It’s hard to categorize Ken Liu’s writing. Anyone who tries to fit the Chinese-American sci-fi writer into boxes will quickly run out of them.
His first short-story collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, features everything from a tale about Chinese-American gold miners to a written documentary exposing the horrors of Unit 731 from World War II to a Calvino-esque catalog of the ways different alien species might write books.
Of his short fiction work, Liu is most famous for “The Paper Menagerie,” the titular story from his debut collection. In 2011, it became the first work of fiction—of any length—to win all three of science fiction’s highest literary awards.
The story is about a young biracial man growing up in Connecticut, and coming to terms with his identity and his relationship with his Chinese mail-order bride mother.
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It’s not your typical sci-fi narrative, but it demonstrates the emotional resonance and cultural sensitivities that characterize Liu’s storytelling.
His stories share the quality of “literalizing metaphors.”
In addition to writing, Liu is also a translator, particularly of Chinese science fiction.
He introduced Chinese author Liu Cixin’s now internationally-acclaimed Three-Body Problem (which earned a recommendation from Barack Obama) to the English-speaking world, and has edited and translated two English anthologies of short-form Chinese speculative fiction.
In past lives, he was an engineer and attorney. He’s done a bit of everything, and his stories are likewise versatile. Earlier this year, his story “Good Hunting,” set in a steampunk Hong Kong and featuring Chinese mythology, was turned into an episode of Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots series.
His tendency to write genre-defying stories started when he was growing up in China’s Gansu Province.
As a kid, he gobbled up Chinese classics and listened to 评书 pingshu—the Chinese equivalent of a radio play—with his grandmother.
He didn’t come to writing fantasy or science fiction directly; rather, his stories share the quality of “literalizing metaphors.”
Liu credits certain Chinese classics for this influence. “Water Margin, Dream of the Red Chamber—these are stories in which some things that are metaphorical are made literally true,” he says. “Like if you’re brave and courageous, even the blades of grass would come to your aid.”
But he also considers himself an American writer, drawing from diverse literary traditions.
The trouble with labels
Liu moved to the United States when he was 11, and grew up in California and Connecticut. In college, he studied computer science and English.
“If you read my work, the influence of people like Milton, T. S. Eliot, and Edgar Allen Poe are just as deep and important as that of Jin Yong [famous author of martial arts stories] and Luo Guanzhong [who wrote Romance of the Three Kingdoms],” he says.
Perhaps nowhere is this international literary heritage more evident than in his novels, the Dandelion Dynasty trilogy, which are set in an East Asian-inspired fantasy universe and have been branded as “silkpunk”—steampunk with Asian aesthetics.
But as someone who dislikes labels, Liu will be the first to admit that the whole idea came about because his publisher needed a way to sell his books.
“I drew a little circle around myself and said my books are ‘silkpunk.’”
“I cheated,” he says. “I drew a little circle around myself and said my books are ‘silkpunk.’”
It may have been out of commercial convenience, but Liu also wanted to challenge the assumption that engineering was a quintessentially modern and Western practice.
“There wasn’t really anybody doing stories that took East Asian engineering traditions with the same seriousness as they took Western engineering traditions,” he says. “There wasn’t anyone trying to encompass East Asian literary classics with the same seriousness as they took Western classics. So that’s what I set out to do.”
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At the same time, Liu didn’t want to write a modern Asian epic fantasy because there were plenty of writers in Asia already doing so. Rather, he wanted his novels to thrive on hybridity.
“I’m interested in this very American view of encompassing the whole,” he says. “Chinese Taoists have this term that means ‘the ocean is able to encompass the flow of a hundred different rivers,’ and that’s what I was trying to do. Because that’s what feels most true to me.”
Does he fear being pigeonholed as the “silkpunk guy” who only writes sci-fi with an Asian bent?
“I am,” Liu says, laughing. “But if I took those concerns too seriously, I would never be able to write anything.
“I can only write the kind of story I’m interested in, and hope that there are readers who can see through the labels.”
“My view is, ultimately I have no control over that. I can only write the kind of story I’m interested in, and hope that there are readers who can see through the labels and feel at home in my books.”
The challenges of translation
Liu’s aversion to labels also shows when discussing his translation work. As a frequent interlocutor of Chinese science fiction, Liu is often called upon to answer such pesky questions as what makes Chinese sci-fi different from Western sci-fi.
Some have considered explanations like divergent focuses on optimism and pessimism or observed that Chinese sci-fi acts largely as a conduit for dissent.
Liu is wary of these generalizations.
“I find sweeping statements to be very suspect.”
“You could construct an argument [for one side] and find evidence that supports the exact opposite of that claim,” he says. “I find sweeping statements to be very suspect.”
Speculative fiction author Xia Jia, who translated one of Liu’s short stories into Chinese, once quipped that what made Chinese sci-fi Chinese was simply that it was written for a Chinese audience. It’s an argument that Liu can get behind.
He points out that Anglo-American sci-fi was primarily written by those who identify with the colonizers’ perspective, while Chinese sci-fi tends to be written by those who identify with a postcolonial perspective, or at least that of the colonized.
“But how do you articulate those differences?” Liu asks, noting that it’s very hard to do so without essentializing and simplifying.
Perhaps the only way, then, to meaningfully discuss the differences is by parsing through the specifics of stories.
In an essay in Sixth Tone, for example, Chinese sci-fi author Chen Qiufan notes how the blockbuster film The Wandering Earth (based on a short story by Liu Cixin) renders a Chinese understanding of home.
While Western notions of home might emphasize relationships—“home is where the heart is”—the Chinese assign importance to a physical, geographic homeland.
“So, in The Wandering Earth, when the solar system is about to be destroyed, humans naturally choose to take their home with them on their quest for salvation,” Chen writes.
Xia and Chen are just two examples of writers who are documenting China’s rapid ongoing transformation. And just as Liu finds that his writing is a reflection of his own lived experiences and perspectives, Chinese writers are showing how their own cultural backgrounds influence their stories and visions of the future.
“Any writer is writing their own milieu, because that’s the soil of their consciousness,” says Liu. “The flower that grows will have to end up reflecting that.”