Why you should care
Because sci-fi’s having a moment.
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Ken Liu says he could never miss the beginning of any story. So while growing up in China in the 1980s, he sprinted from school to his grandmother’s house each afternoon. She dialed the Chinese radio to the correct station, and the duo listened to tales of kingdoms and romance in the Pingshu tradition. When the shows finished, Liu raced through a couple of questions with grandma to clarify what went over his head. Then he’d run back to class.
Today, Liu knows what it’s like to be behind the scenes of a hit that titillates, just as those radio shows did. In his case, it’s sci-fi and fantasy novels. Liu is the translator responsible for bringing Chinese sci-fi authors to America — and is the writer of a few impressive books himself. He translated two of three books in Cixin Liu’s (no relation) science-fiction trilogy The Three Body Problem, which has garnered praise from both President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. His translation was the first Chinese-to-English text to win the highest honor in sci-fi land, the Hugo Award.
That goes on the shelf next to prior Hugos for his own writing: best short story (“The Paper Menagerie” and “Mono No Aware”) in 2012 and 2013. “Ken exploded on the scene,” says Lightspeed magazine editor and top sci-fi anthologist John Joseph Adams. He thinks Liu may be the writer he’s accepted the most to his many publications, which form the constellation of the modern science-fiction canon. NPR’s book critic called Liu’s epic trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty, “beautiful, nuanced, fierce, original and diverse.” Soon, Liu will be headed to the screen: The Grace of Kings sold to the Chinese production company DMG in October 2016.
“I don’t particularly care about the kinds of things fantasy and sci-fi readers care about,” Liu says — though he says he finds his materials mainly in scientific papers. “I’m not interested in predicting the future.” He’s more interested in using metaphor to untangle our contemporary reality: In The Dandelion Dynasty, factions vie for power in a make-believe, rebellious, unstable empire. (Game of Thrones, anyone?)
I was like, holy shit, this is [a] blockbuster. … This is as good as Game of Thrones.
Russell Galen, Liu’s agent
In six years, Liu has published more than 100 short stories. In “Paper Menagerie,” a young Chinese-American boy’s mom makes origami that comes to life. “Single Bit-Error,” a tale of love lost after a car crash, uses programming language as metaphor. “Mono No Aware” tells the story of a Japanese boy who earns a coveted spot on an American evacuation ship from Earth (hit by an asteroid). “Everything passes, Hiroto,” the boy remembers his late father saying. “That feeling in your heart: It’s called mono no aware. It is a sense of the transience of all things in life.”
Liu references his heritage in The Grace of Kings not by writing characters of his ethnicity, but through the aesthetic of his futuristic world landscape — “silkpunk,” mixing Victoriana and East Asian classical antiquity. The world uses East Asian technological sources like bamboo, silk and wind power, while Liu drew from Chinese historical romances and foundational narratives well known in Chinese culture.
At first, most Chinese sci-fi was imported translations of authors like Jules Verne. In 1932, the same year as Aldous Huxley came out with Brave New World, Chinese author Lao She wrote a dystopian satirical novel set on Mars called Cat Country. But the communists pushed most sci-fi aside beginning in the 1950s.
Today, Chinese innovations, particularly in space exploration, have reignited a scientific fascination among writers. And Liu’s translations have helped publicize this reemerging form. “[Ken has] been crucial to broadening interest in Chinese science fiction,” American historian of modern China Jeff Wasserstrom says. Now, he says, “there is a much wider array of books being published in China than most Americans realize, and they range incredibly widely in terms of style and topics.”
When Liu was 11, he moved from China to join his parents in the United States. His mother worked as a pharmaceutical chemist and his father as a computer automation expert in Palo Alto. The Harvard graduate has worked at Microsoft and in tax law — which he swears is more interesting than it sounds; he even includes lengthy passages about tax law in his novels. Liu’s background is not uncommon among authors of so-called “genre” fiction, who tend not to come up through the ranks of writers’ workshops and MFA programs. “I took one workshop sort of by accident,” he says — he won a spot by being a finalist in a competition.
He typed his first draft during National Novel Writing Month in 2007 and revised it for three years before beginning to pitch. On the phone all novels sound stupid, literary agent Russell Galen says. Including Liu’s. But Galen gave The Grace of Kings a shot: “About a third of the way through I was like, holy shit, this is [a] blockbuster. … This is as good as Game of Thrones,“ Galen says; he tells us the book went for six figures and has recently sold rights for movie, TV, the U.K. and translation. “In a short period of time, [Liu’s] gone from being a young guy with his first novel to Ken Liu Enterprises.”
But Liu retains the sensibility of a translator who has worked behind a novel’s curtains — and he pays obeisance to those who made his own work possible: neo-Confucians, famous poets of the Song Dynasty, editors, physicists. In “Single-Bit Error,” he places three citations at the end of his story: a prose poem, another Chinese-influenced sci-fi writer’s short story and a Princeton scientific paper, “Using Memory Errors to Attack a Virtual Machine.” And for The Grace of Kings? He thanks his grandmother, for all the afternoons listening to Pingshu stories on the radio.