Ken Liu Talks Silkpunk, Old Poems, and Contemporary Chinese SFF in His Reddit AMA

In his first novel The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu “remembers the future” by using nostalgia to reveal modernity; and in doing so, changes the way that epic fantasy stories are structured. Liu addressed questions about fantasy clichés and contemporary Chinese sci-fi and fantasy in his recent Reddit AMA, sharing both his influences and hinting at arcs he’s set up in this book and its sequels to come.

Liu also talked about translating Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, including the surprising ease of translating science from Chinese to English, and why info dumps are the best part of hard sci-fi.

Check out the highlights from his AMA below!

 

On What’s Lost and Found in Translation:

Redditor shanigan wanted to know Liu’s first impression of The Three-Body Problem. And while shanigan didn’t love the way the story was told in the Chinese version, Liu highlighted his favorite element:

I really enjoyed TTBP the first time I read it. I found it fast paced and thrilling, and loved all the science sections. I particularly liked the fact that Liu Cixin was willing to just go into info dump mode and start explaining science to the reader. I think info dumps can be a lot of fun and are one of the pleasures of reading hard SF.

Liu also shared his most notable observations during the translation process:

Before I started doing the translation, I thought the science bits would be the hardest to get right. After I finished, I realized that the science bits were the easiest: since the scientific jargon in Chinese is mostly translated from English to begin with, it was really easy to “back-translate.”

The everyday scenes involving unstated cultural assumptions, on the other hand, were very difficult to convey accurately.

Liu talked more about translation, and how it relates to short- and long-form fiction (having translated both):

Translation is really not at all like writing original fiction (other than drawing on some shared skills). There is a lot of creativity involved in literary translation, but it’s a very specialized form of creativity.

Translation is a performance art.

 

On Chinese Historical Romance, Greek Mythology, and “Silkpunk”:

Flying-Fox asked if Liu’s tendency toward using narrative techniques from the Iliad, Beowulf, and the Pingshu storytelling tradition in The Grace of Kings was similar to Philip Pullman’s passion for Paradise Lost (which he incorporated into the His Dark Materials series). Liu answered:

I got into Romance of the Three Kingdoms by listening to a Pingshu rendition on the radio with my grandmother. I’d run home everyday around lunch to catch the show with her, and we’d talk about the episode afterwards so she could explain things I didn’t understand.

So, yeah, Chinese historical romances are a big deal to me, and they are among the first stories I knew.

I have a lot of love for epics like the Iliad, the Aeneid, and Beowulf. When I wrote The Grace of Kings, I put a lot of myself into it, and I hope you can hear echoes of these old poems between the lines.

When pressed for examples on how these older texts influenced him, Liu pointed to the use of perspective in The Grace of Kings:

The most obvious influence can be seen in the use of POV in TGOK. Like these epics, there’s a distant view similar to the “epic voice” and then, from time to time, we zoom in, but still omniscient.

Also, these epics taught me that “show, don’t tell” is not always right. There are some thing that should be told, not shown, and I’m not afraid to do so.

There are some kennings and use of rhetorical devices like litotes as well.

d5dq wanted to know about Liu’s motivation behind the work, and what distinguishes it from other epic fantasy stories:

Motivations and distinctions: I wanted to tell a big story in a big world, and to do it in a way that (I think) hasn’t been done before.

In brief, I re-imagine a foundational narrative for the Chinese (analogous in some ways to a national epic) into an epic fantasy of technology (giant battle kites!) and magic (giant, intelligent sea monsters!) set in an archipelago.

The world has brand new cultures, languages, and peoples. While the technology is clearly “East Asia-inspired,” it doesn’t feel like “magic China” or some stereotype of Orientalism. (I call this aesthetic of silk-draped airships and whale-like underwater boats “silkpunk”)

I also tell the story by melding narrative techniques and tropes taken from both Western and Chinese literary traditions. It should feel different from other epic fantasy, but fun and enjoyable.

 

How The Grace of Kings Tells Its Story:

Author Kate Elliott (who did her own Reddit AMA recently) dropped by to share her love for The Grace of Kings, and to ask about the narrative structure:

One of the pleasures of this plot is the way it is layered and threaded through with small (often finite) stories amid the main story that are nevertheless important to the overall narrative.

During revisions, how much did you have to move around the smaller stories and figure out exactly where they fit in the narrative? Or was the “plot timeline” so clear that the smaller character stories always remained in the same place, that is, didn’t get moved around during revision?

Liu responded:

The “side narratives” you refer to here were one of the most fun parts of the novel for me.

