In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Ken Liu to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Lightspeed, “Simulacrum.”
Tell us a little bit about what inspired this story.
I’ve always been fascinated by the social conventions that have accumulated around the taking of pictures: The way that people suddenly stop, turn, freeze with a smile they never wear in real life, until that “click” releases them, and they go back to what they were doing.
These conventions are so strong that sometimes they become invisible. I remember attending a photography exhibit once and someone there said that she thought it was weird that children in rural China who weren’t used to cameras didn’t smile for the camera. But really, those children were the only ones who weren’t weird.
People never look the way they do in pictures, and yet we take them “for the memories.” The most extreme form of this probably occurs in children. I’m thinking of the Calvin and Hobbes strip in which Calvin’s parents look through a series of photographs of a dressed-up Calvin, and in all of the pictures Calvin was making ridiculous faces. Neither the parents’ dressed-up vision nor those faces look the way Calvin normally does.
Yet, despite the ways in which photographs aren’t freezing “reality,” we feel that photographs do capture some essence of the subject. I’ve never been able to resolve my conflicting feelings about them.
And then one day, while I was doing some unrelated research on the web, I found the quote from Susan Sontag, and in my mind I heard Anna’s speech about reality-capturing technology. That was the kernel of the story.
Anna talks about several of the uses to which the Simulacrum was put. Do you think there would be others? Can you see yourself ever wanting one?
I can imagine a lot of uses for the technology, both good and ill. Charismatic leaders—religious, political, or otherwise—might use simulacra with their followers to achieve a heightened sense of personal connection. Psychiatrists might use simulacra of various personality disorders as diagnostic and teaching tools. The entertainment/gaming potential is interesting, too. But I think most people would use them as enhanced versions of home movies and photo albums, a way to keep alive, in some sense, the people taken away from us by the passage of time (which doesn’t mean only death). I can definitely see myself wanting to have access to simulacra of people I love after they are gone.
It’s often easier to find compassion for total strangers than for the people who spent two decades of their lives raising us. Why do you think it’s so hard for us to put ourselves in our parents’ place? As a new father, do you worry that some day your daughter will have a grudge she can’t let go of?
I do think that children are especially hard on their parents. My theory is that because we are so similar to our parents, we see their weaknesses as magnified versions of our own failings (and hints that we may turn into versions of our parents some day). In a way, we are so unforgiving of our parents because we are really being unforgiving of what we see of ourselves in them. As we age, we become more accepting of our own faults, and maybe this is why parents seem to grow so much wiser as we get older.
I am terrified of letting my daughter down. I think that’s a fear all parents share. We know we are not perfect, and yet we want to live up to this image of being superheroes to our children. It’s a fear that I think will last as long as there are parents and children.
I think a really important moment in the parent-child relationship occurs when the child accepts the parent’s flaws and lets the parent know of that acceptance. It doesn’t occur in every parent-child relationship though.
The development of the technology in the story was very convincing. Is there anything in your background that gave you familiarity with imaging technology? What kind of research did you do (if any) to create the evolution of the Simulacrum?
My wife is a photographer, and so over the years I’ve learned from her a bit about the history of photography and the evolution of the technologies involved in film and digital imaging. As the technology evolved, the social attitudes toward photography, both as an art form and as a part of daily culture, also evolved. I tried to extrapolate a similar process of development when imagining how the oneiropagida would evolve over time.
Also, I’ve been interested in brain imaging technology for years. I try to read academic papers as well as popular reports, and the implications of such technology play a role in several of my stories.
Anna believes that she “knows the real Paul Larimore” based on something she witnessed one day when she was thirteen, and she lets it overwrite everything good that she knows about her father. “A man’s life is not defined by one thing,” Erin says. None of us want to be judged by the “sliver of [ourselves] that is weakest.” The reader is left perhaps examining his or her own life, looking for that weakest sliver. Did you reflect much on your own weaknesses when writing this story? Was there much emotional backlash from writing it?
I do often get very emotionally pulled into my stories, sometimes in a way that frightens me (my wife is good at noticing when I’m going in too deep and getting me to stay afloat). Empathizing with your characters deeply—which I think is required to write anything I want to read—and then being able to pull away isn’t always easy.
We all want to be judged by the best of what we’ve done, not the worst. And yet we’ve all made mistakes, and because of those mistakes, there are people we’ve hurt. For some of them, those mistakes are the most important aspects of us, and would overwhelm anything else we did before or since.
I thought a lot about instances where my memory of someone was dominated by one negative image, and whether it made sense to define someone by something they did a long time ago, and how someone might still hold a grudge against me, maybe even for something I could no longer remember. And then I tried to let all of it go.
This story seems to be about a lot of things: Forgiveness, obsession, reality, intent, the inability to let go of the past—were these all conscious themes, or did any of them emerge after the fact?
All these themes were floating in my mind during the drafting—but the story wasn’t originally going to be about just Paul and Anna, and fatherhood was not a big focus. I had a much longer and larger story planned out involving many other characters, all of whose lives were affected in important ways by the use of simulacra.
For example, I had sketched out a man who secretly took simulacra of strangers without their knowledge or permission, a woman who acted in porn simulacra shows (and thus had to act and create a fantasy not just with her body, but with her mind too), a man who obsessively edited simulacra of himself in search of the perfect one…But as I tried to flesh out the outline, I gradually lost interest in the other characters, and only the storyline between Anna and Paul seemed to stick in my mind.
One afternoon, a line from Lear—”Pray you now forget, and forgive: I am old and foolish”—popped into my head, and I knew what the story had to be about.
Is there anything else you would like Lightspeed readers to know about “Simulacrum,” or your upcoming projects?
One thing that surprised me when I first showed a draft of the story to a group of test readers was that the reaction split largely along gender lines. Several of the men really hated Anna and couldn’t empathize with her point of view at all. Most of the women were much more sympathetic to her. I hadn’t anticipated that, and I wonder if a similar split would occur with Lightspeed readers.
Most of my stories tend to be either about artificial intelligence or history-two subjects that I’m particularly interested in and have studied. “Simulacrum” belongs to the first category, but I think it can be seen as a story about history (especially personal history) as well. It’s about how we use evidence to support a particular narrative about our own lives that feels authentic, even if it’s a destructive story.
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