by Felicia Low-Jimenez, Interviews Editor, Kitaab
I initially learned of Ken Liu back in 2012 when he became the first fiction author to win the Nebula, Hugo, and the World Fantasy Award for his poignant short story The Paper Menagerie. It was an amazing achievement for an author who had once thought to give up writing altogether. Now, a prolific science fiction and fantasy writer, Liu has published more than a hundred short stories and novellas, and has translated numerous works by Chinese authors to critical acclaim. The Grace of Kings is his first full-length work of fiction and is the start of a trilogy that looks to be an addictive epic fantasy series.
You coined the term “silkpunk” to describe your first full-length novel, The Grace of Kings. Why did you choose that particular term?
The Grace of Kings is a re-imagining of the Chu-Han Contention in a secondary world epic fantasy setting. It’s the story of two friends who seem like polar opposites—a commoner who prefers drinking to fighting, and a nobleman obsessed with honor and revenge—joining together to rebel against tyranny, only to find themselves divided in a deadly rivalry over how to make the world a more just place.
Early on, I decided that I didn’t want to write a “magic China” story. The history of Orientalism and the colonial gaze is such that I felt it was impossible to keep the setting in historical China without invoking the miasma of stereotypes and misconceptions that would impede the readers’ enjoyment of the work. Thus, I decided to shift the setting to a set of islands that do not resemble continental China in any way, and to populate them with new peoples, new cultures, and a new setting woven from technology and magic.
Influenced by W. Brian Arthur, I tend to conceptualize technology as a language in which artefacts are expressions constructed from combinations of sub-assemblies and basic components that are analogous to idioms and words.
Terms like “steampunk”, “biopunk”, “dieselpunk”, “clockworkpunk” etc. are usually used to describe the technology language used in a particular subgenre. For my novel, I wanted to create a new aesthetic based on a specific technology language. I chose to create a world in which the nouns of the technology language are materials of historic importance to East Asia (silk, paper, bamboo, ox sinew) and seafaring cultures of the Pacific (shell, feather, coconut, coral); the verbs of the language are wind, water, and muscle, and the grammar is based on imitation of biomechanics and the inventions of legendary engineers like Lu Ban and Zhuge Liang. Thus, my silk-and-bamboo airships regulate their buoyancy with gasbags that contract and expand like the swim bladders of fish, and are propelled by giant feathered oars that evoke the birds from which they’re modeled. There are also giant battle kites that carry warriors into the air for duels, and underwater boats that move like scaled whales.
At the same time, the technology is also combined with magical items such as jealous and bickering gods, books that can read minds, smoke-based illusions, and giant water beasts that bring storms as well as carry sailors safely to shores. The resulting mix is an aesthetic that feels inspired by East Asia but isn’t “magical China” — I felt the term “silkpunk” was most descriptive of it.
Finally, I want to note that the “-punk” suffix is taken seriously. This is a novel about rebellion and change and questioning the world, not about a return to the status quo ante.