Flash! Future: Ken Liu

WELCOME BACK to a fire-scorched Flash!Future! It’s my great pleasure to glow for a bit today about one of my favorite contemporary writers, the master shaper-of-words Ken Liu. He’s turned his word-propelled background in law, tech, and languages into the material from which he creases and folds a galaxy-full of uniquely vibrant characters and worlds. Liu describes his work as silk punk, a vivid blend of tech-grounded revolutions and East Asian materials and sensibilities. If you haven’t read him yet, please do; if you have, please come along and fall in (disturbed) love all over again.

→→ And as a special gift to Fire&Ice, Ken has sent a personal message to you.

Ken Liu. Photo © Li Yibo (李一博)

Who is this cosmic Flash! Future figure?

Name: Ken Liu

Nationality: American

Best known for: “The Paper Menagerie” (short story), The Grace of Kings (The Dandelion Dynasty novel series)

Awards (partial list, USA only; also won many international genre awards):

      • Locus Award, Best Collection: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2017), Best First Novel: The Grace of Kings (2016)
      • The Hugo Award, Best Novel: The Three-Body Problem (2015; translator; originally written in Chinese by Cixin Liu)
      • The Hugo Award, Best Short Story: “Mono no aware” (2013)
      • The Hugo Award, Best Short Story: “The Paper Menagerie” (2012)
      • World Fantasy Award, Best Short Fiction: “The Paper Menagerie” (2012)
      • The Nebula Award, Best Short Story: “The Paper Menagerie” (2011)

What he writes & why every SF/F reader should know his name.

Ken Liu’s story “The Paper Menagerie” was the first short story to win the trifecta: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award (read “The Paper Menagerie” here; read his other Hugo-award winning short story “Mono no aware” here). He didn’t stop there, of course; he’s gone on to garner countless other awards in the U.S. and around the world for his tales and for the word-and-world-spinning magic he accomplished translating others’ tales. Some of his stories you may have seen on screen, like an episode of Netflix’s Love, Death + Robots, or the award-winning short film Beautiful Dreamer; other stories are being adapted even as we speak. The final book of his acclaimed The Dandelion Dynasty trilogy is coming out in 2021. 

But—mouthwatering as awards can appear—Liu would be the first to say (and in fact has said) that they, like any form of external validation, are dangerous.  

To me, stories are at the same time frivolous (they cannot cure the sick or feed the hungry) and critical (stories literally define how we conceive of ourselves). All the stories I write try to get at the human condition as I understand it, and to me, that is enough justification and perhaps the source of the power of my writing. -Ken Liu, interview w/ Dunes Jedi

Sizzling embers of praise!

On The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories: “Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a book from which I staggered away, dazed, unable to speak. I have wrestled with how to review it, circled my metaphors like a wary cat, and finally abandoned the enterprise of trying to live up to its accomplishment. …(T)his is a book that has scoured me of language and insight and left itself rattling around inside the shell of me.”Amal El-Mohtar, NPR

On The Hidden Girl and Other Stories: “Liu truly is a writer with no limits, whose ability to craft a story that folds interesting characters with high-minded concepts with effortless worldbuilding, while commenting on the modern world around us at the same time is nothing short of magical.” –Martin Cahill, Tor.com 

On The Dandelion Dynasty: The Grace of Kings is moving forward. It’s about recognizing the past doesn’t hold the answers, and all the things we have been told are true and right and just may not be at all. He is reimagining an entire cultural narrative and in so doing interrogating the underpinnings of what is idyllic. He is using nostalgia to reveal modernity. More to the point, it feels like Ken Liu is remembering the future.” –Justin Landon, Tor.com

Identity: what makes us human

Liu’s worlds and characters are memorable and engaging (what does it feel like to upload your brain?? what if your dying mother spent your lifetime, time-traveling? [read the original story here; watch the award-winning short based on it here] -What if you agree to host–literally, in your bloodstream–an alien wedding?), a beautiful and often wrenching blend of East Asian-inspired cultures and (re)imagined technologies. But it’s not just the feel of those stories that gets me; it’s the subversive way Liu has of challenging modern notions of self and the individual’s role in society, whatever society that might be. 

Struggling with narratives of identity is at the heart of the experience of modernity. I would say that resistance to the false narrative of “straddling” two cultures is definitely a recurring theme in my fiction. The notion that immigrants are somehow torn between cultures and act as the contested battleground for clearly defined and irreconcilable dueling cultural narratives from which they must choose one is simplistic, reductive, and to put it bluntly, wrong—and yet it is a notion that shows up again and again in how we discuss cultural difference.

I’m far more interested in stories that explore the ways in which all of us are defined by, but also define, the cultures which claim us, and how we negotiate the boundaries between self and society, between conformance and estrangement. As an American who claims a proud identification with my Chinese cultural inheritance, I’m particularly interested in stories that challenge the assumptions behind what it means to be “American” or “Chinese” and reveal these categorizations as attempts by the powerful to assert dominance over fluid, unstable, always-forming identities. -Ken Liu, from his interview w/ Dario Ciriello

§ A PERSONAL MESSAGE from Ken Liu to the Fire&Ice community, on writing during the 2020 pandemic: 

Ken Liu. Photo courtesy Lisa Tang Liu.

I’ve been working on a variety of things now that my second collection, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, is out, and the conclusion to my epic fantasy series, The Dandelion Dynasty, is finished (the third book, The Veiled Throne, is scheduled to come out next year). I just finished a few short fiction commissions last month, and I’m about to start on a new nonfiction project (nothing to announce yet).

The pandemic has been challenging, to say the least. For much of the time from March to June, I couldn’t write at all. It was … everything. People were dying, protesting, fighting for freedom and justice, while certain world “leaders” decided to use the opportunity to indulge in their worst instincts. I haven’t felt so disappointed in humanity in many, many years. How could we have allowed the world to be taken over by people like that?

But eventually I found my voice again, and learned to trust in my need to tell stories. In a time like this, we need to speak up, to tell stories more than ever. Stories are how we make sense of a senseless world, how we construct meaning out of noise, how we assert our individual conscience and collective empathy against the forces of heartless denial, systemic oppression, and willful ignorance. We must not let them drag us down with them.

Where can the ravenous go for more? To the hyperlinks!  

Thank you for joining us today—and our heartfelt thanks to Ken Liu for graciously adding his voice to today’s Fire&Ice. For more info on Ken Liu and his latest short-story collection The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, check out his website. You’ll find all his works there, with–as ever–multiple non-Amazon retailers linked. Follow him on Twitter to stay future-informed!

3 thoughts on “Flash! Future: Ken Liu

  1. I had, of course, heard of The Paper Menagerie, but I had not read it before now. How poignant and beautiful and utterly heartbreaking. It is a familiar tale, uniquely told, with themes that are both personal and universal. Both of my daughters are of mixed ethnicities, and I know they struggle with identity frequently. And yet I’m sure almost everyone can see a bit of themselves in this story, either from the point of view of the child, the mother, or even both. This was a painful and pain-filled read. It’s one of those stories I wish I could have written while also fully aware that I never could have. Absolutely stunning. I’ll definitely be picking up his other works.

    Liked by 2 people

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