Ken Liu says he could never miss the beginning of any story. So while growing up in China in the 1980s, he sprinted from school to his grandmother’s house each afternoon. She dialed the Chinese radio to the correct station, and the duo listened to tales of kingdoms and romance in the Pingshu tradition. When the shows finished, Liu raced through a couple of questions with grandma to clarify what went over his head. Then he’d run back to class.
Today, Liu knows what it’s like to be behind the scenes of a hit that titillates, just as those radio shows did. In his case, it’s sci-fi and fantasy novels. Liu is the translator responsible for bringing Chinese sci-fi authors to America — and is the writer of a few impressive books himself. He translated two of three books in Cixin Liu’s (no relation) science-fiction trilogy The Three Body Problem, which has garnered praise from both President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg. His translation was the first Chinese-to-English text to win the highest honor in sci-fi land, the Hugo Award.
That goes on the shelf next to prior Hugos for his own writing: best short story (“The Paper Menagerie” and “Mono No Aware”) in 2012 and 2013. “Ken exploded on the scene,” says Lightspeed magazine editor and top sci-fi anthologist John Joseph Adams. He thinks Liu may be the writer he’s accepted the most to his many publications, which form the constellation of the modern science-fiction canon. NPR’s book critic called Liu’s epic trilogy, The Dandelion Dynasty, “beautiful, nuanced, fierce, original and diverse.” Soon, Liu will be headed to the screen: TheGrace of Kings sold to the Chinese production company DMG in October 2016.
“I don’t particularly care about the kinds of things fantasy and sci-fi readers care about,” Liu says — though he says he finds his materials mainly in scientific papers. “I’m not interested in predicting the future.” He’s more interested in using metaphor to untangle our contemporary reality: In The Dandelion Dynasty, factions vie for power in a make-believe, rebellious, unstable empire. (Game of Thrones, anyone?)
In six years, Liu has published more than 100 short stories. In “Paper Menagerie,” a young Chinese-American boy’s mom makes origami that comes to life. “Single Bit-Error,” a tale of love lost after a car crash, uses programming language as metaphor. “Mono No Aware” tells the story of a Japanese boy who earns a coveted spot on an American evacuation ship from Earth (hit by an asteroid). “Everything passes, Hiroto,” the boy remembers his late father saying. “That feeling in your heart: It’s called mono no aware. It is a sense of the transience of all things in life.”
Liu references his heritage in The Grace of Kings not by writing characters of his ethnicity, but through the aesthetic of his futuristic world landscape — “silkpunk,” mixing Victoriana and East Asian classical antiquity. The world uses East Asian technological sources like bamboo, silk and wind power, while Liu drew from Chinese historical romances and foundational narratives well known in Chinese culture.
At first, most Chinese sci-fi was imported translations of authors like Jules Verne. In 1932, the same year as Aldous Huxley came out with Brave New World, Chinese author Lao She wrote a dystopian satirical novel set on Mars called Cat Country. But the communists pushed most sci-fi aside beginning in the 1950s.