AALR proudly presents a new series of interviews with four young Asian American writers of speculative fiction: Ken Liu, E. Lily Yu, Charles Yu, and Ted Chiang. All under 45, these writers have amassed numerous major science fiction and literary award nominations and awards–evidence of their ability to bridge the parallel universes of speculative and mainstream literatures. Their work differs radically, ranging from peculiar fables to intricate meditations on the relationship between humans and technology. But taken together, that work exemplifies the kind of intersectionist worldview that shifts conventionalized perceptions, encouraging us to think across traditional social and literary categories.
Conducting the interviews is Betsy Huang, Associate Professor of English at Clark University, author of Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction (Palgrave, 2010), and co-editor, along with David Roh and Greta Niu, of a forthcoming collection of essays on techno-Orientalism in science fiction literature, film, and new media.
Interviewed by Betsy Huang
I first encountered Ken Liu’s fiction while designing an interdisciplinary, team-taught seminar on science fiction and philosophy of mind with a philosophy colleague at Clark University two years ago. Searching for stories to pair with Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in a unit on artificial intelligence and simulations of human mentality, I came across Liu’s 2004 short story “The Algorithm for Love.”[i] The story traces the psychological unraveling of a gifted programmer whose AI creations eventually become indistinguishable from humans. Her ability to close the gap between the real and the simulated, however, leads to the devastating revelation that free will is merely an illusion–a truth she cannot abide. The story exemplifies a fine balance of the technical and emotional, which, in the view of the interviewer, is the stuff of the most satisfying SF.
Through “The Algorithm for Love,” I was introduced to Liu’s growing collection of short stories, poetry, and essays published in prestigious SF venues such as Strange Horizons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, and Clarkesworld. Vastly prolific in recent years, Liu has published with a broad thematic and stylistic range and is currently undergoing what some fans describe as a “meteoric rise” in the SF community. Indeed, 2012 has been a banner year for Liu, who boasts two nominations in the short story category for both the Nebula and the Hugo — the top prizes in the world of SF — as well as for the Locus and World Fantasy Awards. One of the multiply nominated stories, “The Paper Menagerie,”[ii] won the Nebula this April. At the time of this writing, voting for the Hugo and the World Fantasy Awards are still ongoing. In addition to his own original work, Liu also translates Chinese SF into English. And this just in: on July 21, Liu was awarded the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award, in the short form category, for his English translation of “The Fish of Lijiang” by Chinese SF writer Chen Qiufan.[iii]
It is of little surprise, then, that translation, both literal and figurative, is a favored theme in Liu’s fiction, the axis along which most of his stories are plotted. A distinctive quality of Liu’s fiction is his persistent concern with the implications of cultural miscommunication, often the unhappy result of ineffectual translations. The two Nebula- and Hugo-nominated stories, as well as stories like “Five Elements of the Heart Mind,” “The Literomancer,” and “Saving Face,” are all fine examples of Liu’s efforts to translate across cultures and histories, and to introduce more finely tuned and complex representations of Asia and Asians into a genre with a fraught Orientalist history.
I interviewed Liu on a July evening in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he resides and works. We met in an office surrounded by MIT, Google, Novartis, and scores of other high-tech and biotech companies and research institutes–places that remind you, at every turn, that the future is being written here. With one eye toward that future and the other toward the past, Liu spoke with eloquence about his craft, his social preoccupations, his interest in history, and what technology can reveal about humanity.
Betsy Huang: Please share with us a brief history of Ken Liu–where you grew up, how you grew up, your education, your current employment, your hobbies and interests.
Ken Liu: I was born in Lanzhou, China, and moved to the U.S. when I was eleven. At first my family lived in Palo Alto. Even though we didn’t stay there long, I have very fond memories of it because it was the first place I lived in in the States. California has a very distinct flavor from the rest of the country. There, more than anywhere else, you can feel the American Dream pulsing in the details of everyday life.
Later, my family moved to Connecticut; most of my middle school and high school years were spent in Waterford. It’s a typical Connecticut town, a great place to grow up. Then I came to Boston to attend Harvard, where I studied English Literature. I also took a lot of computer science classes, though my bachelor’s degree is just in English.
