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?
[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 Letter, each lilting enjambment – so musical and yet so contrary to a song! – is a moment of joy seized from gossamer Death.
Think of the writers you admire: Spencer, Nabokov, Lu Xun, Hughes, Le Guin, Faulkner, Stein, Woolf, Dillard, Sontag, McCarthy, Morrison – none of them bothered to write in the smooth, effortless language of everyday life, of business and instruction, of convention and cliché. Writers with something to say and worth reading don’t settle. They all searched and searched for the perfect language suited to what they had to say and, failing to find it, invented their own tongues. To read them, one must learn their idiolects; it is the only way to see the world they saw.
[GdM] You are both a prolific short story author and a long-form novelist. Each of the two forms requires a different headspace, a different way to construct stories. Between the two forms of storytelling, which do you feel most at home in? Or are they so different that it is hard to compare them?
[KL] As you note, short fiction works completely differently from novels. Short stories are like insects, while novels are more like elephants. They don’t just differ as a matter of size—they have completely different body plans and physiologies, uniquely suited to the scale of the universe they must function in.
I’ve always enjoyed writing short fiction, but I write very few short stories (maybe a few a year). Almost everyone I know writes faster and more than I do, but because I published many of my stories, written over a long period of time, in a relatively short span early on, the illusion that I’m prolific persists.
I also write very few novels—really, only one: the Dandelion Dynasty series (which is like one very long book). But I’m lucky that my one novel is also the piece of fiction I’m proudest of. In it, I think I come closest to the language I need to tell the stories I want to tell.
[GdM] What was your inspiration for the short story, The Paper Menagerie, that won Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards? While I don’t have the same frame of reference as the characters in the story, the problems and interactions feels relatable. The magical parts of the story seems like a perfect extension of the relationship between the mother and son.
[KL] I wrote “The Paper Menagerie” originally for an anthology on wizards (spoiler: it didn’t get in). I wanted to come up with a different take on magic users than conventional ones, and at the time I was reading some personal narratives by women who are often described as “mail-order brides.” The courage and strength and resilience of these women moved me greatly, and so I decided to write a magic realist story inspired by their stories.
The themes of “The Paper Menagerie” are universal. Like the mother, we are all migrants from one life to another, whether it’s literal migration across political borders, or simply growing up and taking on new roles that you didn’t have before, and we must figure out how to be who we are while everyone else is telling us who we should be. Like the son, we all must deal with labels and prejudices others impose on us, and to struggle against self-hatred, to resist the cowardly desire to conform, to realize that our parents also have their own stories, to find how to fit our own story into all the stories out there, to grow in wisdom and strength until we are worthy of the love we’re given.
But “The Paper Menagerie” has also been misread. It’s a story about systemic racism and internalized racism, and how we don’t reflect enough on these issues and don’t stand up to hatred. However, I’ve often seen summaries of the story describe it as being about “an American father and Chinese mother, and their son, who is caught in the middle of their cultural conflict.” This is utter nonsense. Both the mother and the father are American – to deny that the mother is American is to implicitly equate Americanness with whiteness and to marginalize the American experience of immigrants, a core part of the American story. The son isn’t caught “in the middle” of anything. There is no “cultural conflict” here (which is a trope that comes from the racialized “clash of civilizations” narrative of colonial discourse), but pure and simple racism. Each time I see that the story is read to conform to the meta-narrative of systemic racism, I also hope that it’s an opportunity for readers to break free of the meta-narrative and see the story the way it’s meant to be seen.
[GdM] One of the things I appreciate about your short story writing is taking a metaphorical idea and boiling it down into a story that we readers can understand contextually. Is that a subconscious thing, or do you find a concept that moves you and write a story around it?
[KL] I think of my preferred mode of crafting short stories as “literalizing metaphors.” The world in my story is just a few steps to the side of ours, where some concept that we speak of metaphorically is literally true. We speak of love making the world coming alive, so in my story “The Paper Menagerie” love literally animates the paper animals. We speak of technology as magical, so in my story “Good Hunting” magic is literally and gradually replaced by technology. We speak of reading the book of nature, of writing shaping the way we think, of the orality of Internet discourse … so in my story “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” all of these metaphors about reading and writing become literally true.
When a metaphor is made tangible and real, there are ways to play with it and interrogate it that are simply impossible when the idea is merely a metaphor. The literalization can be done through a fantasy or science fictional lens (or any other genre), which is why I don’t care much about genre labels. Ultimately, it’s the specifics of what I can do with the literalized metaphor that interests me, not the broad framework through which that literalization takes place.
[GdM] You are releasing book three of The Dandelion Dynasty called The Veiled Throne. Could you tell us a bit about The Dandelion Dynasty in general for people who have not gotten the pleasure of reading it yet?
