Ken Liu is both an author and a translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. He's won multiple awards for his writing, including the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards. His work has appeared in multiple venues including Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and other places. He and his family live near Boston, Massachusetts.
Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings (appearing this month from Saga Press), is the first entry in the epic fantasy series The Dandelion Dynasty.Saga will also publish a collection of his short stories later in the year.
Here, Ken talks about his new novel, Silkpunk Fantasy, writing short vs. long fiction, and more.
For more than a decade, you've made a name for yourself writing short fiction and, by many standards, are considered one of the field's most prolific authors. What draws you to short fiction and how do you keep up the pace of writing?
To be clear, most of the short fiction I’ve published were from 2011 and later—don’t want to make it seem like I have more experience than I really do!
I like short fiction as a way to experiment with ideas and techniques. The fact that a short story does not require the same investment of time as a novel allows me to take certain risks that I would be reluctant to do in a novel.
I wouldn’t consider myself a very fast writer. Almost every other writer I know can draft and revise faster. I have found, however, that the solution to almost any kind of temporary setback in a writing career is to write more, and keeping that in mind has allowed me to keep on writing even when I was not feeling “on.”
The Grace of Kings is your first novel. What are the main differences between writing short fiction vs. long fiction, either in how you envision the story or its construction?
I think on the practical side, there’s a lot more bookkeeping that must be done with novels: dates, plot points, character traits, worldbuilding details, etc. And decisions you make early on can have consequences hundreds of pages and months or years later. Since I’m not a natural planner when it comes to writing, I’ve had to learn to use various technologies like wikis and timelines to keep all this stuff straight. I suppose in a sense, writing a novel is a lot more like architecture while short fiction feels more like sculpting.
The Grace of Kings is described as "silkpunk epic fantasy." Can you describe what it's about and how that term applies?
The Grace of Kings is the story of two unlikely friends, a duke and a bandit, who join together to overthrow tyranny only to find themselves on opposite sides of a deadly rivalry over how to create a more just society. It is a re-imagining of the historical legends surrounding the rise of the Han Dynasty in a completely new secondary fantasy archipelago setting.
The “silkpunk” aesthetic describes the technology vocabulary used in the novel. Like steampunk, which is a blend of fantasy and technology inspired by the Victorian era, silkpunk is a blend of fantasy and technology inspired by prototypes from East Asian antiquity. Compared to steampunk, silkpunk places more of an emphasis on organic materials (silk, bamboo, feathers, leather, shell, coral, coconut husk, etc.) and biomechanics. To give you a sense of the world, in this book I have soaring battle kites and bamboo-and-silk airships based on the principle of swim bladders; massive engineering projects requiring the labor of tens of thousands; lodestone-based security measures; magical books that tell us our desires; jealous gods who are concerned with the value of Pi; a street urchin who becomes the greatest battlefield tactician of her generation and teaches women to fight in the skies; ladies and princesses who plot and fight alongside lords and princes; and giant water beasts who bring tempests to human affairs.
The narrative techniques used in the novel form a conscious blend of Chinese wuxia, oral pingshu, Han-era historical biography and Ming-era classical novels, along with tropes taken from Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon epics. It is a blend that I specifically created for the series that I hope readers will find at once strange and excitingly familiar, evocative of a mythic framework updated for our time.
The Grace of Kings is the first book in a planned The Dandelion Dynasty series. Do you already have longer story arcs outlined?
There are indeed larger story arcs that will be resolved over time, but the first book is also meant to stand on its own. I’m working on the second book now, and it’s got even more cool silkpunk elements….
Having written both science fiction and fantasy, what (from a writer's perspective) do you see as the main differences between them?
I’m not big on genre labels, and so I actually don’t think the two are all that distinct. They both rely on reifying metaphorical concepts to tell stories for which “realist” technique may be inadequate. I understand that many readers and writers don’t agree with me, but that’s the way I approach the issue.
For example, although my novel has magic and the gods are involved, I also spend a lot of time working out technology solutions within the framework of silkpunk, and in that way it may be said to be both fantasy and science fiction.
You've also translated Cixin Lius' The Three-Body Problem into English. What challenges does a translator (and especially one who's also an author) face when translating science fiction to other languages?
Language issues are rarely all that difficult to resolve; the most difficult obstacles to overcome in translation are inevitably cultural. There are different cultural assumptions, defaults, emphases, and even narrative conventions to take into account, and there’s rarely a one-size-fits-all solution. In addition, there are complicated issues involving the colonial gaze when translating from Chinese into English, and I don’t think the community of translators has come to any sort of consensus on how they should be handled or if they’re even within the province of the translator at all.
My approach, in general, is to avoid treating the translated work as “my work” and to strive to approximate the original author’s voice and style insofar as such features can be replicated across languages. I view it as a matter of respect for the integrity of the work as well as the audience(s) involved.
What can readers expect next from you?
I have a collection of short stories (my first) coming out from Saga Press later this year: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. In addition to my best short works to date, it will also include a brand new story that I really love. I’ve also just sold a collection of translated short Chinese fiction by some of China’s best contemporary SF/F writers to Tor Books, tentatively titled China Dreams, which should come out next year.
Also coming out next year is the second book in the Dandelion Dynasty series. I’ve been really enjoying myself as I work on it, and I can’t wait to share it with readers.