After graduation, I went out to Redmond, Washington to work for Microsoft, but shortly moved back here to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to join a technology startup. I did software development for a few years before deciding to go to law school. I attended Harvard Law, became a corporate lawyer for a few years, and just recently took a job as a litigation consultant. I help lawyers and companies involved in patent disputes figure out how the technology maps to the law, and assist them in formulating offense and defense strategies.
As for hobbies, I collect and repair old typewriters.
BH: Oh, so that’s where the old Olivetti used by the monkeys in the story for Nature came from![iv]
KL: Yes! I have very fond memories of my grandfather’s old typewriter back in China. As a kid, I loved playing with it.
My wife and I also enjoy making software for smartphones and tablets–iOS and Android–basically little apps for our kids to play with. My older daughter, who is the main consumer of these apps, seems to like them.
BH: Wonderful. So congratulations on winning the Nebula Award for “The Paper Menagerie”! I also know that the same two stories that have been nominated for the Nebula, “The Paper Menagerie” and “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,”[v] have also been nominated for the Hugo. What do these awards mean to you?
KL: It’s a huge honor. I first got interested in writing science fiction because I was reading these Year’s Best anthologies. The Nebula nominees could usually be found in them. I thought it’d be cool to win one of those someday. But of course that wasn’t a serious thought because awards are won by other people, people whom you’ve heard of.
So when I heard that I was nominated, I was shocked. And even more so when I won. My youngest daughter had been born a couple of days before the announcement, so it was a huge good-news week already. This just completed the week. I’m grateful to all the fellow writers who voted for me.
The Nebula is a big deal to me because it’s voted on by my peer writers. The Hugo is also a great honor because it’s voted on by fans. Both awards have long, storied histories. For all the flaws in the award processes that we might be critical of, I think the awards do mean something. They represent, in some way, a consensus judgment on what the field recognizes as good work.
But I’m also mindful of the fact that writing with awards in mind is probably a recipe for disaster. Awards are for past accomplishments, not future ones, and it’s a bad idea to validate yourself with them. There are plenty of great writers–maybe writers better than the award winners–who never get the recognition. Personally, I think the only thing that matters is that I’m satisfied with the work that I produce, work that is as good as I can make it.
BH: In one of your previous interviews, you said that all fiction is speculative. Could you elaborate?
KL: I’m not a fan of genre boundaries. I think genres are often used as a shorthand to dismiss works in a facile way. For example, if some work is labeled “chick lit,” there’s an automatic distaste for it by the presumed “serious” readers that doesn’t allow an examination of the work’s merits. Labeling a work with a genre tends to cause people to react to it differently.
BH: Some speculative fiction writers who have famously resisted such labeling come to mind: Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison…
KL: Right. For fiction to be effective, it can’t be a mere depiction of reality–not a “photograph.” (Well, even photographs don’t really depict “reality” in a strict sense.) Realist or mainstream fiction is not merely reflective of reality, but re-presents it. Fiction of all types takes some aspect of reality and maps a symbolic or metaphoric logic to it, no different from how what we call speculative fiction does it. Whether you are talking about aliens or illegal Mexican immigrants or robots or office drones, the metaphorical logic is the same. You can take any speculative work and replace its science fiction or fantasy tropes with a mainstream trope, and it’ll be exactly the same work at a deep level.
But people have different expectations, somehow, when it’s robots versus office drones. When you are talking about people acting robotic, it’s seen as a symbolic and meaningful critique of modern life. But when you’re talking about robots having sentience, then it’s childish science fiction. I think that’s silly. Mainstream fiction isn’t about reflecting “reality” exactly the way it is. It’s about transforming it though the application of a map of metaphors. So I treat all fiction as speculative, because the really speculative element is always how fresh and how interesting the applied metaphorical logic feels, and how transformative of reality the vision is.
BH: Ethnic fiction has that quality as well, that invitation to consider difference realistically or metaphorically.
KL: I had a conversation with a friend who was trying to explain to me that he knew someone who had a hard time with The Joy Luck Club because everything seemed so strange to him, difficult to relate. He said what ultimately got the reader to approach the work effectively was to say, “Ah, this is a work about aliens. These people are just aliens. Now I can understand it.” He chose to approach the novel explicitly as speculative fiction.
