How novelist Ken Liu is bringing Chinese sci-fi to the Western world
With a translating career that started as a favour to a friend, Liu has become the unofficial link between China’s booming science-fiction scene and readers in the West
“Trying to predict the future is a loser’s game,” Ken Liu says from his office in Massachusetts, in the United States. Just how strange this sentence sounds depends largely on which Ken Liu is talking. If it is Ken Liu the corporate lawyer, just beginning his morning’s work, you wouldn’t give the declaration much thought. If, however, you’re quizzing Ken Liu, the 40-year-old rising star of the international science-fiction scene, then a statement disparaging prediction is more intriguing, to say the least.
To be fair, Liu is responding to my crude, if unavoidable, opening question: is something special happening in the universe of Chinese science fiction right now? Last year, Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem became a global bestseller and the first translated work to win the prestigious Hugo Award for best novel (the Hugos are sci-fi’s Oscars). This year, Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing won the Hugo for best novelette, beating none other than Stephen King to the prize. And Ken Liu had a hand in the success of both works, bringing them to international attention.
Despite his protestations – “I am not an expert on Chinese science fiction. I probably know more than anyone else in the West, but that doesn’t actually mean I am an expert” – Liu is an ideal person to respond.
Born in Lanzhou, Gansu province, but resident in the United States since he was 11, Liu began his writing career with short stories. His most famous work, The Paper Menagerie, won several awards, including a Hugo. Liu has since expanded his range, producing two novels – The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms – that mix fantasy, speculative fiction and a universe founded on Eastern and Western narrative traditions.
Liu’s preferred term for the hybrid is “silkpunk”. When asked for a definition, he says it is about rebellion, about “respectfully appropriating the past and disrespectfully challenging authority”. This has its political, technological and cultural dimensions, but also literary ones. Liu says his imagination was fired by foundational Western epics such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey.
“I am also blessed, unlike my fellow Anglophone peers, with this very rich Chinese literary tradition, from the old historical romances all the way up to modern web serials,” he says. In particular, he recalls rushing home from school to eat lunch with his grandmother and listen to performances of stories such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms on the radio.
“What is fascinating to me is the way I view everything in terms of parallels and connections. When I read about Achilles and Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad, I can see parallels in Chinese historical romances, in the way the first emperor of the Han dynasty and his chief rival are portrayed.”
One obvious consequence of Liu’s dual nationality is his more recent work translating some of China’s finest contemporary science-fiction writers into English. “When I act as a translator, I am really doing a performance for my fellow Anglophone readers in the West,” he says.
The conspicuous successes of Liu Cixin and Hao have made Ken Liu the unofficial cheerleader for Chinese science fiction on the global stage. This status will only be enhanced by the recently released Invisible Planets, an anthology of short stories compiled and edited by Liu, from some of China’s leading science-fiction authors.
In addition to Liu Cixin and Hao (whose excellent Folding Beijing is included), there are stories by Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Tang Fei, Ma Boyong and Cheng Jingbo. Bookending the fiction are illuminating essays by both Lius (Ken and Cixin), Chen and Xia, exploring everything from a history of Chinese speculative writing to how the genre reflects 21st-century China itself.
Liu’s increasingly visible sideline as a translator owes more to happenstance than design. “It was something I did originally by accident and as a fan. I was reading these very exciting stories and novels being published in China, but my fellow Anglophone fans were unable to read them.”
Liu’s big break came when Chen asked Liu’s opinion of a new English translation of his story, The Fish of Lijiang. “It was very competent,” Liu recalls. “But it didn’t have what is needed in literary translation, which is to capture the voice of the writer.” Liu told Chen it would be easier to completely rewrite the translation than to fix it – which is what he did. “That little accidental favour for a friend turned into something I have done regularly.”
Liu estimates he has translated more than 40 pieces of short fiction and four novels, including what became Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy. In addition, Liu is working on a number of projects that should see the light of day over the next year: translations of Chen’s debut novel, The Waste Tide, and Baoshu’s “fan fiction” extension to The Three-Body Problem, Three-Body X.
Liu sounds circumspect when the conversation returns to that initial question about the “sudden” popularity of Chinese science fiction. “I don’t like generalisations. If you ask 100 different Chinese science-fiction authors to give you the summary of present science fiction, they will give you equally diverse answers.”
For evidence, Liu points to the variety of voices in Invisible Planets. “Chen Qiufan or Ma Boyong write stories that feel very pessimistic about where progress has taken us, about what we have given up to be technological humans.” Contrasting with these dystopias are stories such as Xia’s Tongtong’s Summer, which starts as a melancholy portrait of old age and China’s widening generation gap, and ends with a strangely touching, hopeful vision of an automated future. “She is saying, ‘We have made a lot of progress but people are adaptable. We can figure out how to make this all work.’ It’s not about better plans from the government or magical fairies coming down to save us. Change comes from the individual taking responsibility for their own happiness and trying to convert the tools of cold, impersonal technology, of globalised capitalism, into our own freedoms.”
While grappling with cutting-edge technological development is nothing new, in science fiction or life, what distinguishes China from the rest of the world is the sheer scale and speed of that change. “The industrial advances that took centuries in Western nations have occurred in roughly 30 years,” he says. “Within the space of two generations, you have families where the parents lived an existence essentially like the 19th century and their children are now in Beijing working at some of the most advanced technological companies in the world.”
If one grand theme unites the new generation of authors, it is attempting to narrate the social, political and personal confusions created by this intense transformation. “My personal view is that a lot of urban Chinese – the educated elite – feel a great deal of anxiety because they are experiencing modernity in a very compressed and accelerated fashion.”
Liu is only too aware that the hi-tech aspects of this present are not the whole story. He mentions Hao, who as well as writing award-winning stories works with children in rural villages whose parents have left to find work in distant cities. “In China, you have hundreds of millions of children who don’t even have basic nutrition. They grow up in concrete houses paid for by their parents’ wages but the concrete floors are bare.” Hao helps the grandparents raising these abandoned children learn better childcare techniques.
While even the best science fiction cannot hope to match such noble practical contributions, Liu argues that it can help breed empathy. And empathy, he continues, is ultimately what links the sardonic surfaces of Chen’s The Year of the Rat and the surrealism of Tang Fei’s Call Girl, both of which are included in Invisible Planets.
“It is about connection. Fundamentally, what we need is a story to make sense of it all. We need to tell each other stories, to make up new stories to transport us, to give us a moral centre in this very chaotic, impersonal sea of data.” Liu pauses. “I think it is very beautiful.”