An Interview With Ken Liu

ken liu

Ken Liu is an author of both long and short-form speculative fiction; his short story collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories each won Locus awards for best collections. And his silkpunk epic fantasy series, The Dandelion Dynasty, won a Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Award. Aside from being a prolific writer, Liu has worked as a translator, software engineer, and lawyer.  

I had the great honor of chatting with Liu about some of his approaches to story creation, and how technology, law, and software creation overlap, as well as his epic series The Dandelion Dynasty

[GdM] I read an article where you said, “Tech, law and publishing might seem like three unrelated careers, but…all three jobs required symbolic systems to construct “machines” that achieved specific results. (link)” Could you elaborate on how these three spheres of thought are similar and how they diverge?ken liu

[KL] First, it’s a pleasure to talk to you and your readers. Thank you.

As a programmer, a lawyer, and an author, I’m always writing, for machines and also for people. In each case, I’m constructing machines out of symbols that solve specific problems, and they do this by making use of rules in different systems. In a program, these are the rules of computation in a universal Turing Machine. In a contract or brief, these are the legal rules of the particular jurisdiction as well as the rules of interpretation and enforcement followed by authorities in that jurisdiction. In a story or novel, these are the set of grammars and interpretive frameworks, unique to every reading community, that readers deploy to bring the words on the page to life.

Constructing machines is, of course, the bread and butter of engineering. And the aesthetics of craft are similar in every case. Much advice about programming—balance, structure, clarity of expression, self-documenting code, the preference for simplicity, functional design, striving to do more with less, know the language and the toolset—would apply just as well to legal drafting or fiction writing.

However, there is much more predictability and certainty at one end, when you’re writing for machines and abstract mathematical constructs, versus the other end, when you’re writing for people with individual life experiences, expectations, blind spots and insights, biases and hopes, that all inform each reader’s sui generis mind. In a very real sense, the story that the author leaves on the page is incomplete, for the reader must perform her half of the dance to animate the words with her unique view of life and finish the story. Authors must eventually accept that fiction is about giving up control, and stories only work when there is a bond of resonance between the reader and the writer. The more I write, the more I treasure that bond, which is so hard to find and maintain. It’s a miracle that any stories are understood at all.

[GdM] When talking about using symbolic systems for your chosen professions, would it be fair to say that there is also an implied importance in the specificity of word choice? Words themselves have power, especially in fields like computer engineering, law, and English. Does this specificity flow into your stories? Do you search for the perfect words to convey an idea?

[KL] Writers are always on the search for not just the perfect word, but also the perfect phrase, sentence, grammatical structure, rhetorical device … indeed, often to search is not enough, for what they want, need, crave doesn’t even exist, and they must invent it.

Milton did not write in some nondescript, generic tongue called “Early Modern English.” He had to invent his language suited to the task of justifying the ways of God to men: bending the vernacular to fit the syntax of Latin; blending allusions ancient and modern, biblical and scientific; seducing the reader into sin with classical rhetorical tropes before thundering them awake with Puritanical rage. Dickinson did not write in some idealized, bland grapholect called “19th-century American English.” She had to invent her language suited to portraying the vastness of existence in the dance of a single Bee and a single Clover, where each dash, each Capital