BH: It’s interesting how ethnic literature and speculative fiction, particularly those that deal with conditions of alienness and figurations of difference, have shared a similar vocabulary, and yet to the popular audience, the two bodies of literature are rarely thought of in the same context. I teach science fiction and ethnic literature, and I rarely see the same students in both classes. The two groups aren’t curious about each other’s preoccupations.
KL: Surprising, right?
BH: Yes. Yet both require the reader to do some detective work, to be curious and observant, to piece together some understanding of different people and cultures, and to see how those cultures estrange and call out for interrogation aspects of one’s own that have become naturalized. Immigrants have always had to do this type of work. Those of us who immigrated at a very young age were literally dropped in the middle of an alien culture and have had to develop skills to quickly figure out how things worked. It’s very similar to the experience of opening up a science fiction novel set in an alien landscape, given minimal exposition about how that world works, and having to figure it all out on your own.
KL: Yes–totally agree.
BH: So who are your ideal readers? What do they know and don’t know?
KL: I suspect that for most writers, the first reader one tries to please is oneself. I think it’s inevitable that the ideal reader you have in mind is pretty much like yourself in terms of knowledge base, experiences, and so on.
If I have to be a little more specific about it, I think it’s somebody who tends to be a generalist who’s interested in many things, who knows a little bit about many things and a lot about a few things, who’s skeptical about authority and expertise and rigid definitions of what the truth is. Someone who’s willing to accept the fact that the things we don’t know vastly outnumber the things that we do know. Someone who’s interested in both science and history as methods of understanding the world.
BH: Yet I get the sense that you also have in mind readers who are not like you, that you are talking to readers who don’t know what you know, that you are trying to share an aspect of history or details about a culture with which they are unfamiliar.
KL: Yes, that’s true. And that tends to be described by some readers as a didactic tone. I don’t have a problem with that, actually. You know, a lot of people despise the way Atwood ended The Handmaid’s Tale, with this pseudo-academic lecture. That happens to be my favorite part of the book.
Some readers dislike the “I’m teaching you something” mode in some of my stories. But I read fiction often to learn about things, so I don’t mind if a work contains some ideas or information that are more effectively presented as a “lecture.” You go through life hearing lectures all the time. And often they’re useful.
When a reader is faced with a lecture in a work of fiction, the assumption on the part of the reader should be that this is part of the artistic design of the work. You don’t have to agree with the lecture. You’re not being told what you have to believe. You’re simply observing another piece of the machinery that makes up the story’s emotional arc.
In my case, the “lesson” or “message” being imparted–to another character or to some imaginary subset of readers–is often essential to the story. But it’s not required that you agree or accept it. It’s merely one of the ways you, as the reader–or the immigrant, if you will–learn about this world.
So I do sometimes engage in didacticism. I don’t know if in those cases I have in mind a specific type of reader. Perhaps a good way to describe what I’m doing in those cases is this: here is a subject I’ve heard a lot of conventional wisdom about, and I think they’re wrong. And here is what I think somebody who knows something about the subject would say is a more accurate or more empathetic portrayal.
Let’s take “The Paper Menagerie.” There are a lot of jokes about mail-order brides; people tend to dismiss them. But if you talk to them and read about their experiences in their own voices, you find that they are no different than you or me. They have their own agendas, their own histories, their own reasons for choosing to do what they did, and sometimes the decisions work out and sometimes they don’t.
“The Paper Menagerie” is a re-imagining of one such experience. The letter from the mother in the story is one element that some readers dislike and others like a lot, precisely because the letter is didactic. It’s a letter from a mother who is trying to explain herself to her son in the only way she can. She has chosen not to speak much until then, but this is the moment when we really hear her voice. I wanted it to be a voice that feels more real than the image that the reader might have of this person. I wanted to challenge that image.
Sometimes such monologues are the most effective way for a story to be told. Form follows function.
Going back to the question of the reader I have in mind: in such cases, I’d say that I have in mind a reader who is interested in the subject.
BH: On that score, then, you aren’t didactic to the point of trying to “teach” people who don’t want to learn.
