Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Author Spotlight: Ken Liu

Ken LiuKen, welcome back to Lightspeed! “The Five Elements of the Heart Mind” is the second story of yours to appear here, and once again you’ve given us a story that centers around a tough concept. The complex relationship between humans and the various life forms that consider us “home” is something few people are aware of. You cite a paper on the subject in your Author’s Note. What was it like for you to come across this paper, and the concept that we are, in part, other creatures?

Thank you. It’s great to be back!

I’ve been following the research on the effects of commensal microbiota on our physical and mental states for a while, and the paper cited was among the latest in this area.

Part of my interest comes from questioning the concept of the “individual.” The assumption that there is an indivisible, unified self, capable of rational cogitation and distinct from all other agents in the universe, is core to a lot of our modern ideas about politics, about fairness and justice, about what it means to be happy and fulfilled.

Yet the more we probe into how the mind works, how consciousness arises, how rational we really are, the more we seem to discover that casts doubt on this foundational assumption. We find that many of our ideals may be reducible to the driving force of individual genes pressing for survival. We find that our mental processes involve such complex chemical pathways that it’s impossible to tell where “the mind” merges into “the environment” and where one mind begins and another ends. We find that our thoughts emerge, messy, inchoate, incipient, from countless cells locked in a complex, chaotic dance—and as the research I cited shows, some of these cells aren’t even “ours.”

I don’t know what any of this really means except that perhaps we should be a little bit less arrogant about our powers of reason, and a little less certain about what we think we know about our selves, our individuality, our separateness from this world and all the creatures in it.

What kind of cultural research and experience did you draw upon to paint the vivid character of Fazen? Can you tell us about the roots of his belief system and world view?

Fazen and his people have a world view that is largely based on folk Chinese beliefs, specifically those that form the theoretical basis for traditional Chinese medicine.

When I was a kid, my grandparents and doctors made me drink a lot of “bitter soup” whenever I got sick, so that part required no research at all. But to write this story, I had to study some of the theories behind the bitter soups.

Traditional Chinese medicine relies on a very rich, intricate explanatory system that divides the world into five elements: metal, wood, water, fire, earth. The five elements are paired off in cycles of mutual opposition and generation, and they can be mapped to organs, emotions, tastes, grains, animals, planets—really, anything in the world. Diseases are explained by reference to the lack of balance among the elements, and cures are designed to restore such balance. The story only gives a very shallow hint of this background.

The system of five elements isn’t just important to traditional Chinese medicine, but seeps deeply into many other aspects of Chinese language and culture. I tried to convey in the story a bit of how these metaphors and idioms are woven into everyday life.

I also grew up on a steady diet of wuxia novels, literary martial arts fantasies that bear little resemblance to the cinematic versions that may be more familiar to Western audiences. A theme that recurs in many of these novels is the concept of a community or family “lost in time” (a common trope in classical Chinese literature too). A group of people becomes separated from the larger world, whether by choice or happenstance, and over time, their beliefs evolve down a separate path, and drama ensues when they reconnect with the larger world. This story pays homage to that tradition.

For many years, I wanted to write a story about the five elements. There were lots of false starts and dead ends. I couldn’t figure out how to support the fantasy with the science. Then I realized that the wuxia tone and palette would be perfect.

I love stories that pit science and technology against an abstract like love or an impossibility like magic, and struggles to find harmony. This story went through two other titles that I know of, that leaned toward the science end of things. I don’t know if you want to share those with our readers, but ultimately “The Five Elements of the Heart Mind” is very different from other titles you had considered. What was the thought process you went through before settling on this title?

The tale began life as “Gut Feeling,” and then evolved to “Visceral,” before settling on the current title. I was never all that happy with the previous titles, since they seemed to give so much of the story away. John Joseph Adams then suggested this title, and I thought it was perfect.

I like it partly because it evokes those wuxia novels that I love so much. Besides epic fights between good and evil, many wuxia novels contain digressions on classical Chinese poetry, vignettes on Daoist and Buddhist philosophy, interpretations of the Classics, and try to connect these to various schools of fighting in the form of flowery, poetic names for techniques, stances, formations.

Because of the densely allusive and abbreviated nature of these Chinese phrases, most of them lose their flavor entirely in translation (and become easily parodied), but sometimes it’s possible to write a phrase in English that gives a taste of the poetry behind their Chinese counterparts. This title I think accomplishes that.

Also, since this is a story (partly) about how a metaphorical explanation that doesn’t make sense at first may nonetheless turn out to be true about the world, I thought a title that leaned more towards the fantasy side of things was a better fit.

What was the hardest part of writing this story for you?

The character of Tyra.

At first, I tried to write her in a way that I thought would make more readers like her, and she ended up being very boring and flat. Then I remembered what Jane Austen thought of Emma: “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” I tried to write that, and it worked much better.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about “The Five Elements of the Heart Mind?” And can you tell us what you’re working on next?

The five elements play a big role in Chinese cooking too. I tried to give a sense of that in the story. Maybe next time you go to a Chinese restaurant, you can try to imagine the theory being applied.

I often get story ideas that seem impossible to execute for a long time. For example, right now I’m kicking around the notion of writing a story based on this concept in computer programming called “call-with-current-continuation” (often abbreviated to call/cc). It’s a really mind-blowing way to think about time, the future, control flow, and I just know it would make a great story. But it might take me years to figure out how to do it right, much like this one.

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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,, 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.