[KL] Absolutely! The Dandelion Dynasty is a four-volume silkpunk epic fantasy series that took up the bulk of my time and creative energy over a ten-year period. The Veiled Throne, as you note, is the third volume. While writing the series, I learned a lot about myself as a writer, as a father, as a husband, as a grandchild, as a technologist, as a lawyer, and as a person. I can’t wait to take a new reader from the opening lines of this book all the way to the final period after the last sentence in Speaking Bones.
A preliminary note: I invented the term “silkpunk” specifically to describe the aesthetic in the Dandelion Dynasty series. (Other authors have used my term to describe their own books, and I won’t be talking about their uses. My only concern here is my definition, for my aesthetic.)
In creating the silkpunk aesthetic, I was influenced by the ideas of W. Brian Arthur, who articulates a vision of technology as language. The task of the engineer is much like that of a poet in that the engineer must creatively combine existing components to solve novel problems, thereby devising artifacts that are new expressions in the technical language. In creating the silkpunk aesthetic, I was influenced by the ideas of W. Brian Arthur, who articulates a vision of technology as language. The task of the engineer is much like that of a poet in that the engineer must creatively combine existing components to solve novel problems, thereby devising artifacts that are new expressions in the technical language.
It is not “Asian steampunk.” It is not “Asian fantasy.”
The “punk” part is also not a worn suffix devoid of content. To me, silkpunk is about a key punk project: re-purposing what was for what will be. These books are my rewriting of the narrative of modernity (and in the later books in particular, the modern American national narrative). This is a vision of modernity no longer exclusively centered on what we think of as the “Western” experience. Rather, it melds multiple traditions and myths important to me, from the Iliad to Beowulf, from Paradise Lost to wuxia, and transforms the Chu-Han Contention into the foundational political mythology of a brand-new, modern people.
Why did I do this? Well, a driving impetus behind this series is my desire to challenge and interrogate the conventional narrative of modernity, which is often modeled on a particular telling of the story of my country, the US of A. The Story of America is most often told using allusions to Western models such as Classical Rome (just think of how many aspects of American politics and national culture evoke images of America as a “New Rome”). But when you are constrained to one set of allusions, there’s a limit how much you can push readers to see something new in a familiar tale or, even bolder, to change the narrative.
Something radical had to be done. I decided to depart from the “New Rome” model and instead evoke East Asian models in this fantasy epic recasting of the Story of America — and by extension, the narrative of modernity. Thus, I borrowed much of the plot of The Grace of Kings, the first book from the Chu-Han Contention, as interpreted by the historian Sima Qian, and built up a vocabulary of non-Western political allusions and precedents that could then be drawn on in the re-imagining of the epic of modernity.
Starting with the second book, The Wall of Storms, and then even more so in the third book, The Veiled Throne, all that effort pays off. The story here is about the creation of the constitution for a new people (a constitution, in my view, is not a document, but a set of stories that form the core of a people’s self-perception, self-regard, and deepest values). The plot here no longer has a clear, specific historic analog. (Thus, identifying the people of Dara as “fantasy Chinese” or the Lyucu as “fantasy Mongols” or any people in these books as “fantasy [fill in the blank group]” would be very much misguided.) Rather, the central concern of the Dandelion Dynasty is a series of questions: How can a new nation built from a collection of diverse peoples compose a new constitution, agree on a new source of political legitimacy, rally around a new foundational mythology? How do we carry out a political experiment to build a more just society without creating more injustice? What weight should be given to the wisdom of tradition by revolutionaries? Is it a curse or a blessing that a new generation must contend with the weight of history they are born into and live with the decisions made by their forebears? Is a “perpetual revolution” desirable or even possible? …
If these seem to draw on my experience as a lawyer, then the next set of themes are based on my life as a technologist. The Dandelion Dynasty is also a series about science and discovery: it’s epic fantasy with a heavy dose of scifi—I mean, one of the characters literally proclaims, “the universe is knowable,” a manifesto of the scientific view of the cosmos. I had some of my best writing moments in the discovery of the silkmotic force and the invention of the machines derived from its power. Many of the discoveries and inventions in the series are drawn from antecedents in China’s classical past; some are based on the work of ancient Greeks; some are modeled on the experiments of Ben Franklin; and still others are simply cut by me out of whole cloth. Being a technologist by trade, I love writing about discovery and innovation—and I’m pretty sure my readers enjoy reading about them too.
Before we go too far down these philosophical routes, however, I should note that it would be just as accurate to say that The Dandelion Dynasty is about young people flirting and partying and being silly and awesome garinafin-vs-airship set pieces and devious battle tactics—derived from history, to be sure, but also from the author’s experience in playing video games and watching football—and legalistic dirty tricks and deconstructionist mis-readings and fantastic engines constructed from silk and bamboo and giant capacitors humming with the power of lightning … I mean, sure, themes are important, but books always need fun.