KL: Right. If you’re not interested, then there’s no point in telling you about it. I have in mind those who know something about a subject but not very much, and are interested in finding out more. That usually describes me. I don’t know many things, but I’m always interested in learning something.
BH: The merits and shortcomings of didactic literature–it’s an ongoing source of debate. Some people chalk it up to taste. There are those who don’t appreciate a lot of exposition or lecturing or didacticism. Then there are the great realist novels–I’m thinking turn-of-the-century works like Sinclair’s…
BH: Richard Wright’s Native Son. The last part of the novel was a lecture by Bigger Thomas’s lawyer, Boris Max.
KL: Or To Kill a Mockingbird. Talk about lecturing!
BH: Right. For them, these “lectures” are vastly important in their effort to pursuade people with long-held beliefs who are resistant to change. I run up against the distaste for literary “lectures” with my students. Not all of them. Some. Many, for instance, skip over Max’s monologue in Native Son. Whether you agree with Max or not, that monologue is there for a reason. When I ask them whether they feel that the novel will have the same impact without it, they say yes. I ask them: are you sure? Really? And as you say, you don’t have to agree with Max or Wright, but at least you know where Wright stands.
KL: I also think we’ve drifted away from literature that is both interesting and imparting a lesson of some sort toward this purely experiential expectation of fiction. We tend to prize works that impart a message by having the character experience something, and there’s this idea that that is somehow always the more authentic, better way of being taught something as opposed to being lectured at by a character.
I think that’s very misleading. It’s the generalized “show, don’t tell” mantra that is always bandied about as some sort of gospel of writing, which I think is ridiculous. There are some things you must show, and some things you must tell. I’m not the one who came up with this insight. Nick Mamatas, who writes a lot about fiction writing, has said that “Some things need showing, some things need telling. Figuring out which is which is part of the spooky art.”[vi] I think that’s exactly right.
There are some moments when the very point you’re trying to make is so resistant, so against the culture and traditions in which you are writing that to merely “show” would cause your message to be lost or completely misunderstood.
Sometimes the point of having a lecture is to allow the silenced and the unvoiced to be able to speak.
BH: On the subject of style: any thoughts on Ted Chiang and Charles Yu? Affinities among you? All of you have backgrounds in computer programming, technical writing, or the law. I see all of you writing tight, finely wrought, carefully paced prose. Ted Chiang, particularly.
KL: Oh yeah, definitely Ted Chiang. I really admire his craft. He takes such care, really labors over every word.
BH: He is the opposite of you in terms of output.
KL: That’s why his stuff is just so amazing. It’s why he is at a totally different level. I can’t speculate about similarities or affinities between our work because I don’t have enough ground on which to do so. We seem to have very different preoccupations in our subjects.
But your theory about our backgrounds in technical writing and programming sounds plausible and might explain a few things. Programmers are taught to be lazy. Good programmers are lazy because they don’t want to do something multiple times if it can be done once. There’s a huge cost associated with redundancy. And so there is a lot of pressure to be concise, to structure your program in logical and elegant ways so that anything that is important is done in one place and only one place.
Many but not all lawyers, on the other hand, face a different kind of pressure. Adhering to tradition and the known is very important for minimizing the client’s risk. If you know something works, don’t deviate from it! Legalese can be very verbose and redundant precisely because lawyers are often taught to be “lazy” in this way that’s very different from what programmers are taught. For lawyers, “reuse” by copying-and-pasting is very much part of the profession.
Perhaps the pressure to be lazy in our writing in the manner of programmers–that is, to pay attention to elegance, to clarity, to concision, and to the long-term costs of sloppy thinking; and to aim to achieve the best result with the least amount of effort–is something we share given our backgrounds.
BH: I’d encourage some of my students to take a page out of the programmer’s primer, then. Some of my best students are very creative, but often unnecessarily verbose. Some believe, quite unfortunately, that flowery or purple prose is a sign of aesthetic genius. [Laughs]
KL: [Laughs] Yeah, why say it in one sentence when you can say it in three?
BH: Why say it in three words when you can say it in thirty?
KL: That’s very lawyerly.
