Published on 7 November 2017

Photo: Li Yibo (left), Lisa Tang Liu (right)

The accomplished speculative fiction author delves into the art (and perhaps technology) of his writing craft.

By Melanie Lee

Chinese-American Ken Liu is one of those revered figures in the world of speculative fiction (a genre which encompasses science fiction, fantasy, superhero fiction, horror and supernatural fiction). He has authored award-winning novels and short stories such as The Grace of Kings and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and also translated Chinese fiction into English (he edited the first English-language anthology of contemporary Chinese science fiction, Invisible Planets). On top of all these, he’s also a lawyer and programmer.

Liu was recently at the Singapore Writers Festival and took some time to share with The A List a slice of his inner workings as a writer.

What got you into writing speculative fiction?

That’s an interesting question because I never thought of myself writing specifically for this genre. I have been writing since I was a very young child, and I always loved telling stories. In particular, I’m attracted to stories where a metaphorical concept is made tangible and real. For example, we often speak of love making inanimate things seem alive as a way to describe that feeling. One of my short stories (The Paper Menagerie, which picked up Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy awards) actually shows how love animates these paper animals that come to life. With the way modern publishing works, such stories are classified under science fiction. But I think all fiction is about the logic of metaphors, and making a structure out of metaphors that is true and compelling.

How did you get into translating Chinese science fiction?

Translation was an accident. It was not something I ever wanted to do. However, I have a lot of friends in China who are excellent writers. Unfortunately, they are not well-known in the West because their works are not translated.

A while back, Chen Qiufan (or Stanley Chan) asked me to take a look at one of his stories that had been translated into English. It was a very competent translation but I felt it wasn’t done by somebody with the sensitivities of a fiction writer. The translator didn’t quite capture his compelling sardonic, witty and acerbic voice. I offered to fix the translation, and ended up translating it from scratch. It turns out that my translation of this story was the very first translated piece to be published by Clarkesworld, a leading magazine for speculative fiction. This story, The Fish of Lijiang, also won a Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award for the both of us.

Whether you’re a reader or writer, you’re a part of the speculative fiction community as a fan. One of the core values in fandom with science fiction or fantasy is the idea of service to your fellow fans. Some fans run conventions, or teach classes, or promote newer writers. I feel translation is one of the ways I can be of service to fellow fans – to bring this diverse range of stories from Chinese science fiction that they would have otherwise not been able to read.

What was it like writing your first middle grade book and latest publication, The Legends of Luke Skywalker?

I went about this knowing that young readers are very sophisticated readers because they are exposed to a lot of very sophisticated narratives from other books, T.V. and film. One thing great about the human species is that we’re naturally wired for stories. As such, I didn’t want to talk down to my readers but imagined how I would tell my older daughter, who is the right age for this book, these stories. My biggest hope is that she would enjoy these stories.

What is the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel?

I see a short story being like a mosquito and a novel being like an elephant. The difference between a mosquito and an elephant is not just about the size. It’s not as if you blow up a mosquito to a size of an elephant, you will somehow have a viable creature. For one thing, the elephant-sized mosquito will collapse because it has no internal skeletal structure to support it. Also, this creature would basically suffocate to death as it has no active respiratory system. But without running this analogy too far, these two animals are completely different. As a short story writer, I might be able to get away with writing stories without much of a plot. It’s possible to hold the reader’s attention through other devices and still keep the short story interesting. However, for a novel, you need that structure, that active respiratory system. You need that energy to pull readers along for hundreds of pages.

How do you approach world-building with your novels?

My overall guiding principle is to NOT think of it as world-building. Because if you think you’re modelling something, then you’re just stuck with a model. I approach it more like growing a world with the characters as a starting point. What kind of world would create such characters? What histories and events would lead up to a world like that? The world in itself is a character as it compels the people living in it to behave the way they do.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on the third book of my silkpunk trilogy The Dandelion Dynasty. I came up with this term “silkpunk” to describe this fantastical world I’ve created that is based on the engineering ideas and aesthetics of classical East Asia. There are giant airships made of silk and bamboo, giant battle kites and submarines that swim like whales. It’s an exploration of technology, along with an exploration of politics, which is a technology of collective decision-making. Typically, epic fantasies yearn for that ultimate benevolent monarch to restore their bad world back to this glorious, golden era. With this book, I want to explore a different political evolution – instead of being nostalgic for a past that never existed, what if people tried to evolve the technology of decision-making into something that’s better, something that’s more just?

Find out more about Ken Liu here.

You can meet more wonderful writers to meet at the Singapore Writers Festival this week! Click here for more information.

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