I wrote the book because I had things I wanted to say and I wanted to have fun. Those are the only two good reasons to write a novel as far as I’m concerned.
[GdM] You have a motif about flowers throughout the novels, specifically the chrysanthemum and the dandelion. What made you choose these two flowers, and how does the love and preservation of certain flowers become a political act?
[KL] Without spoiling the story, let me just say that floral metaphors and motifs are core to all the books in the series. Often, the way I use flowers in the books is contrary to convention. They are not so much symbols of beauty as symbols of strength and resilience, and the flowers I celebrate are not necessarily the “noble” flowers, but the “hundred flowers” that often get dismissed as weeds.
Those who don’t read much contemporary fantasy may have an impression that epic fantasy is devoted to nostalgia for what never was, to an authoritarian view of politics as best geared towards the return of the rightful king. But that is hardly an accurate view of the epic fantasy from the best writers of today, such as Kate Elliott and Rebecca Roanhorse. The Dandelion Dynasty is also an epic about modernity and constitutionalism, about freedom and democratic ideals, and metaphors about flowers play a key role in literalizing these concepts.
[GdM] It is safe to say that there are many examples of Daoism in your work. Could you speak a bit about that and how it influences your writing? The interview I read spoke specifically about The Legends of Luke Skywalker story you wrote and how George Lucas used a lot of Eastern philosophy to create The Force.
[KL] I think it’s more accurate to say that I’m influenced by three separate yet related philosophical traditions: Daoism, Zen Buddhism, and American Transcendentalism. I wouldn’t say anything I write is specifically an instance of Daoism, for Dao is a concept that resists being pinned down and literalized as a metaphor. I do, however, find much appealing in the Daoist’s utter contempt for our general obsession with language, with tracks and traces left by Reality as opposed to Reality itself.
The American Transcendentalism of writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Dillard, on the other hand, is a much more direct influence on my writing. There are bits of the Dandelion Dynasty that pay homage to these writers (as well as the Daoist and Zen Buddhist masters), but the clearest mark they left on my work is an abiding awe for nature’s simultaneous fecundity and terror, its utter lack of regard for us as well as its recurring generosity.
[GdM] You said, “I’ve always wanted to read a fantasy book in which the heroes are not wizards, but engineers.” I love this idea, and I agree! Engineering can be as fantastical as any wizard character I know of. Is this why you approach things in The Dandelion Dynasty through the lens of engineering?
[KL] Absolutely. Engineering is a species of art, probably the highest form of art in our technological age. Engineers will produce our epic poem, our Globe Theater, our Sistine Chapel, our Yongle Encyclopedia.
So much so that I read you created prototypes to test out the Silkmotic Force. What did you build? How did your prototype work as a theoretical concept come to life?
I built electrostatic motors (also known as Franklin motors, as they were invented by Ben Franklin) so that I could understand their operating characteristics; I made Leyden jars (early capacitors), charged them up and shocked myself (I don’t recommend this – it can be very dangerous) to know how that felt; I made programmable carts modeled on Hero of Alexandria’s designs out of Legos; I 3d-printed models of airships and other vehicles; I flew kites and studied their flight; I prototyped circuits and implemented some of the silkmotic machinery’s operating instructions in software to see if they would actually work; I emulated classical Chinese instructible looms … These were some of the most engaging parts of writing the books.
[GdM] I saw another book in The Dandelion Dynasty series scheduled to be released in late 2022, Speaking Bones. Are you still working on it?
[KL] The Veiled Throne and Speaking Bones were actually written as a single book, and the whole thing was finished a couple of years ago. Because the book was too long to be published as a single volume, my editor and I decided to split it right down the middle into two books. The nature of publishing is such that books often are finished years before publication, and we just have to wait patiently for the books to be released. Fortunately, at this point the wait won’t be too long, as the final volume in the series is coming out in June of next year.
[GdM] Lastly, what else do you have going on? Are you reading anything remarkable you would like to talk about?
[KL] Besides The Veiled Throne, which just came out, my most recent publication is a novella I did for Audible called The Armies of Those I Love, which is a post-post-apocalyptic tale of engineering, love, and hope, narrated by Auli’i Cravalho. Readers who enjoyed Horizon Zero Dawn may find it particularly appealing.
A book I’ve really admired recently is Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller. This is a hard book to describe. It has elements of biography, autobiography, history of science, science, memoir, journalism … and doesn’t sit comfortably within any one category. The best way I’ve found to tell people about the book is to say that it’s an attempt to answer the question: how do we go on?
Thank you so much for the interview. Readers, I hope you enjoy the Dandelion Dynasty and the rest of my fiction!