09 Jul

Speculating with Ken Liu

To Star Wars aficionados, you’d probably know him as the guy who wrote The Legends of Luke Skywalker.

But Ken Liu is not just any author; he a well-known speculative fiction writer. He has bagged the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards with The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, a collection.

We’ve had the luxury of  picking Ken Liu’s brilliant brain about his ideation process for his novels and the world of speculative fiction.

How does your mind work when writing a story? Tell us how you formulate your ideas and your research process for those ideas.

One of the things I’ve learned over my career is that there is no general, universally applicable method for constructing a story; every single story is different—perhaps that is true of any artifact that must derive meaning independent of the creator. Every time I write a new novel or story, I seem to have to learn all over again how to build the narrative because the lessons I learned from the last one aren’t nearly as helpful as I thought they’d be.

There are some basic techniques that do seem to carry across. For instance, a lot of my stories are inspired by scientific papers or specific images I come across, and the story seeds often have to sit in my mind for days, months, years, like grains of sand in an oyster, before the pearl of the story grow around them. It’s not something I can force, only cultivate.

There have been a few discussions about the differences of science fiction and fantasy. What’s your take on the two genres?

I try to not pay attention to genre labels. As a reader, I don’t look for specific genres to read, and I don’t find debates about genre classifications interesting. As a writer, genre conventions and boundaries are not just unhelpful to my process, but often actively detrimental.

The kind of stories I like to write are stories in which some aspect of life, generally discussed as a metaphor, is literalized. For instance, the soul is often spoken of in a metaphorical way: as a candle burning at both ends, as a tin of coffee being measured out by spoons … So, in “State Change,” I create a world in which that is literally true: a person’s soul manifests as a physical object, and it is every person’s lifelong pursuit to figure out the meaning of their soul.

The ways in which I literalize metaphors sometimes get classified by readers as science fiction and sometimes as fantasy. I’m happy to have readers classify my work however they want as long as they enjoy the tales.

What word/phrase/tactic do you think novice writers should stop using too much of?

I’d say writers in general should stop trying to assume that they know what “good writing” is. Every writer grows by judging and honing what makes their writing good or interesting to them, but that is because they’re crafting their own voice, the unique way in which they wield the written word that colors every story they tell. The lessons a writer learns in this process are necessarily unique to them, and not universally applicable. Thus, a technique that works well for one writer’s voice can be ill-suited to the voice of another, and vice versa.

Readers are as different from one another as writers, and I don’t see why we should all demand that writers write one way, no more than we should demand that readers all read one way.


What type of character do you think would be the perfect Singaporean villain?

I’d love to know what Singaporean writers think about this!

I don’t have villains in my own stories — mainly because I find all “villains” to be unbelievable. I don’t have heroes either. I only write about people of ordinary moral courage, who, when placed in extraordinary situations, do what is human. Their actions may be heroic or villainous, but all are fundamentally facets of the human condition.

Last one, do you have any weird habits or rituals before starting your reading or writing routines?

I enjoy prototyping for my novels and stories. Because what I write often involves a great deal of so-called “worldbuilding,” I like to make my worlds less abstract (at least to me). I build models of automata, silkpunk airships, electrostatic engines, fantastical creatures; I draw maps and floor plans; I program simulations; I implement circuits. The goal is to have something tangible to work with when I’m working out the set pieces, battle sequences, hacking scenes, heist plots. There’s something powerful and satisfying about working with concrete objects when one is telling stories about worlds conjured out of the imagination.