Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Ken Liu

Welcome back, Ken! I think “State Change” may be the first reprint I’ve had the opportunity to ask you about. Looking back at this piece, originally published a decade ago, are your first thoughts about the story, the past-Ken who wrote it, the experience of publication, or something else?

Delighted to be back, Christie. It’s always a pleasure to be back in the pages of Lightspeed.

This is a surprisingly poignant question for me.

“State Change” was written back when I was a published finalist with the Writers of the Future Contest. For the workshop with Tim Powers and K.D. Wentworth, we had to write a complete short story in twenty-four hours, and Tim started by walking around the room, designating random objects as prompts for each of us. When Tim stopped by my seat, he saw a half-finished glass of soda and the melting ice cubes inside, and so he picked one out and told me that was my story. I must have looked fairly dismayed, but K.D. told me that sometimes prompts that didn’t give one obvious ideas at first made better stories.

Writing “State Change” was an intense experience. I’d never written a story in such little time, and the entire time I felt on the edge of failure. However, the story was well received by my classmates, and one of them, Jay Lake, after giving me an insightful critique, said I should submit it to Polyphony, the anthology he was editing with Deborah Layne, after I was done with revisions, I did, and he bought it. And that was my first sale after WOTF.

I’ve had to write stories under tight deadlines many times since then, but none of them were as scary to me as “State Change.” Being able to perform under pressure and meet deadlines is something that has served me well in my career—some of my best stories were written under such circumstances—and I credit that workshop for giving me the confidence to take up such assignments.

After WOTF, Jay’s career took off, while I had trouble selling anything for years and years. But Jay helped me several times during that period, offering encouragement and support though he was incredibly busy. I’ve tried to follow his example.

K.D. and Jay are no longer with us, and I miss their generosity and insight.

“State Change” is very different thematically from much of your more recent work; whereas you often write stories inspired by scientific papers, here you’ve drawn on literal interpretations of classic literature—with a nod to science at the very end, giving the story its title. Are we witnessing a step in the evolution of your creative process in this story?

That’s an interesting analysis. I think I’m the least qualified person to talk about my own creative process, as so much of it is instinctual rather than analytical. Because I think of fantasy as being about literalizing metaphors, I view “State Change” as a good example of the kind of fantasy I write. My more recent works might be less literal in their approach, but the core technique I think is the same.

Did the literary references come together for you on their own, or did you have to go searching for things that would fit your theme and structure? Of the pieces used in your story, do you have a favorite?

I had just read a biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay before the workshop, and the letters written to and by her quoted in the biography were uppermost in my mind. The idea for the story really took shape around “My candle burns at both ends.” After that, it seemed that whenever I thought of a favorite passage by a writer I liked, a soul emerged.

The obvious question, of course: What shape does your soul take, and has it been through a state change?

You’re not going to believe this, but I honestly have never thought about this question, not while I was writing the story, and not after. I’m kind of glad it’s not obvious to me—maybe it makes for better stories.

Your career is about to undergo a state change, from mastery of short fiction to published novelist. What can you tell us about your forthcoming novel, The Grace of Kings, and what we can look forward to after its release?

The Grace of Kings is the first in a planned silkpunk epic fantasy series. You can see the cover reveal here.

It’s based on a loose re-imagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty in a new fantasy archipelago setting. My wife Lisa and I did a lot of the worldbuilding together, and I had a lot of fun writing the book. This is a world of politics and intrigue, of love purified and corrupted, of rebelling against tyranny and seeing one’s ideals compromised, of friendships forged and sundered by the demands of war and statecraft. There are vain and jealous gods, bamboo airships and biomechanics-inspired submarines, fantastical creatures of the deep, and magical tomes that tell the future written in our hearts. I hope readers have as much fun reading the novel as I did writing it.

A prequel to the novel is my Lightspeed story “None Owns the Air.”

Saga Press, my publisher, is also putting out a collection of my short stories—including at least one new story.

Thanks again for having me.

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Christie Yant

Christie Yant

Christie Yant is a science fiction and fantasy writer, Associate Publisher for Lightspeed and Nightmare, and guest editor of Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction special issue. Her fiction has appeared in anthologies and magazines including Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011 (Horton),  Armored, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, io9, Wired.com, and China’s Science Fiction World. Her work has received honorable mentions in Year’s Best Science Fiction (Dozois) and Best Horror of the Year (Datlow), and has been long-listed for StorySouth’s Million Writers Award. She lives on the central coast of California with two writers, an editor, and assorted four-legged nuisances. Follow her on Twitter @christieyant.