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Interview: Ken Liu

Ken Liu, one of science fiction’s most popular short story writers, has translated many works of Chinese science fiction into English, including the best-selling novel The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. Ken’s first novel, The Grace of Kings, is an epic fantasy inspired by Chinese history.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.

Why don’t you tell us how you first got interested in reading fantasy and science fiction?

The first science fiction work I read was the Chinese translation for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, which turned into Blade Runner. I thought that was a fascinating story. I like Arthur C. Clarke, and Ursula Le Guin, like pretty much everybody.

When did you start writing your own fiction?

I started submitting for publication in college and didn’t have much success until much later.

Were you submitting to the science fiction magazines at that time?

I submitted to all sorts of places. I didn’t really know the industry very well, so I was just submitting to the magazines I’d heard of, like Asimov’s, F&SF, and Analog.

You actually first got published in the Phobos fiction contest, right?

Phobos was a company that started to focus on publishing anthologies of short fiction, and I think they wanted to develop them into media properties. I submitted to them and I was one of the first winners for their first contest, and that was my debut story at a professional rate.

When we met the first time, we talked about how I also had two stories in that anthology; were you involved with all the stuff with the weird contract with that anthology?

Very peripherally. I remember that the contract they sent us at first was not writer-friendly, and writers were talking to each other and we said, “We need to get them to offer us better terms.”

For people who may not know, the standard short story contract is three-quarters of a page, very straight forward, and this was a twenty-page contract and it involved film and video game rights and all sorts of things. I think their heart was in the right place, but they just didn’t know what was standard in publishing. But I can just imagine: This is your first short story being published; getting this twenty-page contract must have been pretty intimidating.

I had no sense of which rights were reasonable to ask for and which were not. So I read it like any other contract and it felt okay; it wasn’t until the other writers wrote to everybody and said, “This doesn’t really make sense” that I said, “Oh, okay.”

How about what happened after that, in terms of short stories? You started selling quite a few after that?

Not right away. I had one other sale to Writers of the Future, and then maybe one to Strange Horizons. And then I couldn’t sell anything at all. I wrote one story called “Single-Bit Error,” and I thought that was the best thing I’d ever written, but I could not get it accepted anywhere. I think I got thirty rejections. So I gave up, because I got obsessed with that story and I couldn’t sell it. I stopped writing for a few years. It’s not until many years later that “Single-Bit Error” finally did get published.

Where did that story appear?

An anthology called Thoughtcrime Experiments, which is focused on, amusingly, stories that had been rejected many times.

Was it after that that you really started getting on this roll with the short fiction?

After that, I started writing more; it was a couple more years before I started selling at a regular clip.

At this point, you’ve published dozens of stories, right?

I crossed over the hundred mark sometime last year.

Which of those would you say have gotten the most attention, or been the best received by readers?

That’s hard to say, because there are many ways to measure it. For example, “The Paper Menagerie” is a story that won the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy award and has been reprinted a lot, so it gets a lot of exposure, but I don’t know that’s the one readers like the most. I certainly get a lot of positive comments about it, but I tend to think that’s because it was reprinted so many times. The story that I thought was the best is called “The Man Who Ended History,” and that was a Nebula and Hugo nominee for novella in the same year. That one did not get nearly as much attention, but I think it’s my best work to date in short fiction.

I want to mention, for listeners, that a collection of your short stories will be coming out later this year called The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. You want to say a bit about that?

This will be my first English short fiction collection. There’s a total of fifteen stories; many of them are award nominees or winners and a lot of them have been collected in Year’s Best anthologies. My editor, Joe Monti, and I wanted to pick sample stories that represented what I was interested in writing, and what I liked and thought I was good at writing about; a variety sampler pack for people who are not familiar with my short fiction. There’s also a new story in it that I wrote specifically for the collection, which I’m very proud of. I hope readers will enjoy it.

Let’s talk about your first novel, The Grace of Kings. How did this book come about?

