Ken Liu came onto the short story scene a few years ago, and then dominated it, and has continued to dominate it since. If you’re interested in contemporary short science fiction, Ken is an author you can’t miss. One of my favorites: Mono no aware. And his first major award winner: Paper Menagerie.
RS: You have a full-time job, a family with young children, a career as a successful short story writer and novelist, and a career as a translator. How? What demonic trick of time have you unleashed? I must ask if you have a time turner of the kind from Harry Potter which allows you to move back six hours in time. Do you have a time turner?
KL: Ah, the “time turner,” that most wondrous of artifacts. Did you know that “time” is etymologically related to “tide”? And in fact, “tide” only acquired the sense of “flood and ebb of the sea” fairly recently (as in, less than seven centuries ago) …
Also, it seems to me that “time-turner” could be a kenning for “office drone”?
Speaking of time-turning, I have to thank you for your recent recommendation of “Ghost Trick” (available for the Nintendo DS and iOS). That game involves multiple sessions of reversing time’s flow for four minutes at a time and trying to change fate.
What was the question again?
RS: If you do not have a time turner, what magic time-traveling device do you have? I will not believe the answer “none” so you may as well be honest.
KL: Ahem. Yes, you got me…
So I practice the ancient magic of “Saying No.” Basically this involves being very careful about what projects I choose to work on. There are far too many interesting ideas for stories and far too many exciting anthology calls to say yes to all of them. I have to prioritize.
Because my writing time is so limited, I can’t afford to pursue all leads and just hope some of them work out. I have to be ruthless and say no to the vast majority of ideas and invitations I get so that I can focus on the few projects where I think my contributions will actually be unique, interesting, and artistically rewarding.
Many other writers write faster and write more than I do, but I think I have the advantage of picking a larger percentage of projects where my interests and talents are a good match for the projects’ needs.
RS: Speaking of Harry Potter, if you could send your kids to Hogwarts, would you?
KL: I’d have to ask my kids. Personally, I’m not a big fan of sending them away to boarding school because I want to spend more time with them. Parents get so little time with their children as is… But if they really want to go and learn magic, I’ll support them. And I hope they work hard to challenge the rather authoritarian system at Hogwarts and engage in campus activism.
And I’d have to do a lot of work to supplement their knowledge of the non-magical world.
Finally, I want them to bring a note to Hogwarts—more like a treatise—on how the rules of Quidditch make no sense.
RS: Many of your stories hook into important parts of East Asian history. I’m thinking of the ones that take place around World War II in particular. I know as a Jew the events of World War II were something that caught in my mind and stayed there. Was that an experience you had as well?
The terrible events around World War II in East Asia and Europe are searing experiences that should never be forgotten. Yet, in the years since, the forces of denial and repression have tried again and again to make us forget. In the case of East Asia, they base their arguments either on the needs of geopolitics or on high-minded (but false) claims that somehow forgetting is the same as reconciliation. Some have also resorted to despicable attempts to discredit survivors and to deny the facts of historical atrocities, thereby committing a fresh round of violence against the memory of the victims and the peoples of East Asia.
“Forgetting” history is a luxury that belongs to the privileged winners of history. The rest of us tread on bones and walk through ghosts, and we must not forget the past, which shapes the present and the future.
RS: I think of your stories as having an old-fashioned science fiction feel and structure, while being leavened with a modern approach toward emotion and character (and a broader idea of what constitutes interesting subjects). Does that ring true for you at all? How would you characterize your aesthetic?
KL: I like hearing you describe my stories that way. You’re, without a doubt, one of the sharpest readers of my work, and when you point out something about my fiction—whether positive or negative—I sit up and listen.
I think authors are often the least accurate summarizers of their own work, for they’re too close to it. Still, for what it’s worth, I think of what I write as primarily the fiction of rhetoric, of story-as-argument—not as persuasion, mind you, but as meditation.
My stories, as all fiction must, follow the logic of metaphors, and because I like to work with literalized metaphors, this practice draws me to employ the tropes and techniques of science fiction and fantasy. I enjoy working with literalized metaphors, exploring their nooks and crannies, finding shears and drops, bridging them and chaining them and laddering them into a structure that will reveal something of what we feel in our lives but cannot put into words.
