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Q. and A.: Ken Liu on Science Fiction and Chinese History

‘Like steampunk, silkpunk is a blend of science fiction and fantasy. But while steampunk takes its inspiration from the chrome-brass-glass technology aesthetic of the Victorian era, silkpunk draws inspiration from East Asian antiquity.’

In 2012, “The Paper Menagerie,” a short story by the Chinese-American writer Ken Liu, became the first work of fiction to win all three major English-language science fiction awards: the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. It explores the experience of growing up between two cultures, through the eyes of a boy whose mother came to the United States as a mail-order bride from Hong Kong. As he grows older, he comes to resent her for burdening him with her non-American ways — until an unexpected event forces him to reconsider what a mother’s love means.

Mr. Liu’s debut novel, “The Grace of Kings,” published in April, is a reimagining of Chinese history, in which two young men set out to revolutionize the archipelago kingdom they call home, only to turn into rivals. The author has described the novel as silkpunk, a riff on the “steampunk” genre of fantasy writing that incorporates 19th-century design and technology.

Mr. Liu, who was born in Lanzhou, Gansu Province, migrated with his parents to the United States when he was 11 and went on to earn bachelor’s and law degrees from Harvard. In addition to writing and translating, he works as a litigation consultant on cases involving technology. In an interview, he discussed the literary uses of history, blending Western and Chinese traditions, and the meaning of silkpunk.

Q.

How did Chinese history inspire your new novel?

A.

“The Grace of Kings” is an epic fantasy reimagining of the Chu-Han Contention [the period between the Qin and Han dynasties, 202-206 B.C.]. It’s not alternate history or time travel. Rather, the major plot points of history are reimagined in a brand new fantasy world with new characters, new technologies, new politics and new cultures.

Yet, some of the themes from [the Han dynasty historian] Sima Qian’s historical account persist in the reimagining. The hope is that the reimagining will offer a critique of that source, as well as of the conventions of epic fantasy.

Q.

What difficulties did you face weaving a historical account with more traditional fantasy elements?

A.

One of the most interesting issues I had to deal with is how much of the power imbalances of history to replicate in fiction. We have never had a society that was truly just. Some groups have always benefited at the expense of others. Women, for example, were an oppressed group at the time of the Chu-Han Contention, though some prominent women were able to exercise power in ways both traditional and nontraditional.

Epic fantasy based on European sources has also traditionally replicated the relative powerlessness of women in medieval Europe, though often such works don’t get the nuances of how women did exercise power correct. In any event, this is a trend that’s being challenged by many writers nowadays.

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Chinese sci-fi novelist first Asian to win prestigious book award

Chinese sci-fi title The Three-Body Problem was first serialized in Science Fiction World magazine in 2006 and then published as a book in 2008. It was eventually translated into English and it became a literary phenomenon, winning the prestigious Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015.

Even former US President Barack Obama is a fan. He told The New York Times while still in office: “The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty – not something to worry about.”

Its author, Liu Cixin, 53, is as surprised as anyone by its success. He says in Mandarin over the telephone from Beijing: “Sci-fi novels usually have a shorter shelf-life because they tend to be overtaken by scientific developments.

It’s been more than a decade since it was first published and for it to continue to have such an impact is something my publishers and I never expected.”

In The Three-Body Problem (Tor Books, 2007), readers first encounter the Trisolaran world, an unstable stellar system with three suns. The sequel, The Dark Forest (Tor Books), published in English in 2015, details how Earth deals with a Trisolaran invasion coming in 400 years’ time.

In the concluding installment, Death’s End (Tor Books), published in English last year, the two civilizations coexist peacefully at first, but before long, humanity is once again faced with the threat of annihilation. Death’s End is up for Best Novel at the 2017 Hugo Awards, which will be presented in August.

Collectively, the trilogy is known as Remembrance Of Earth’s Past (Tor Books).

Liu adds wryly, though, that the attention lavished on The Three-Body Problem has not been a tide that lifts all boats.

For example, with regard to his translated book of short stories, The Wandering Earth (Beijing Guomi Digital Technology Co, 2012) he says: “There’s been not much impact, it’s like throwing a stone into a pond.”

Still, he can be justifiably proud of what he has achieved so far.


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This Side of Syria: Best Books to Understand the Syrian Experience

Americans have long prided themselves on the idea that we are a nation of immigrants. Even considering the complexity of this notion, the idea itself remains a point of emphasis in our national identity. One of the most enduring symbols of the United States is a woman holding a torch aloft in a harbor beckoning travelers to safe refuge, our Statue of Liberty. And yet in times when we have perceived that our security is waning, we lash out at these very immigrants who, in times of relative safety, we claim as a point of national pride.

Now, in the midst of a staggering global refugee crisis, we are seeing the fabric of our nation’s identity being tested once again. The brutal civil war plaguing Syria has displaced millions, forcing Syrians to flee their war-torn home and seek solace from inhumane and terrifying conditions. The United States has often stood at the forefront of refugee resettlement, but under the cloak of fear, President Trump is pushing this country to once again close off its borders.

