“I’d love to see first contact with an alien civilization!”

It’s been a while since I posted snippets from interviews I had done for XB-1 here but I can finally share another short excerpt – with the wonderful Ken Liu as the interviewee! His highly anticipated novel The Grace of Kings is going to be published in early April. In addition, he’s a finalist for this year’s Nebulas! His novella “The Regular” (from Neil Clarke’s anthology Upgraded) and his translation of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem are among the nominations. I hope he adds even more awards to his already remarkable collection – and most of all that we’ll see more and more great fiction from him, as he’s an amazing author.

The interview had been published last April, so please forgive me it’s a little out of date. If I could have posted it sooner, I would have. However, I believe it’s still as interesting as it had been then. Enjoy!


You recently sold three novels to Simon & Schuster: “The Dandelion Dynasty”, a trilogy loosely based on the mythology of the early Han Dynasty but set in a completely new fictional environment. Can you tell us more about it, especially about the first book titled The Grace of Kings?
The story of the founding of the Han Dynasty is well known in China and much of East Asia, but relatively unexplored in western fiction. My wife and I came up with the idea of writing a series of novel based on those legends, but we wanted to do it in a fantasy setting that is separate from historical China – I find the “magical China” trope problematic and using a historical setting would have imposed too many restrictions. I wanted to strip the story down to its essential mythic components and build up a new world around them; it’s also an experiment for me to interrogate the tropes of epic fantasy, the meaning of history, and the techniques of narrative-as-power. At the same time, I wanted it to be a story that is fun and interesting to read, so there are interfering gods, silkpunk technology, mechanical whales, mythical creatures, battle kites, and other elements that I hope will make for an entertaining read. The Grace of Kings is essentially the story of two men who become friends during a rebellion against an oppressive empire only to turn against each other after victory due to fundamentally incompatible ideals.

You’re most famous for your short stories and novelettes. How was work on your first novels different from writing shorter pieces? Did you come across any unexpected advantages and conversely?

I found novel writing to be a challenge – it required a level of sustained focus and steady effort that was difficult to achieve given my job and family commitments. (One of the main reasons I preferred short fiction was because it was easier to fit short stories in when you had an unpredictable schedule.) But I also got to learn a lot about my own process and about how to impose discipline.

Most of your stories so far are science fiction. What made you choose the genre of fantasy for your novels rather than SF?
I don’t really treat science fiction and fantasy (or other genres) as very distinct. My interest in fiction is in the literalization of metaphors, which is practiced as often in science fiction as in fantasy. Epic fantasy is a particular subgenre I haven’t written in, but it was a good fit for the scope of the story I wanted to tell.

Your works are often based on new fascinating scientific ideas and findings and extrapolate them in a very interesting way. What kind of a scientific achievement would you like to experience in your lifetime? And if you could go back at college and choose the subject of your study anew, would you venture into sciences different than computer science?
I’d love to see actual first contact made with an alien civilization. The transformation of human society that would result must be both fascinating and frightening. Sometimes I wish I had taken more molecular bio classes—biotech is becoming really important in our daily lives.

You also work as a translator of Chinese works to English. How do you find the pieces you want to translate and what do you find most difficult, beautiful or otherwise notable in translating compared to writing?
There’s a very vibrant and diverse speculative fiction community in China, and writers there are producing lovely works that are very different from each other and from what I read in the West. But not every work I enjoy is suitable for translation—the assumptions held by Chinese writers and readers are sufficiently different from Western readers, in some cases, that an adequate translation would have to include a great deal of explanatory material, which most readers probably would not want to see. For the most part, I try to pick works that would be accessible without such explanation.
I find translation to be very similar to a kind of performance (credit to Antony Shugaar for this comparison). The words in the original text are the score, which I must animate and give voice to to the best of my ability. I’ve learned a great deal about my own writing as a result of doing translations, for the exercise showed me how to dissect a voice and what I liked about my own voice.


(Note: I’ve made minor changes from the version published in XB-1The Grace of Kings had a different working title then, so I’ve updated that.)

Hope you enjoyed the interview snippet! The next one shall be ready much sooner.

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