archipelago setting. 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 state-craft. There are vain and jealous gods, bamboo airships and biomechanics-inspired submarines, battle kites that evoke the honour and glory of another age, fantastical creatures of the deep and magical tomes that tell the future written in our hearts.

In creating the silkpunk aesthetic, I’m also 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 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. 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 towards ever more beautiful forms. Indeed, even the fictional system of writing used in the novels embodies this view, for writing is one of our most treasured and important technologies.

In writing The Dandelion Dynasty, I devoted as much care to technology as to magic, as much attention to art and writing as to war. The text is consumed with the exercise of power while also imbued with the hope that society is capable of progress. I had such a blast writing it, and I think at least that authorial joy comes through.

In March, my debut collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, was published worldwide in English. Though I’ve published 120+ stories, this volume collects only 15. It was not easy to pick those 15, and I ended up choosing stories that I thought showed my range as well as were most ‘Ken Liu’. So the stories encompass a wide variety of marketing genres: hard SF, magical realism, historical fantasy, tech thriller, far-futurism, military, literary, etc. Yet all the stories are unified by my general approach to fiction, which is to make an argument without arguing, to treasure and privilege the human experience while also subjecting it to harsh interrogation.

Later this year, in September, my translation of the third volume in the Three-Body series, Death’s End, will be released. I can’t wait to talk about it with Liu Cixin’s anglophone fans.

And then October will see the publication of the second novel in the Dandelion Dynasty series, The Wall of Storms. This is a bigger, deeper and better book than the first book in every way, and it builds on the world established in The Grace of Kings as well as interrogates its assumptions. There will be a lot more war, romance and political intrigue, as well as exciting new silkpunk technologies.

Finally, I already mentioned Invisible Cities, the collection of contemporary Chinese SF that I edited and translated, which will come out in November. I feel very privileged to work on so many great and fun projects. 

This article first appeared in ArtReview Asia vol. 4, no. 3