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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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Of Silkpunk and other experiments: Kitaab interview with Ken Liu

by Felicia Low-Jimenez, Interviews Editor, Kitaab

Ken Liu

(Photo credit: Lisa Tang Liu)

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. Continue reading