Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Ken Liu

“None Owns the Air” is set in the world of your novel, The Chrysanthemum and the Dandelion, which will be published in 2015. Can you elaborate on the origins of this story?

“None Owns the Air” takes place a few decades before the events of the novel. I wanted to tell the story of the beginning of Xana’s rise and how the winged airships came to be.

As I wrote the novel, many side stories and subplots had to be trimmed because they didn’t fit with the main arc. I thought it would be interesting to see if any of these could be developed into stand-alone short stories, and this was one such example.

As I read this story, I thought about how technology is often developed and used for violent purposes before consideration is given to how that same technology might benefit the world. Is this a theme you feel strongly about?

This is certainly a theme that recurs in the history of technology (as is the opposite situation: A technology is developed for peaceful purposes before its potential for war-making is realized).

I think this illustrates a larger point which comes up in my fiction from time to time: Technology, by itself, does not have a moral stance; it simply magnifies the power of humans to accomplish what they want to do. I’m generally skeptical about “progress” as a pure positive for that reason.

Your story ends with mixed emotions. Kino successfully achieves his goal, but he’s not sure whether or not this is a good thing. I was left questioning the fate of Kino and Lowi. Why did you choose to end the story at this point?

I don’t like stories that end very neatly with a problem “solved.” Most of the time, solutions just uncover or create new problems. By the end of this story, Kino has solved his main challenge and Xana has its new weapon, but Kino and Lowi are caught up in a game of politics in which they cannot wholly determine their own fates.

That’s a scenario that comes up often in history, but it doesn’t seem that many speculative works—especially fantasy—address it.

What’s the best writing advice you ever received and who gave it to you? What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

My friend and fellow writer Tobias Buckell wrote a blog post about distinguishing milestones (nice things that you’d like to happen to you: having a story accepted, getting a good review, selling a book) from goals (things that you can control: choosing to tell this story versus that one, shutting off Twitter, writing more words). Sometimes writers confuse milestones with goals, and end up neurotically chasing the wrong thing. If you haven’t read Toby’s post, I highly, highly recommend it. It really changed the way I think about writing.

Is there any piece from your body of work so far that you’re particularly proud of?

That would be “The Man Who Ended History: a Documentary,” a story about the meaning of history and our responsibility to it. Like a lot of my earlier work, it’s not as technically polished as some of my later stories. But I set out with the goal of writing a story that I wanted to read that wasn’t being told, and I think I accomplished that very well. It’s the most personally meaningful piece in all my short fiction.

Congratulations on selling three novels and a collection of short stories to Simon & Schuster’s new genre imprint. I imagine this will keep you busy for a while. What’s next for you?

Thank you! Right now, the top priority is to revise the first novel based on the editorial letter I got—there’s a lot to do in very little time. After that, I’ll need to write a new story for the collection, start on the second novel, and also meet some short fiction commitments. I feel very lucky to have gotten to this point in my career, and I’m learning a lot about what it takes to work on long-term writing projects with definite deadlines.

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Kevin McNeil

Kevin McNeilKevin McNeil is a physical therapist, sports fanatic, and volunteer coach for the Special Olympics. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and The Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Intensive Novel Workshop, led by Kij Johnson. His fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction and is forthcoming in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. Kevin is a New Englander currently living in California. Find him on Twitter @kevinmcneil.