Guernica Magazine

Ken Liu: “We get to define the stories we want to be told about us.”

Using photos of his text editors, mapmaking software, and 3D-printed prototypes, the writer talks about technology, myth, and telling stories during a pandemic.

Miscellaneous Files is a series of virtual studio visits that uses screenshots from writers’ digital devices to understand their practice. Conceived by Mary Wang, each interview provides an intimate look into the artistic process.

In Ken Liu’s short story “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition,” a child grows up between parents pulled in opposite directions. The child’s mother, hardened from a young age by a sailing accident, decides to travel toward the sun as an attempt to communicate with alien worlds. Her father, more interested in life on earth, questions the mathematics and logic involved in that attempt. “I’ve always found it funny,” he muses, “that we think the best way to communicate with extraterrestrials is to speak in a way we never do in life.” Such opposing forces are embedded in many of Liu’s speculative stories, where alien worlds are explored through distinctly human ideas: his characters, human or not, are driven by history and memory, racing forward amidst hope and regret. Set in lands real and imaginary, each story is both a family portrait and a thought experiment, a character study of often epic, planetary scales. 

“Each star is a living text,” Liu writes in his story “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” “where the massive convection currents of superheated gas tell an epic drama, with the star spots serving as punctuation, the coronal loops extended figures of speech, and the flares emphatic passages that ring true in the deep silence of cold space.” In Liu’s world, everything—whether it’s an heirloom, a pictogram, or a planet—contains its own poetics. Perhaps it’s his ability to discover stories in every form of being that allows him to be so prolific. Liu is the author of the collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (its title story was the first to win all three major sci-fi honors: the Nebula, the Hugo, and the World Fantasy awards) and more recently, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also wrote The Dandelion Dynasty epic fantasy series, three novels about rebellion and resistance told through a technological language based on East-Asian materials and philosophies. On top of that, Liu is a translator credited with popularizing Chinese writers of science-fiction with English readers, including Liu Cixin’s acclaimed The Three-Body Problem.

Ken Liu’s own narratives spiral and meander. His characters move from the inside outwards, only to find themselves circling back, changed. His language draws on the hallmarks of sci-fi, romance, and epic sagas, among other genres, only to defy them. His narrators are often children, posing questions adults are unwilling to answer. It’s through such eyes that a reader might enter Liu’s work: We return to a tender age, at which we experience unfamiliarity as a thrill, and embrace all that’s novel and odd with curiosity and love. 

Perhaps that’s why the timing of my conversation with Liu felt prescient, taking place during a pandemic that is exploding so much of what we thought we knew. As all conversations go these days, we spoke over Skype and started by negotiating the set-up of our cameras and microphones and screens. We spoke about the stories he grew up with, technological lineages as

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