BH: Well, let’s return to fiction writing and issues of style. You’ve also said in an interview that Chiang has been a key influence and that you admire his “rigor” and “tonal control.” Let me set this up a bit. When my colleague and I taught your “The Algorithm for Love” and Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” in our science fiction seminar, we felt that both demonstrated a similar tonal restraint that actually achieved great emotional impact. In fact, sentimentality seems to be the target of the story’s critique–that we are all, in some ways, programmed to experience and display certain types of sentiments in certain situations. The predictability of sentiment is somehow the principal tragedy here. It seems related to “tonal control.” Could you elaborate?
KL: Chiang is the master of this retrained style that I’m trying to aspire to. I think a lot of modern fiction has been influenced by film and TV in a detrimental way. Film and TV are very different ways of telling a story than the written word. There’s a tendency to emphasize what is visually displayable. When they teach you to write scripts, they tell you that you need to externalize everything. Conflicts need to be externalized. Emotional states need to be externalized. If you can’t see it, then the only thing you’re left with is a voiceover. And you should never do voiceovers if you can avoid it.
I think the cultural importance of film and TV leads all of us to expect emotions to be displayed in a certain way. So when something terrible happens, we expect people to gasp, cover their eyes, externalize their internal feelings in a dramatic fashion, because that’s the way film and TV tend to show it. Displaying expected reactions to public events is one way we feel “normal,” to be “authentic.”
But that’s not how many of us tend to act or react in reality. When 9/11 happened, for example, it was not the case that everyone suddenly got up, stood still, or behaved in ways we have come to expect in cinematic portrayals of such moments. I remember there being widespread confusion, and many people stayed calm or were actually not quite sure how to react. Uncertainty is often the most genuine reaction.
The sort of fiction I prefer avoids these template reactions and emphasizes interiority. The ability to instill the emotions in the reader’s mind so that the reader can empathize with the character without seeing much external display is more powerful and is unique to fiction. It’s closer to our interior narratives in life. When we intuit that someone’s in pain, it’s often when they are not crying openly, when they’re trying to maintain control.
BH: It worked very well in “Algorithm.” In our science fiction seminar, we paired it with Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? because both explore the implications of simulated or mimicked responses, and whether mimicked responses are ultimately as real as the “real” emotional responses. Or perhaps more precisely, whether what we regard as “authentic” responses are really just mimicked responses. Isn’t “Algorithm,” like Electric Sheep, a meta-critique of how we’ve been trained to behave according to social expectations, or trained to respond a certain way to an event or stimulus…
KL: Or based on a description of how we ought to react. I feel that people are often pressured to grieve or mourn in ways they think they should, as opposed to how they want to.
BH: Is that the reason why Elena in “Algorithm” is suicidal?
KL: That’s one reading. She feels, in a deep sense, that all the external evidence of emotional states that she sees around her are actually not real, but mere acts. She has lost the capacity for empathy. She sees people as being driven by algorithms of mimicry, as you put it. There is no way to peek behind the mask…
BH: For example, when her husband declares his love, or whether his words are any more “real” than the doll’s when he and the doll conversed…
KL: And so she ends up in this state where she believes that nothing she herself feels is real–remember, she’s very rational, and applying her own logic, she does not have any thoughts or emotions outside of algorithms of mimicry, either. The only thing that she still feels is her pain, which becomes her anchor to reality, but the pain is unbearable.
BH: It’s the only way she could move against or controvert the programming that she finds herself performing?
KL: Right. It’s the old theme of free will versus a deterministic algorithm.
BH: Let’s shift to another of your favored themes in your work: translation. Before we discuss translation as a recurring trope in your fiction, let’s talk about your English translations of Chinese SF. You just received news that you won this year’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award in the short form category, for your English translation of Chinese writer Chen Qiufan’s “The Fish of Lijiang.” Big congrats!
You said in the SF Signal interview that you became interested in translation when you took note of what was “preserved” and what “felt different” about your own stories when they were translated into Chinese.[vii] You didn’t use the term “lost,” but used “felt different” instead–I liked that. What are some of the serious challenges for you when you translate a work from Chinese into English? You also said that you don’t feel confident enough to translate from English into Chinese. Why not?
