Issue 84 – September 2013


Organic Synthesis: A Conversation with Ken Liu

It’s very easy to like Ken Liu—to eagerly anticipate his e-mails, to smile knowingly while reading his fiction, to gasp in surprise, to feel your own view of the world twist and bend, loop and wrap around his in some wonderful flowering knot that both binds and opens outward.

“I tend to be an optimist when it comes to the ability for people to understand each other across cultural gaps,” says Liu below.

A lawyer and programmer by trade, Liu pushes the boundaries of the short form while drawing heavily on the languages of his vocational training, as well as that of his native China.

“I’ve written stories that readers have complained are not ‘stories’ at all; and sometimes I like to use the techniques of nonfiction in fiction, which doesn’t always work for every reader,” said Liu. “I do think the short form offers more room for experimentation because even if the experiment fails, you won’t have invested too much energy and time into it (which isn’t really possible with a novel). Even if I succeed in becoming a novelist, I think I’ll always have a yearning to do short fiction for this reason alone.”

Liu’s prose has a spontaneous, organic feel that is both deeply rooted and somehow delicate around the edges.

“I’m not a planner,” said Liu. “Most of my stories start with just a vague idea and some scene that feels compelling to me. I start writing and then see where the story goes. My first drafts thus tend to be more like extended outlines, and it’s on the first revision pass—my favorite stage—where the story takes its real form.”

In their “real form,” Liu’s stories have appeared Analog, Apex, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Nature, Strange Horizons, and more. His stories have been nominated for and won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award. Below, Liu and I talk about Liu Cixin, translating Chinese literature, wuxia, Jin Yong, and his novel-in-progress.

How’s your translation of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Trilogy coming along?

I’m only responsible for the first volume, The Three-Body Problem, and a first draft of the translation is done. There will be lots more edits—some probably done in consultation with the publisher. In translation, the passage of time between the first draft and revisions is critical to ensure quality. It’s not unlike writing original fiction: until sufficient time has passed, it’s impossible for me to see the text on the page in an objective manner.

Were there any frustrations or pleasant surprises in the translating process? Ever wonder what you’d gotten yourself into or was it mostly a joy?

Since I’m not a physicist, a lot of the technical terms related to the construction of particle accelerators and theoretical physics were unfamiliar to me, and I needed to consult several scientists to get the lingo feel right to readers in America who do have such knowledge (I was lucky that many of scientists I approached were science fiction fans).

Also, as is common with some other Chinese works I’ve translated, the densely allusive nature of Chinese historical and literary references in the book made me wonder if too much of the original was being lost in translation. Parts of the story take place during the Cultural Revolution, and some of the philosophical passages require familiarity with Classical Chinese history: these scenes were complicated and layered. A lot of Chinese readers expressed to me the same worry when they heard about my translation project: they were sure that American readers who were not familiar with or interested in Chinese history would not “get it.”

I tend to be an optimist when it comes to the ability for people to understand each other across cultural gaps, and I didn’t want to just “give up.” After thinking through the minimum background information that had to be provided to give the reader enough context, I ended up adding a few explanatory footnotes (even though I was told that some American readers hate footnotes). I just figured that since I enjoy footnotes in reading translated fiction, I might as well try to please a reader like me. (That seems to be the only writing strategy that has ever worked for me.)

Liu also employs some literary techniques that American genre readers may find odd or off putting. For example, among American genre fiction writers, it’s common to hear the mantra of “one scene, one point-of-view.” Liu does not follow this “rule” and often switches point-of-view within a scene to achieve the effect he wants. If you follow the “rules” rigidly, you’d say Liu engages in “head hopping,” which is supposed to be confusing for readers.

I suppose the “safe” thing for me to do would have been to rewrite Liu’s text to follow this contemporary American genre convention, but it felt wrong. It felt like a violation of the integrity of the text. Moreover, since I hate that “one scene, one point-of-view” convention and never follow it in my own work in any event, I really felt uncomfortable imposing it on someone else’s text.

In the end, I decided to just handle everything in a way that I felt respected the integrity of the text and the original author’s vision. My choices would perhaps require the Anglophone reader to come and meet me part of the way—read some footnotes and get used to some unfamiliar literary conventions (instead of dismissing them outright)—but isn’t that part of the joy of reading a translation? A good translation, I’ve always felt, should not feel like something that could have been written in English in the first place. It should have a hint of strangeness, of a vision and mode of thinking not entirely like the Anglophone reader’s own home culture.

How do you anticipate English-speaking readers will respond to the book?

I think Liu’s story is appealing in multiple ways. It’s a story of grand imagination in the tradition of hard scifi masters like Arthur C. Clarke, and it engages with big ideas, with the problems facing all of humanity. At the same time, it tells this big story using details that are rooted in China’s ancient and recent history, through images and references that may be unfamiliar to some Western readers but are very emotionally powerful and evocative. Finally, it’s just a fun and exciting adventure story, and we can all use more adventure.

