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Author Spotlight: Ken Liu

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species?”

Since much of my own short fiction stresses characterization, I particularly admire stories in which individual characters are basically absent, and the story is about entire peoples, species, ideas. For example, I think of E. Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” E. O. Wilson’s “Trailhead,” and Yoon Ha Lee’s “A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel” as belonging to this subgenre. Another work in this vein that I’ve long admired is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Indeed, I used to write college and law school essay exam answers in the form of Invisible Cities fanfic, much to the amusement of my graders. (I do not recommend this approach if you care about your grade.)

This story is my first serious attempt to write in this style, very different from my past work. I hope readers like it as much as I do.

In this story, you present several races of aliens that have created written works, each very different. What do you see about sentience that drives us to write and tell stories?

I probably wouldn’t go so far as to say that sentience necessarily leads to the narrative drive. (It would be interesting to see if our artificial intelligences, when sufficiently developed, would show a tendency to telling stories.)

Now, on the topic of writing, I think writing is one of the most important pieces of technology developed by human societies. The idea of externalizing our ideas and thoughts in a fixed, tangible form that is independent of memory is breathtakingly bold and revolutionary. Yet, while writing has been independently invented numerous times in human history, all human scripts essentially solve the problem the same way (see John DeFrancis’s Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems).

I wanted to imagine what other forms writing could take: sentient, but not human.

Do you have any particular favorites when it comes to linguistic science fiction, such as the works of Ursula K. Le Guin?

You got me pegged. I’m a huge Ursula K. Le Guin fan. The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness were breathtaking works that transformed my thinking about the power of fiction. I remember walking around for days in a daze after reading each of them, the ideas from the books circling around in my head from waking to sleeping, changing everything I saw. I hope I can write something that powerful someday.

Is it the medium that’s important, or the story? Does one have an impact on the other?

I think most would agree that the medium in which a story is told affects its impact. Oral works are very different from written ones, and film, with its visual language, is distinct in yet other ways. And within written works, a story told in a novel will feel very different from the same story told as a closet drama.

But beyond these obvious distinctions, readers familiar with different scripts will be able to tell you that the written script of a language also affects the way a story is told and perceived, even independent of the language itself. A story written in hanzi vs. pinyin will read very differently, even though they’re both scripts used to write the same language. Each script has its own little visual conventions and tricks and advantages and disadvantages that shape the language and nudge the writer in ways that are both subtle and profound.

At the 2011 ReaderCon, you were on a panel that talked about how people here on Earth read, and how that’s changed over time. How do the various means in which we read dictate how we perceive information?

I’d love to hear a neuroscientist’s take on this.

In my personal experience, the shift from the codex to the web as the primary means by which I do most of my reading has altered the way I think about knowledge. Before the web, I thought of knowledge primarily in the metaphor of the library: meticulous taxonomies that classified information into relatively unchanging volumes from authoritative sources that are periodically updated by new volumes. Now I think of knowledge primarily in the metaphor of the web itself: a constantly shifting, unstable set of interlinked snippets that are endlessly updated by uneasy consensus.

Curiously, I think we’ve resisted this shift in fiction. We still prefer our narrative to come from a single author: unitary, coherent, self-contained. Experiments in collaborative storytelling and crowd-sourced narrative don’t seem to have really taken off. I don’t know why that is, but the phenomenon has provided fodder for some stories I’ve written.

Lastly, what do you have coming up that we should keep our eyes out for?

Two stories I’m working on represent forays into new genres for me: space opera and weird western. I have no idea if readers will like them, but I find them a blast to work on.

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Andrew Liptak

Editorial Assistant/Book Reviewer

Andrew LiptakAndrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He is a 2014 graduate of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, and has written for such places as Armchair General, io9, Kirkus Reviews, Lightspeed Magazine, and others. He can be found over at www.andrewliptak.com and at @AndrewLiptak on Twitter. His first book, War Stories: New Military Science Fiction is now out from Apex Publications, and his next, The Future Machine: The Writers, Editors and Readers who Build Science Fiction is forthcoming from Jurassic London in 2015.

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