This week, Gawker Review of Books is running interviews with three authors from the world of speculative fiction, discussing their work and their place within the evolving genre. Today, we’re speaking with Ken Liu, Chinese-American author of the recently released and utterly incredible The Grace of Kings. A former lawyer and computer programmer, Liu is also well-known for translating Liu Cixin’s bold science-fiction novel, The Three-Body Problem, to the masses.
No stranger to recognition, Liu’s 2011 short story “The Paper Menagerie” was the first fiction work to win all three of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. And Liu’s star will only continue to rise with the publication of his debut short-story collection in November (according to the author, the sequel to Grace of Kings will also hit bookshelves before year’s end). I spoke with him about his writing career and the cultural commentary of the awards.
With The Grace of Kings, what would you say are some literary and real-life influences in your world-building?
Liu: Literary influences? I can’t think of any. I can talk about literary influence in terms of narrative style, but the world creation wasn’t actually anything literary. If anything, it’s very much influenced by a book called The Nature of Technology by W. Brian Arthur, who is actually an economist and got into the theory of technology. Technology is not a set of discrete inventions, one coming after another. Rather, it’s a sort of vocabulary, a marshalling of components and resources into systems that are purposed to solve a specific problem. And the way technology evolves is that these components are replaced over time, new domains are invented, and they become more elaborate over time.
I think warfare as a series of technological breakthroughs is something I’ve been picking up while reading.
Yeah, I mean that was definitely a theme I wanted to explore. The way that warfare matters by creating chaos and creating competition and creating a kind of destruction of existing order. It allows innovation both socially as well as technological.
So, with that said, do you think your work has explicit messages?
I’m not sure I necessarily have explicit messages. My idea has always been that fiction is kind of a different rhetorical mode than expository writing. One of the major distinctions between fiction as a rhetorical mode is that it is not very good at conveying points that are better made in an essay; fiction is a terrible mode for doing that. However, fiction is much better at giving you an experience, and then experiences are used as a method of rhetoric.
I don’t have a specific message for The Grace of Kings and the sequels in mind other than wanting to challenge some of the source material I was working from as well as some of the assumptions of epic fantasy. For example, a lot of epic fantasy is very much focused on the return to an earlier golden age. That’s sort of the mode of Return of the King and a lot of other epic fantasy in the restoration of the status quo or the restoration to a more peaceful golden path. That’s not really what The Grace of Kings and the sequels do. These are books about continuous revolutions and dynamism.
One of the things that I noticed in The Grace of Kings was the women. In epic fantasy you don’t often even notice women characters, but in The Grace of Kings they’re often at the forefront. Was that a purposeful move?
We’re living in an age where there’s a lot of very good fantasy often written by women that deal with a world in which women and men are equal, and they challenge the genre in that way. I think male authors who want to try to tackle these issues of representation of women can generally do a better job if they try to question traditional notions of masculinity and the sort of toxic nature of traditional ways of presenting masculinity.
What I do here in Grace of Kings with women is I want to describe a revolution. There’s plenty of epic fantasies that are just like this and you never question the fact that women don’t exist until somebody points it out. That kind of instability is kind of built into the work early on where I try to do a lot of representational things that show that the mode of narrating these stories of warfare, about customs—it’s the men that do the fighting and the women are invisible—is very deeply problematic. So I point this out to the reader multiple times and hopefully the reader will see that that’s the issue.
In regards to Sad Puppies, what’s your take on the controversy and pitting “fun” versus “political” work? Is that a real distinction?
Well, I never really understood that distinction. I agree that there are more fun works and also works that are not as fun, whatever fun means; different readers have different definitions of fun. But I’m not sure why that correlated with politics in any way shape or form. I mean, I certainly read many works from libertarian authors who want to advocate a very libertarian point of view that are very fun as well. I’m not sure there’s a division between politics versus fun. There are political diatribes that can be done very well, but there are also some works that try as much as possible to not take an explicit position but rather try to portray the complexity of the material. Of course, one could argue that the very acknowledgement of complexity is a sort of politics itself. Regardless I don’t quite understand why fun is distinct from politics. I sort of think the two are orthogonal to each other.
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