Planets of Possibility
BY EMILY ZHAO DECEMBER 4, 2016
Computer scientist, lawyer, and author Ken Liu writes primarily in the genre of “speculative fiction,” stories embedded with strong metaphors and imagination rather than strict reality. Liu is working on the final installment of his trilogy Dandelion Dynasty, and he recently published Invisible Planets.
Ken Liu ’98 entered Harvard College thinking he wanted to be a mathematician, and graduated cum laude with a degree in English. “I loved my time at Harvard… largely because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says.
Liu loved the breadth of the core requirement classes, some of whose materials he still refers to in his thinking and writing. He worked as a teaching fellow in the Computer Science department and, since graduation, has been a Microsoft software engineer, a programmer at a startup, a corporate lawyer, and a technology litigation consultant. Between his various full-time jobs and spending time with his family (photographer Lisa Tang Liu and their two daughters), Liu has carved out the time to nurture an acclaimed literary career. Since he began writing seriously in law school, Liu has published over 130 short stories, two epic fantasy novels in the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy, and translations of many renowned Chinese science fiction works. Accolades under his name include the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards.
Speculative fiction (\ˈspe-kyə-lə-tiv ˈfik-shən\): stories based on imagination and speculation rather than strict, everyday reality.
Though programming, law, and fiction writing appear to be disparate, Liu sees “love [of] manipulating symbols and creating structures out of symbols” as a through line. This affinity is, perhaps, one reason he writes mostly within the genre of speculative fiction, a broad umbrella under which sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and other works based on imagination and speculation (rather than strict, everyday reality) fall.
Liu frames the genre’s distinguishing aspects another way: “A common metaphor for the way we talk about modernity is the way we’re ‘alienated’ from each other, the way that we’re not able to empathize with others. If you were writing a science fiction story about this phenomenon you would say, ‘Well, what if we posited the idea that some people really don’t have any empathy? They are androids’…. Then you end up with something like Blade Runner, which is really a way to literalize the metaphor of modernity as alienization and talk about it that way.” Speculative fiction’s most powerful feature, Liu believes, is this use of literalized symbols. Unlike literary fiction, which often deals abstractly with concepts like love, ostracization, betrayal, etc., speculative fiction’s metaphors manifest as tangible elements.
Liu’s writing spans an incredible range of metaphors and settings: A mother’s love animates the origami animals she folds for her son; an apocalypse survivor ascends through different forms of immortality; a physicist invents a machine that recreates moments from the past; an alien species in a distant galaxy “thinks” through radioactive decay. An element that unifies all of his storytelling, however, is a fixation on foundational myth—stories through which people define their identity. “The story tells them who they are, how they’re different from other people, what it is that makes them special, and what it is that makes them who they are,” explains Liu. These potent stories serve as grounding for individuals, families, cities, nations, and civilizations.
Silkpunk (\ˈsilk-pəŋk\): a genre in which technology inspired by classical East Asian antiquity plays a key role in the fantasy landscape.
In his first set of novels, the Dandelion Dynasty, a trilogy of which two volumes have been published, Liu has found the opportunity to meld foundational narrative, law, and technology on a grander scale than ever before.
Initially inspired by Chinese martial arts fiction (wuxia), Liu set about writing the novels as a fantasy epic that combines foundational narratives and techniques from both Chinese and Western literary traditions. He classifies the series as silkpunk (derived from steampunk), a genre in which technology plays a key role in the fantasy landscape. Instead of steampunk’s Victorian era machinery, however, Liu uses classical East Asian historical romance technology: silk air blimps, bamboo piping, and East Asian-prototype submarines populate the landscape. And within this rich world, Liu dissects revolution and political upheaval with a keen judicial eye. For him, one of the most gratifying parts of the writing the trilogy has been “[the] chance to interrogate and question the assumptions made in the original stories.” Among other questions he asks: “Why are the stories told in this particular manner? Why is this man considered admirable? And why are there so few roles for women, and so few places where women are discussed?”
Foundational myth (\ fau̇n-ˈdā-shə-nəl ˈmith\): a story through which we define our identities.
These questions of equality, revolution, justice, and morality feel particularly urgent in this era of upheavals, in America and around the world. Through the lens of foundational narrative, the ugliness and vitriol of recent political turbulence can be linked back to the fervor with which people hold on to their stories. “There’s a lot of pushback… over what it means to be an American, and I think some people are very angry about the fact that the word ‘American’ is now being used by people who they don’t want to use it,” Liu says. Now more than ever, he sees the need to expand our stories and question the power structures that govern our lives. “I think as a people, we have these conversations and we get to define—all of us have the right to define—what the narrative is,” he says. “And we’re not going to be shut up just because someone’s super angry about it.”
Liu remains very self-critical in addressing this issue, as well. He grapples with his status as a Harvard alumnus—a status incredibly valuable to those who manage to attain it, but problematic in the way it depends on exclusivity. “Because we benefit from that system, we now are blamed by others for participating and perpetuating that system,” he reflects. “Ultimately, the structural inequalities of something like a Harvard education is something that all of us need to think about and interrogate.”
Optimism (\ˈäp-tə-ˌmi-zəm\): a doctrine that this world is the best possible world.
Both despite of and in response to structural moral dilemmas and turmoil, Liu will continue to reshape narratives, broadening the scope of his writing and, consequently, of the stories that enter his Anglophone audience’s lives. “My writing career and my translation career, and my career as a speaker and a scholar, have always been about promoting voices that are not heard, and trying to enlarge the American narrative to be more inclusive of those that have been excluded from it,” he says. “I don’t think anything has changed with that, it just means we keep on doing it.” His most recently published collection, Invisible Planets, translates selected contemporary Chinese short fiction—some which has never been translated, some of which has won major awards, but none of which has appeared in an English anthology as comprehensive and well-publicized as Invisible Planets. In light of recent events, Liu hopes all the more ardently that the book does well.
Generally, though, Liu is optimistic. He’s generating more and more ideas for the final installment of The Dandelion Dynasty. The fiction and storytelling world are expanding—from the ever-growing roster of translating opportunities, to the technical innovations enabled by new media such as television series, games, and virtual reality. (“I’d love to do something with VR. I’d love to participate in such a project.”) His six-year-old daughter has recently begun to tell stories of her own. The future, both fictional and real, appears boundless—just as Liu has always liked it.
Portrait by Lisa Tang Liu. Other photos courtesy Ken Liu.