I was writing a lot of short fiction but I wanted to move into writing novels, and I didn’t have a good subject in mind. I was looking through my short stories to see if there was something that piqued my interest. My wife, Lisa Tang Liu, said, “You and I both have very vivid memories of these historical Chinese dramas based on legends and facts from Chinese history. Maybe you can do something with that, but in a way that feels true to you.” I thought that was a really good idea, because I do remember those were my favorite stories when I was growing up. I ended up deciding to pick one of these historical periods, the Chu-Han contention, which is the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han in about 200 BC. I said, “I’m going to take this period of history—when a lot of heroes were rising up all around China; it was a time of war, of great change and social contention—and try to reimagine the story as a Western epic fantasy, and create a whole new world with new cultures and people in it.”

Tell us about the fantasy world that you created in this novel; what are some of the original spins that you put on this story?

I want to be clear: I didn’t set out to write a “magical China” story; I think they are difficult to do well, and the way that China has been described in Western narratives—the way the West perceives it—makes it hard to tell a story that will escape the stereotypes and allow people to perceive it fresh.

I decided to create a new fantasy world inspired by East Asia, and China in particular, but not directly analogous to it. Instead of a continental country, Dara, my fantasy world, is an archipelago and a place of magic as well as technology. The technology aesthetic that I’m going for is what I call Silkpunk, which is analogous to Steampunk. Steampunk is the idea of extending the Victorian era technology and aesthetics to an alternative path not taken, so Silkpunk is one where I take the technology inspirations of classical China, like kites used for military endeavors and signaling, very powerful mechanical vehicles of various sorts, all these inventions that are described or imagined, and blow them up, turn them down an evolutionary path I think they would have taken if they were allowed to develop. So this is a world in which there are magical creatures—giant sea beasts, books that can read minds, people who use smoke to read peoples’ hearts—as well as technological wonders like battle kites, giant airships that are propelled by oars through the air instead of propellers, and underwater boats. All these are based on either direct East Asian analogues or extensions of what was done. It’s a fun tech-fantasy world that I think people will enjoy.

Tell us about the heroes of this story, because there are two main protagonists: Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu.

They are two men that represent polar opposite qualities. Kuni Garu is a commoner who isn’t ambitious; he doesn’t care about learning or climbing up the social ladder. He just wants to have fun and do the “interesting thing.” Mata Zyndu is the descendant of a very important and powerful family of nobles who have always been great generals in Dara. At the beginning of the novel we find out that the islands of Dara, which had been divided into separate kingdoms, were forcibly united by one of them and the new Emperor has a very harsh rule.

What Mata wants to do is restore the world to how it used to be, with separate kingdoms, whereas Kuni wants to see if he can make his life a little better and help the people he loves live more interesting and happier lives. These two unlikely protagonists become leaders in a subsequent rebellion against the Empire. They get together and it turns out they’re good friends, because their strengths and weaknesses complement each other. The story is about their friendship and their rise together against the Empire, until, as they near success, they find that their different ideals about how the world can be made more just and better are utterly incompatible.

In addition to these two characters, there are a lot of other characters in the book—including, interestingly, a tax collector named Kindo Marana. You have a background as a tax attorney of some sort, and I was wondering as to what extent your background played a role in that character and other tax related stuff.

I was a tax attorney for something like seven years. I was a tax geek; I was really into it. Tax is one of those things that people think is incredibly boring, but like any kind of science about systems, once you get into it, it becomes incredibly intricate and interesting. Because I love tax, tax topics feature a lot in my fiction. I once wrote a science fiction short story centered around the idea of an alien tax code, and the idea that you can understand the society by parsing its tax code.

The Grace of Kings is an epic fantasy that’s distinguished by the fact that it is the most tax driven. My pitch would be that if I can make tax interesting to you, the fun stuff will be really fun. Kindo Marana is sort of a joke; he’s a tax collector who turns into a very important general, and that’s based on real history. What I wanted to explore in the book is what kind of skills are really useful. It turns out that, when you look at everything through a tax-colored lens, you begin to think of everything in terms of logistics and planning and systems, and military strategy is really about systems hacking. I ended up finding really interesting parallels between the two.

The thing that sticks out most about the taxes is that there’s this part where they’re having trouble getting people to pay their taxes, and they come up with the idea to do a lottery. Where did that idea come from?