It is, unfortunately, easy to ignore this crisis, to forget that those fleeing are seeking refuge from cruel circumstance – and often death. Literature once again, though, proves to offer a powerful window of empathy – a reminder of the essential humanity in all of us. In times like these, empathy and understanding are paramount. To hopefully help gain a better understanding of Syria, its people, and its rich literary tradition, we’ve pulled together a number of books and novels by Syrian authors or simply about the Syrian experience.

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8 Great Japanese Books in Translation That Aren’t by Haruki Murakami

We love Murakami, and all the cats, jazz, whiskey bars, mysterious women, and glimpses at modern Japanese life that populate his books. But there’s a world of magnificent novels out there by Japanese authors who don’t receive as much U.S. press for their work. If you’ve already devoured Murakami’s story collections (like Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman) and his acclaimed novels (including Kafka on the ShoreThe Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and IQ84), it’s time to add these contemporary Japanese books to your end-of-summer reading list. There’s something for everyone: mysteries and thrillers, teen horror, relationship dramas, and twisted, yakuza-related crime stories, all taking place in locales that may be unfamiliar to American readers. Each will get your imagination churning and your passport begging for stamps. Here’s a sample of our favorite modern books from the land of the rising sun.

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Science fiction’s new golden age in China, what it says about social evolution and the future, and the stories writers want world to see

By Rachel Cheung

The science-fiction genre in China was little known before Liu Cixin was honoured with the Hugo Award for best novel in 2015 for The Three-Body Problem. The first book in Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, it tells of an alien invasion during the Cultural Revolution and has sold more than a million copies in China alone. The English translation was recommended by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to members of his book club, and praised by former US president Barack Obama as “wildly imaginative, really interesting”.

Last year, Liu’s compatriot Hao Jingfang earned a Hugo Award for Folding Beijing, in which the city is divided into zones, each with a different number of hours in the day.

Liu has been nominated for another Hugo Award this year, for the final episode in his trilogy, Death’s End.

The two winning books are now being adapted for the big screen in China, marking a turning point for Chinese sci-fi and potentially expanding the genre’s exposure globally. Read more

Source: South China Morning Post


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Science fiction translator Ken Liu on Invisible Planets compilation

By Jarrod Watt

Hao Jinfang and Xia Jia both appear in the first English-language compilation of Chinese science, Invisible Planets. Ken Liu’s short story The Paper Menagerie was the first work of fiction to win the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy Worlds in one year.

Invisible Planets could well be the Chinese science fiction equivalent of Dangerous Visions, an anthology of science fiction released in 1967 which changed the way many readers thought about the genre.

“For readers, my fellow anglophonic readers, I hope they like the book. I don’t think the book is terribly important to the Chinese community, because Chinese writers have been writing Chinese science fiction for decades, and there’s a very vibrant science fiction scene in China, consisting of younger authors like Chen Quifan, Hao Jinfang, Xia Jia and so on…

“For English readers I think it is kind of interesting, because up until this moment Chinese science fiction has played a very low role for the average English reader, you know, most of us read authors from the UK, the US, Australia, from Canada, we might read some translations, but mostly they will be from Europe or Japan. There has not been a large presence in translation from Chinese quarters. Read more

Source: South China Morning Post


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The top 10 Asian books of 2016, from vivid science fiction to Japanese crime, Vietnam war memories and today’s China

Former Hong Kong academic Madeleine Thien’s Booker shortlisted family saga, Hideo Yokoyama’s gripping tale of corruption in Japan and Mei Fong’s searing history of China’s one-child policy among our picks

By James Kidd

It was a vintage year for literature – particularly in Asia. South China Morning Post book critic James Kidd lists his top 10 books of the year by Asian writers, or about Asia itself.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Six decades of Chinese history are dramatised through music and politics, family and friendship, love and loss. Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, here is one of the books of the year, by a former Hong Kong academic. Read more

Source: South China Morning Post


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The Islamic roots of Science Fiction

The Islamic Roots Of Science Fiction

Top image: Cover detail of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan by Ibn Tufail

You probably already knew that Islam was having a scientific golden age during Europe’s middle ages, and making tons of scientific and medical discoveries. (Which is why we use words like “algebra.”) But you might not know that some of the earliest proto-science fiction came from the Islamic world.

Of course, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is widely recognized as the first real work of science fiction, because it’s a novel of speculation based on the scientific discoveries of her day. But there were a number of works before Frankenstein that feature a lot of what we’d consider the defining characteristics of SF.

The first of these is widely considered to be A True History by Lucian of Samosata, a Syrian author. This 2nd century novel follows a traveler who is transported via water spout to the Moon, where he encounters strange societies and bizarre life forms. But there are also a number of early claimants to the “proto science fiction” label coming out of the Islamic world. Notably: Continue reading