I can’t guess how the English edition will be received: I’ve always been bad at anticipating reader reaction, even for my own work. I hope readers like it as much as I do.

In what ways have wuxia novels influenced you and your fiction?

The modern wuxia novels, especially those by the great master Jin Yong, hold an important place in the history of modern Chinese identity. For a long time, during the most turbulent years of the Cold War, they were practically the only cultural products that united the people who would self-identify as “Chinese” in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the overseas Chinese communities. Their continuing appeal in Chinese communities cannot be underestimated—some of the most popular online games in China today are still based on Jin Yong’s wuxia characters.

Growing up as a child in China in the 1980s, I adored these historical fantasies because they portrayed, in an easy, accessible way, what it meant to be “Chinese”: an organic synthesis of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism; a history founded on ethnic and regional diversity; a celebration of virtuous rebellion against tyranny as well as individual sacrifice for the preservation of people and country against foreign domination; an acceptance of withdrawal as an act of protest against an unjust regime; a respect for beauty in nature as well as in art. This is the kind of “Chineseness” that I try to convey in my own fantasies set in historical China.

(Incidentally, some have speculated that the “Chineseness” of Jin’s works is also what makes them so difficult to translate into another language.)

The novels gave me a sense of pride in China’s traditions and a deep, abiding appreciation of her history—qualities absent from much of the other contemporary Chinese literature I could access at the time, still emerging from a landscape scorched and traumatized by the Cultural Revolution. Much of my work revolves around the theme of the meaning of history, and I credit these novels for starting me down this path.

Indeed, much of my love of traditional Chinese poetry came not from studying it in school, but from the way such poems were unobtrusively and organically incorporated into the speech of wuxia heroes and used to limn a scene more lyrically than any mere prose. I think it’s fair to say that the wuxia novels made me interested in studying Classical Chinese. (And there is no reason to limit it to “men”). When I strive to imitate that effect in my own work these days, I’m paying homage to the great master Jin Yong himself.

Most Westerners are familiar with wuxia only through film, and these are but pale echoes of the real thing. Far from escapist fantasies about men and women who could fly or walk on walls—though I did adore these scenes as a child—the novels were deeply political. Jin Yong, who wrote in Hong Kong, had his novels banned both in Taiwan and China because they were perceived as making barbed criticisms about the policies of the regimes in both places and their leaders. I think the tendency for some of my work to verge into political satire and allegory can be traced back to these novels as well—I learned early on that imaginary, fantastical literature has a political dimension, perhaps its most important dimension.

I do not generally have heroes, but I would unabashedly call Jin Yong my hero.

Have you ever taken a crack at translating Jin Yong?

Nope. I’m certain it’s beyond my skill.

I read somewhere that you built the world of your novel-in-progress with your wife. Can you talk a little bit about that world, about building it, and about working with your wife?

Lisa and I built the world together, and then I wrote my novel in it. It’s an archipelago in a secondary world, where there are gods, magical creatures, and lots of technology based on traditional Chinese mechanical engineering techniques: kongming lanterns, battle kites, jiguan machines, etc. (“silkpunk,” if you will). Lisa and I came up with the gods and mythology together, and it was a lot of fun to develop an elaborate system like that from scratch.

The novel’s plot is loosely based around the historical legends around the founding of the Han Dynasty, and some of the cultural elements are based on East Asian traditions. This is not a “magical China” story though—the people in this world are not monochrome, nor are their beliefs. I also don’t use any Chinese words in it. It’s meant to be taken on its own terms, an epic fantasy with a non-European setting.

In what ways did your wife’s perspective as a photographer influence the process or change your perspective on the process?

My wife has undertaken some very ambitious photography projects that take years to finish, and it’s been instructive to see how she succeeds (or does not succeed) at maintaining excitement for a creative project that takes a long time to complete. I’ve found keeping momentum to be the hardest part of writing a novel. Every creative project has these stages where the work ceases to be “fun” and you have to push through, but it’s much easier to do this for short stories than a novel, and I at least knew to anticipate these parts based on her experience.

Beyond the obvious thing of length, how is working on a novel different than working on short stories?

It’s much harder keeping everything in your head. I find that I have to take a lot of time and effort to swap the novel into my head before I can work on it. Since we have two young children, it’s been very challenging to find the necessary stretch of time to devote to it without being interrupted. I keep on telling myself that it’s almost done, only to find that there’s so much more to do. But I love the story so much that even though it’s taken such a long time, I haven’t lost interest.

I love this story. I’ll get it done.

Both of us have been e-mailing around our children’s schedules. Makes me wonder . . . how are parenting and writing similar and dissimilar? Do they feed each other?

I’ve never thought of them as analogous activities! Being a parent has taught me to be more efficient and manage my time better though, and I think that has helped me to be more productive in the limited time I do get for writing.

Thanks for doing this interview.

Thanks for chatting with me. It’s been a real pleasure.

Author profile

Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the Staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly and He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. Jones lives in Upstate South Carolina with his wife, daughter, and flying poodle.

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