Some of the side stories were pretty fixed in their timeline positions and couldn’t be moved easily (e.g., Jizu’s story). But others could have been moved to one of several places (e.g., Gin’s back story). It was not easy trying to figure out where some of these stories should have gone, and I did move them quite a bit during revisions.

In fact, even now, I’m not convinced I had figured out the best places for some of these … but that way lies madness.

 

Comparing The Grace of Kings to Other Fantasy:

IAMARobotBeepBoop got Liu talking about fantasy clichés, especially those involving women and their lack of power:

One of my pet peeves in fantasy is how much of it is basically medieval Europe + magic, so kudos for avoiding that cliche.

My other pet peeve is that fantasy authors will imagine a world with dragons and magic and other fantastical things, but women in their stories are still minor characters with little power and frequently just damsels in distress. Why do so few authors imagine worlds where women are also generals and blacksmiths and knights? Is it really a greater stretch of the imagination than flying, fire breathing lizards? How have you addressed this in your fiction?

Liu responded:

If you look at this review from NPR, you’ll see that the role of women is one of the reviewer’s focuses as well, and she gives a fair description of what I’ve done.

Basically, I agree with you: women have always been half of the population, and the fact that written history either ignored their existence or suppressed their existence is no reason for our fantasy literature to replicate the error.

The source narrative I worked from suffers from a similar problem with the lack of women in its pages. And I decided to deal with the problem by writing the novel as a story of continuous change and revolution, rather than one about a return to some golden age of the past or the status quo ante.

The world in my novel starts out being one in which it is still the men who do most of the fighting and engage in the politics, but the text shows that women are not absent: they are fighting for power in constrained circumstances.

However, as the story goes on, the dynamic changes. In every revolution, rebels can try to get more power by taking it from the powerful or by empowering the powerless. And the story ends in a place that I think you’ll find interesting re: the role of women.

It is a long arc and it takes the whole novel to do it. But it is an arc that is going to be carried further in the sequels.

 

On Contemporary Chinese SFF:

Swenke wanted to know what Liu is most excited about in contemporary Chinese sci-fi and fantasy; plus, how to get more people reading it:

I like the way much contemporary Chinese SFF is so playful and cosmopolitan. Bao Shu and Ma Boyong, in particular, write wonderful stories that meld Western and Chinese references seamlessly for a unique effect.

You can certainly thank Tor Books for publishing the Three Body series (and I think they’ve done a wonderful job of publicizing it). Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld and Storycom in China are also collaborating on a series of translations of contemporary short Chinese SFF.

We don’t have enough good translators. That’s a bottleneck.

Where (if at all) does Liu draw the line between sci-fi and fantasy?

I personally don’t draw a line between the two. Really, I don’t. But I do like the joking answer that a prominent editor in the field once gave to this question: “Anything that starts with the word ’the’ is science fiction; everything else is fantasy.”

 

The Toughest Question:

Jokerang: Who’s your all-time favorite author?

KL: All-time? ALL-TIME? You’re asking me to commit to a single author when I’m so fickle that my opinion probably changes on a daily basis?

Oh, all right, if I exclude all the classics and books by dead people, I’d say my favorite writer is Jin Yong. I read his wuxia novels at a very young age, and I think you never quite escape the magic of those early stories. For me, they define storytelling.

 

On Short and Interactive Fiction:

SvalbardCaretaker: Would you care to name your 3 favourite short stories? Or however many you can truly call your favourites, since that is bound to be more?

KL:

  • “The Radio Astronomer” by Joyce Carol Oates
  • “Matrix Born”—can’t remember the author, but it was in the first edition of the Virtual Realities source book for Shadowrun.
  • “Photopia” by Adam Cadre (now this is a bit of a cheat, since it’s not a traditional short story, but a piece of IF—but really, you should play/read it. It’s extraordinary)

 

Our Next Dream Role for The Rock:

Princejvstin: Who would you cast in the movie version of Grace of Kings?

KL: Oh gosh, I can’t say I’ve given this much thought. I actually prefer not to imagine specific actors or actresses as my characters—less distracting during writing.

I’ve heard readers proposing Dwayne Johnson for Mata Zyndu. I have to say, that would be pretty darn cool.

 

On Romans Who Work Hard and Play Hard:

nx_shrapnel: Literary Fight Club: if you could fist fight any famous author in history who would it be?

KL: Catullus. And then we can go wash up and have a nice banquet. The Romans knew how to party, and Catullus partied harder than most Romans.

 

Read the rest of Liu’s answers here.

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