The Chinese-born American author on the ideas behind silkpunk...
The Chinese-American author who’s pushing the boundaries of SF literature.
the term Ken Liu applies to his own fiction is “silkpunk”. It’s a way, he says, to describe a take on epic fantasy that “has a new aesthetic”, one “based on both technology and magic” and rooted in “the classic antiquity of East Asia”, the deep history of countries such as China, Japan and South Korea.
“The technology grammar is based on traditional East Asian engineering practice,” he tells SFX during a whistle stop tour of the UK, “which is very flexible, very organic and based on bio-mimicry, so you’ve got these airships that pulsate, like jellyfish, and you’ve got soaring battle kites, like eagles, and you’ve got these underwater boats that flex and swim like whales.”
It’s an aesthetic Liu brings to bear in his new novel, The Wall Of Storms, the second part of his Dandelion Dynasty trilogy. It’s an ambitious, gnarly and, yes, epic fantasy where, for once, comparisons with Game Of Thrones seem entirely apposite, and which is built around a threat to the bloodspattered Dandelion Throne of the books’ overarching title. “I think of the second book [in a fantasy sequence] as the most interesting because that’s where all the transformation happens,” says Liu.
It’s a transformation that’s not just driven by warriors and political power brokers. In part, he says, the books are an act of homage to “the great engineer”, a recurring character in East Asian historical romances. “They serve the same role as wizards in the western epic, except that instead of doing magical things they do engineering things,” he says.
Yet for all the Dandelion Dynasty novels are deeply rooted in East Asian culture, we shouldn’t see the books as somehow “fantasy China” stories. Sure, they’re based in great part on “foundational myths from Chinese history”, but Liu also draws on Asian historical romances and western epics such as The Iliad, Beowulf and Paradise Lost.
old ways, new ways
In this context, the punk suffix is more than a marketing affectation. When SFX mentions Michael Moorcock’s proto-steampunk work in the 1970s, there’s an instant flash of recognition. “It’s being in resistance to multiple traditions as well as being in conversation with those traditions,” says Liu.
For another take on what Liu’s getting at, think, of all people, of one of his key influences, the English poet John Milton (1608-74). In some ways, says Liu, Milton’s epic poem of the Fall of Man, Paradise Lost, can be read as “angelpunk” for the way it transposes “the tropes and frameworks and techniques of classical epics” into English.
“He was standing between traditions, between cultures, between narrative techniques, he was trying to construct this new thing in what was still a very raw language, vernacular English,” says Liu, “and trying to make it bear the weight of something that was so important to him, this Christian myth.”
This was in part, says Liu, an act of translation on Milton’s part – and it’s a part of the conversation we arrive at via Liu’s own work as a translator. In 2015, Chinese writer Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem took the Hugo Award for best novel. Ken Liu was the novel’s translator. It’s a line of work, he says, that he fell into by accident. After reading a story in English by Chinese author Chen Qiufan, The Fish Of Lijian, that didn’t capture its creator’s “distinctive and strong voice”, he decided he could do better himself.
lost in translation
So would Ken Liu, born in China but raised in the US from the age of 11, be interested in translating his own books into Chinese? Not for a moment. “To write well in vernacular Chinese now, one must have been absorbed in that culture,” he says. It would, he adds, “feel very awkward and very strange” to translate his own work.
Instead, his next translation project is Invisible Planets, an anthology of contemporary Chinese science fiction. “This is the first time of which I’m aware that a commercial anthology of Chinese SF has been put out in the Anglophone world,” he says. As to how readers will approach the stories, while he emphasises that there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to read a book, he warns against looking for easy generalisations about what makes an SF story distinctly Chinese.
That’s perhaps to be expected. Liu himself, after all, is an émigré who rejects what he calls “the hyphenated identity” of Chinese-American in favour of defining himself as an American author who’s also a member of the Chinese diaspora. He’s interested, he says, in the “cultural negotiations” this involves, negotiations that began when he was still a child.
“[Moving to the US] was a great way to learn about who you are,” he says. “It’s only when your identity is challenged that you try to figure out what it is, and it’s a great way for you to figure out in what ways who you are really is a matter of fluidity, of negotiation, of trying to resist labels others put on you – and trying to determine for yourself what these terms mean.”