Ken Liu is one of the most interesting Authors worldwide: he is already considered a Master of short stories – especially after his “Paper Menagerie” has been first to win all three of SF’s major awards: Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award – and his debut novel “The Grace of Kings” – a “silkpunk” story – was recently published by Saga Press.
For the publishing of his new antology in Italian, which includes his worldwide famous Mono No Aware (Hugo Award 2013), we decided to interview him:
You are man of two worlds: born in China and living in the US, living in the present and writing about the future, writing your own stories and translating other’s people stories. How do you cope with such duality?
I guess I don’t think of these pairings as distinct categories in opposition. For me, all the stories I’ve ever written are echoes of one fundamental narrative, and a listing of my work can be seen as snapshots of my own growth and development as a human being and as a writer. I think all too often we like to draw boundaries and classify things—Is this story “science fiction” or “fantasy”? Is this cultural practice “Chinese” or “American”? Is this idea “original” or “derivative”?—I’ve never been very interested in such questions. Rather, I prefer to think about how to march across the boundaries between these contested categories and challenge the existence of such borders.
The dramatic density of your stories is well above the average in SF. You put your characters in very difficult situations, asking them to make very hard choices, like Hiroto in Mono no Aware, Anna in Simulacrum or the whole family of Staying behind. Do you plan it all beforehand or does it come naturally as you’re writing?
I’m not a planner. Usually, I prefer to start with a few interesting characters I like and see what kind of story develops around them. It sounds silly, but I really do let my characters guide the story because I want the story to be true to them, and my attempts at adhering to a pre-planned plot or outline has never worked out well.
Personally I think that SF – as technology accelerates, holding an always firmer grip on the present – is the best way to represent in fiction the ever changing present time. Do you agree with that? Do you have a personal definition of SF?
Ha, that’s interesting. My definition of SF is going to sound maddeningly vague: I think anything that a reader is willing to call SF is SF. By this definition, parts of _Paradise Lost_ may be SF (e.g., the part where Adam and the angel Raphael debate about the existence of life around other stars), fantasy stories involving dragons may be SF (especially if there’s some sort of speculation about the biology of dragons), and even steampunk may be SF (even if most steampunk contraptions will never work in real life).
I think our fascination with technology—in the broad sense, which includes any system of components arranged to achieve a certain effect, such as social organization, financial systems, legal systems, as well as machinery—is what drives the interest in SF. As long the fiction has a systemizing view of the world, I think it may be considered SF.
Once William Gibson said that “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed” but in an interview I’ve made to Ian McDonald he said that: “In modern age, everyone gets new technology at the same time – say when the last smartphone or tablet comes out – in Nigeria, America, India or China. So the future is evenly distributed, it’s just that other people are doing more interesting and funky things with it than we are.” Then it does look like also SF is going global and you are working on this process bringing many Chinese voices to Western readers, thanks to your translations. Are there more “interesting and funky themes” you’ve come across from there stories, different approaches and new ways to craft a SF story (for example the growth of “speculative fiction” or is SF just SF everywhere?
Actually, I don’t agree that “the future” is evenly distributed. First, I think the notion that there is a single direction or definition for “the future” is deeply problematic. What looks like a nice future for one group of people with certain privileges will look like a return to a hellish past to another group deprived of those privileges. Second, if anything, I think globalization has only accentuated and deepened the division between rich and poor, between privileged and underprivileged, between “the West” and the rest of the world. The uneven distribution of power around our planet as a result of our often ugly history has only become worse over time, and I’m very pessimistic about the potential for change for the better. Sure, visions of disruptive technology suddenly leveling the playing field are very attractive, but I do not think such visions are likely to play out in our world, where those who already have a lot of power seem to always get more of it.
I should emphasize that I’m by no means suggesting that technology is somehow to blame. Technology has no intrinsic moral value. All it does is magnify the ability for those wielding the technology to change the world. As I’m pessimistic about human nature, I see technological progress as reinforcing existing imbalances around the globe rather than alleviating them. But I would love to be wrong.
What are the novels you would have loved to be the author of? Tell us a bit more about your tastes.
I can say I’ve never thought I wanted to be the author of someone else’s novel. Every writer is distinct, and every beautiful novel is the unique vision of that author. I want to have my own vision, not someone else’s. My tastes are pretty eclectic, and I don’t like to restrict myself to things I already like. Part of developing as a writer and a reader is to challenge yourself to read things you don’t otherwise think you’d be interested in, and to understand why certain books resonate with readers even though they seem to approach storytelling in such different ways from what you’re used to. So I try to broaden my reading always, with different genres and time periods and subjects.
Thanks Ken for your interview!