Welcome back, Ken! Your story “The Ussuri Bear” in this issue was a surprise to me — a Ken Liu steampunk story! Jokichi Nakamatsu’s prosthetic arm reminds me that steampunk and robotics have much in common in fiction. What led you to set this in an alternate past instead of a possible future?
To me, steampunk is a genre that straddles the border between fantasy and science fiction, with one foot in each camp. It’s also a genre that is inextricably bound up with the history of colonialism and empire. As such, it’s particularly suitable for telling metaphorical stories about the impact of technology as one aspect of cultural invasion and the responses of the colonized peoples.
The modern history of Japan, China, and much of the rest of East Asia and Southeast Asia can be viewed as a long process of self-mutilation, self-modification, and self-transformation in response to the technological superiority of the West (and the implied superiority of Western culture) by incorporating Western “technology” (broadly defined). This story is an exploration of that perspective.
The area where your story is set has been — and continues to be — deeply important to multiple cultures. Mount Changbai, for instance, has been known by at least a dozen names by various peoples. What are the considerations unique to writing about a multicultural setting and cast, even an admittedly fantastical, alternate history steampunk one? Did your work as a translator come into play as you put this story together?
The modern conception of the nation-state as a relatively homogeneous population bonded by common culture, blood, and territory is a relatively new invention. For much of our history, most of our ancestors lived in close proximity to neighbors who would be considered “strangers” with odd customs but who shared the land and had to be accommodated in some sense. A lot of historical fiction inappropriately projects the modern lens of the nation-state onto the past, and many of my stories try to pierce through the fiction of the nation-state to look at historical settings that were inherently “multicultural.”
My work as a translator has made me keenly aware of the various ways that the use or non-use of various languages — and the necessity for translation — can come to signify prestige, power, dominance, and other qualities. I tried to add some of this awareness into the story as well.
You had the opportunity to visit China last year, where you were honored for your tremendous translation work with a Xingyun Award for special contribution to Chinese Science Fiction. What was your visit like for you, and how do you think it might influence your work in the future?
It was a really amazing visit. I got to meet many of the writers I’ve translated for the first time in person (including Liu Cixin, author of The Three-Body Problem), and I was introduced to many other talented writers whose work I hadn’t had the pleasure to read before. The community of Chinese SF writers is relatively small compared to the Anglo-American SF writers’ community, but it is also very tightly knit and enthusiastic, and they made me feel very welcome.
As for my future work, I’m hoping that I’ll have a chance to translate the works of more writers — though my increasingly tight schedule is making that goal difficult to achieve.
Finally, congratulations on the release of your first novel, The Grace of Kings, which comes out this month! What can we expect from the book and its sequel, which I hear you’re hard at work on?
Thank you so much!
As I mentioned once before, The Grace of Kings is the first in a planned silkpunk epic fantasy series. Based on a loose re-imagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty, the book describes the plight of two men who rebel together against tyranny only to find themselves on opposite sides of the struggle for the future of a vast fantasy archipelago. Besides politics and intrigue and love and betrayal, it also has many “cool” silkpunk elements like bamboo airships, biomechanics-inspired submarines, fantastical creatures of the deep, and magical tomes that tell the future written in our hearts. I’m really excited to share it with readers.
The second book, on the other hand, is “more of the same, but different” (in the words of Mary Robinette Kowal, who shared some lessons for writing a series). Whereas the first book may be thought of as a book about the meaning of heroism in a time of war, the second book may be thought of as being about the meaning of heroism in a time of peace — a far harder task, as it turns out.
Spread the word!