At the same time, I have a deep ambivalence about our contemporary apparent-consensus over what makes a “good story”—despite all the aesthetic disagreements in the field, the science fiction and fantasy genres do seem to experience strong normative pressures concerning _how_ to tell a story. Characters need to be “real” and “deep” (by which we mean psychological interiority as popularized by the Modernists); points-of-view need to be consistent; exposition should be carefully blended into characterization and plot advancement; plots and characters need to arc and follow discernible shapes and patterns … and so on and so forth.
In a time when everyone is taught to appreciate oil paintings done in a classical European style, brush paintings in the style of Song Dynasty masters will seem spare, unrealistic, “flat,” unbelievable, … “not a good picture.” But I don’t believe there is just one way to tell a good story—we have had too much variation over time and across the globe in what narratives speak to particular peoples in particular contexts for me to accept that.
I like to construct stories in a way that evokes far older narrative traditions and techniques, and perhaps bring to bear tools learned from outside the core scifi/fantasy experience. Whether these efforts work for readers is not something I can control, but at least I enjoy telling stories the way I want to.
RS: You translated Three Body Problem whose author, Cixin Liu, seems to have definite opinions on this topic. (From his American author’s note: “The stories of science are far more magnificent, grand, involved, profound, thrilling, strange, terrifying, mysterious, and even emotional, compared to the stories told by literature.”) Is science more important than art?
KL: I like Liu Cixin’s work, and it is completely in line with his own aesthetic that prizes science and scientific speculation as the core of a good SF story.
While I enjoy reading stories written in this vein, I don’t always enjoy writing stories like that. I feel that the techniques of science fiction and fantasy can be used for many other types of stories, including stories in which the scientific speculation primarily serves as a literalized metaphor.
This isn’t to say science is more important than art, or vice versa. Both science and art are human enterprises, ways of knowing, and I don’t think it’s impossible to create compelling narratives that draw on both—and I also think there’s nothing wrong with creating stories that emphasize one over the other.
RS: I think a lot of us envy your ideas and how neatly you fit them into stories. Can you describe your process of developing a story from idea to draft?
KL: I don’t have a single process that applies for all stories. In a lot of cases, my stories begin from a single image or phrase that I find evocative. In other cases, they come from some scientific paper I read that I find particularly interesting.
I then take that story seed and let it sit in my head for a while. Once I begin thinking about something, I notice other things in my life that are related to it: books I read, web pages I come across, other papers cited in the first paper, illustrations and photographs that seem to speak to the seed, and so on. I let all of this churn in my head, and sometimes I discover that there’s no interesting story there, despite my best efforts, but at other times the seed grows into a sapling that I can envision as a tree someday.
That’s when actual drafting starts. I don’t outline or plan, but prefer to explore the idea as I write. This means that I tend to draft slowly (because I’m using the drafting process to think) and it also means that I have to do a lot of work in revisions. Overall, the way I write short stories is a bit like sculpting, where the story slowly emerges as I carve away the excess key by key.
RS: You love the video game Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney! Me, too. But you’re an actual lawyer. What do you enjoy about it?
KL: I love the way the law’s tendency as a game of rhetoric is highlighted in these games. The process of parsing words carefully to find “contradictions” is actually quite similar to the way lawyers craft their arguments—not in the details, of course, but in mindset and approach.
I also like the fact that Phoenix’s clients are always innocent and that he’s never had to defend someone who isn’t a good person. If only real lawyers are so lucky.
RS: Is there anything else you’re excited to share? Bonus points if it’s silly and/or a lie and/or a silly lie.
KL: I’ve been working on the copyedits of my second novel, The Wall of Storms, and I’m super excited to share this book with readers come October. There’s lots more intrigue and politics and crafty battle strategies and oodles of silkpunk technology. I literally dream about these machines some nights…
Okay, but more seriously, I have discovered the secret of time-turning, and I have a proof and a set of schematics that I’m excited to share. Okay, let me find it on my hard drive … Darn it, it is too lengthy to fit into the space allotted me here, and the pictures are too big to send through email. Next time?
Obligatory “If You Were a Butt, My Butt” Update: The fundraiser’s doing really well! And if we get to $600, Ken Liu will join authors Ann Leckie, Brooke Bolander, Juliette Wade, Alyssa Wong, and me, in writing a round robin story about dinosaurs. (I didn’t plan to run this interview to coincide with that; it just happened.)