That was based on a real tax scheme tried out in one part of China. Small businesses, like restaurants, tend to have a convoluted history with tax authorities; they engage in various tricks like being a cash-only business, or keeping two sets of books, to not report their income accurately. In the book, where the small businesses of Zudi are not willing to pay taxes to their new Duke because they think he may not be there very long, Kuni comes up with this scheme where he holds a lottery for the citizens. But the citizens can’t by tickets directly from the government; instead, they get it as a receipt when they purchase items from vendors, and they get lottery tickets based on the amount they spend. And the vendors would have to purchase the lottery tickets from the government, so in this way, it forces the merchants to be honest, because every customer now has an incentive to demand these lottery tickets as a receipt. The vendors can no longer hide their income, the more they sell, the more they have to purchase, and therefore pay in taxes. It’s a clever way to align the incentives of the general populace with the government.

Another character that really struck me was Zato Ruthi. There’s a really interesting portrayal of scholars and intellectuals in this book; tell us about that character.

He’s a scholar who ends up being king, through a series of accidents. The portrayal of scholars is pretty critical to the book; that’s another thing that distinguishes this from an epic fantasy that derives from a more magical medieval Western Europe tradition. Scholarship has always been respected in classical China, and the kind of classical learning that they specialized in was often valorized to a degree that it wasn’t in medieval Europe. I wanted to preserve that feel, and so this is a society in which scholarship is a way for you to ascend in the world by being able to serve in the Imperial bureaucracy.

Zato Ruthi was a brilliant scholar, but he didn’t want to go serve the Imperial bureaucracy; he wanted to go into the woods by himself and start contemplating how to make the world better. Through a series of accidents, he becomes a figurehead for the revolution that was held, so he becomes the king of one of the Tiro states, not because he wanted to, but because he was a compromise candidate that all the political interests in question could agree on. And it turns out that he was a terrible king, because his ideas about what is moral and what is the right thing to do are incompatible with political and military realities.

It was making me think of how Plato thought that the world should be rule by philosopher-kings.

Exactly. And if you did implement Plato’s Utopia, that’s what would happen.

His thoughts are too much philosophy and not enough pragmatism.

He has this idea that, “This is the way things ought to be; the way the world should function. So I’m just going to do things as though we live in that world. We’re going to ignore the fact that in this world there are people who are selfish and interested in winning instead of doing ‘the right thing.’” It turns out to be a disaster.

On the other end of that, getting into the pragmatism, there’s Garu, who’s generally a nice guy but he’s come into political power and now he has to deal with some of these issues. There’s a scene that’s right out of Machiavelli—I don’t know if you were intentionally drawing on that—with basically this idea that you have to be brutal before you can be kind, in order to be accepted by people you’ve gained power over.

That’s right. It is very Machiavellian, but it also has analogs in traditional Chinese political writing; I was drawing on both traditions. As a ruler, you can’t just be generous all the time, because then people will take you for granted. The way you gained the people’s gratitude is to allow some horrible things to happen to them before you step in. It’s a very important moment in the book when Kuni gets this education and is forced to confront the fact that you have to do things that aren’t particularly good or right to preserve power. Then the book follows his complicated process in coming to terms with that as he gains more and more power and has to behave in more ambivalent ways.

I think there’s a line that really captures that: He says, “I think I wield power, but perhaps it is power that wields me.”

Yes; that line captures exactly where his growth arc goes to. I think that’s an idea that’s very familiar to us; people who are ambitious, politicians who crave power, think they’re in control of it, but at some point the movement that they started overtakes them and they lose the ability to direct things; they become riders on a wild stallion, and wherever the movement goes, wherever power takes them, they have to follow. That’s what happens to a lot of people as they rise in power.

This seems to tie in with the title.

The “grace of kings” is a quote from Henry V. It’s a phrase that’s very rich with meaning; it can refer to an exemplar of a king, or the mercy of a king, or the kind of special morality that kings have to exercise that mere commoners don’t have to think about. And the grace of kings is a phrase I recur multiple times in the book, each time in a different kind of guise. It starts out as a very bright phrase but becomes much darker near the end, where Kuni has to make a decision: whether the grace of kings in the sense of “this is what a king ought to do for the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people” is, in fact, the right thing to do.

I heard you say that the working title was The Dandelion and the Chrysanthemum?

