KEN LIU

The Chi­nese-born Amer­i­can au­thor on the ideas be­hind silkpunk...

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents - Words by Jonathan Wright /// Pho­tog­ra­phy by Lisa Tang Liu The Wall Of Storms and In­vis­i­ble Plan­ets are out now.

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.”

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