That’s right. The dandelion and chrysanthemum are stand-ins for Kuni and Mata; one of them is very pragmatic, the weed—a very useful kind of plant that’s able to survive anywhere. The other is this proud, noble flower, with a very strong, dominant personality, whether visually or in terms of fragrance. And yet, the two of them are sort of similar; as described in the book, they’re both golden, and if you squint a little bit, a dandelion looks like a small chrysanthemum. The flowers act as recurring symbols to show the characters of the two protagonists. As far as titles go, The Chrysanthemum and the Dandelion doesn’t tell people what sort of book it is. I’m much happier with the title we ended up using.

The series as a whole is called The Dandelion Dynasty, so you did keep a little of that in there.

Yeah. But again, the dandelion also is a symbol that transforms throughout the book, and even more so in the sequels. People should not think it means a certain thing; part of the joy of the series is in the way these images get transformed over time. The book, and series as a whole, is about continuous revolution, and the idea of constant dynamic change. A lot of epic fantasies fall into The Lord of the Rings kind of yearning for a golden age of the past; a return to that past. The Grace of Kings is very much a story about the necessity for change and revolution, and adapting to changing circumstances.

Speaking of those sorts of changes, tell us about the character Mazoti.

Gin Mazoti is an interesting character; she is added as an agent of change. Early on, before you meet Mazoti, this is a world in which, by custom, it is the men who do the fighting and, because this is a novel about warfare, there’s a huge amount of scenes and events where the only participants are men. But then things change, because Jia, Kuni’s wife, convinces him that when he’s weak and not in power, he needs to leverage other sources of power, other individuals and other groups, who also have been disenfranchised by society. The people who already have power are not going to help him, because he wants to upset their gains; it’s the people who don’t have anything who will help them, and among these people, the most prominent are women.

Gin Mazoti ends up coming into Kuni’s service, and she is a street urchin who grew up in the streets of a metropolis and worked for a gang of thieves and had a very difficult backstory where she was not able to get a proper education. Fortunately, she comes to be helped by a dock master who teaches her how to read and discovers that she has a talent for recognizing patterns and thinking in a strategic way about how to fit pieces together. It’s this kind of big picture, strategic kind of thinking that ends up making Gin such a great general. She’s not the ultimate fighter, that’s not her thing. She can fight, but she’s not ever going to be able to overcome, in single combat, somebody like Mata. She shows that, to be a great general, what you really need is leadership and the ability to think tactically and to use guile.

As I mentioned, the series is about revolution and dynamism, so at the end of book one, you see that the society of Dara has changed; a lot of the women characters are playing very important roles, because they have forced themselves onto the stage by leading a revolution that succeeded. They now have a stake in the way politics and those affairs are conducted.

But with every revolution, there always comes a backlash. Book two is about all the people who are disempowered in book one—the poor, the uneducated, the women, and all the people who didn’t gain as much as they should’ve in the revolution—and want to continue the revolution. And it’s a story about how an Empire at peace needs to deal with these pressures. Also, there are surprises, which I won’t mention here.

I wanted to ask you about The Three-Body Problem, which was announced as a finalist for the Hugo Award. What’s your reaction to that?

It’s awesome; I’m really glad to hear that The Three-Body Problem, which is one of the first—and the only, so far—major hard SF novels by a Peoples’ Republic of China author to be translated into English. It really shows there’s still a lot of love in the genre for the kind of core SF that The Three-Body Problem represents. This is a story about the wonder of the universe, and a very engineering-driven attitude towards the necessity for exploration; for defining and understanding alien species and the idea that our future is in the stars, not on this planet and not in some uploaded future where we’re just disembodied thought patterns in a machine. It’s wonderful to see a translated novel with a very unique Chinese perspective on these core SF concerns get such an enthusiastic reception here. I think before, only one other novel had been nominated for a Hugo, and one other for a Nebula, so it’s history making; the last time translated books were nominated was back in the ’60s and ’70s.

If listeners are curious to learn more about Chinese science fiction, are there any good websites or things they should check out?

They can check out my website; I have a tab under “Translations,” and they can go there and look at all the translations I’ve done—a lot of short fiction as well as novels.

Finally, is there anything else you want to mention in terms of projects, websites, blog posts—anything you want people to check out?

Sure; my website is kenliu.name. I have a “.name” domain, because I was being a good web citizen and believe that’s how you should do it and not go commercial. So it’s at least memorable. And you can also follow me on Twitter @kyliu99.

Great. Thanks for joining us.

Thank you for having me, David.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.