KL: I don’t think translation can (or should) always be exact. Too often, we prize the “original” over the translation, and focus only on those meanings that existed in the original but not in the translation. But a translation has its own life, and the new form adds meanings too. Most of us in America know the Bible through English translations, and layers and layers of extra meaning have been added to the Bible in this translated form.
We humans are associative reasoning machines, and we operate instinctively by associative logic. Every word, phrase, sentence in a language is embedded in a set of literary associations that does not move as a set when the word, phrase, sentence is translated.
When I write, for example, the English word “God,” that brings to the reader’s mind the history of Judeo-Christianity in the West, the role of religion in today’s world, “God Bless America,” and a whole host of other associated ideas. As a writer, I often count on these associations to evoke meaning. And in any event I have to be aware of them, for the reader certainly will.
But when “God” is translated into Chinese as “ä¸Šå¸,” it brings to the Chinese reader’s mind the history of Christian missionaries in China, the feel of Christianity as a Western import, the unique version of Classical Chinese used in Bible translations, and a whole host of other ideas that are not available to a Western reader. A Chinese reader thus reads a translation with a different set of evoked associations.
This means that a Chinese reader will sometimes end up reading a very different story from the English reader–and sometimes I try to anticipate this. But keeping multiple sets of associations in mind when writing is very difficult. In any event, it makes the act of reading a translation a completely new experience.
As for challenges specific to my efforts to translate from Chinese, Chinese literary works often rely on idioms inherited from Classical Chinese and shorthand allusions to Chinese history, legends, Classical poetry, folk customs, fiction, etc. These are among the most challenging to translate, especially since American readers and editors dislike translator’s notes. (I personally find such notes very interesting, but I think I’m in the minority.)
Sometimes these allusions are so dense that a work is literally untranslatable.
As for why I don’t translate my own works into Chinese, I believe that a translator must be a skilled writer in the target language. Since I don’t compose in Chinese, I must rely on the skill of my translator friends, and I’ve learned a lot from them.
BH: It seems that some of these challenges crop up as the central tension in many of your stories. The presentation of multiple perspectives on an issue, where some kind of mediation is going on between two opposing views or two different cultures, is the premise of quite a few of your stories. I’m thinking of “Saving Face” in particular, a story you co-wrote with Shelly Li. In it, two AIs designed to broker business transactions–hilariously named eMBA Alpha and eMBA Beta, incidentally–fail miserably at orchestrating a deal between Chinese and American clients. It took a human being with a bicultural sensibility to do it.[viii] “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” one of your Nebula- and Hugo-nominated stories, also takes this approach of mediating a historical grievance of China’s against Japan. What led you to address these types of conflicts in your stories?
KL: I’m not sure there’s an easy explanation. As an immigrant, you see the ways in which both sides of your own life are misunderstood by the other. There are ways in which my parents, and my friends in China, have certain ideas about what being an American is like, what Americans think about, and how they see the world, which are simply wrong. There are also many ways in which Americans think about Chinese culture, about how someone who self-identifies as Chinese perceives the world, that are wrong. It’s hard to see the wrongness unless you’ve lived in both cultures and have seen both sides. My life has led me to be sensitive about how we can all be blind in our own confidence about our understanding of the world.
And also, as I said before, I am a generalist and I like to know a little bit about a lot of things. So I often end up not sharing the specialist’s conviction in the rightness of his or her own perspective of the world. Some people have one big idea and they map the entire world into that one idea. I don’t have that confidence. I don’t have one big idea that explains everything. I don’t have one answer for all questions.
At the same time, I was brought up in a Chinese cultural milieu that has a very deep strand of compromise and reconciliation within it. In many Western ideas about conflict, there’s this notion that one must pick a side, and that there must be a right side and a wrong side, and that to be on the right side, you must defeat the wrong side. That is almost never how classical Chinese philosophy deals with conflict. Confucianism in particular has a deep aversion to that view of conflict. In Chinese culture, when there are two very different or opposing views, the tendency and the instinct are to combine or harmonize them rather than to pick one over the other. This frustrates Westerners a great deal.
Comments from early missionaries about the inscrutability of the Chinese come in part from this tendency. When the missionaries tried to convert the Chinese, the Chinese would say that they see the missionaries’ point and say they believe in Jesus and God. And then the next day, they’d go to Guanyin and light some joss sticks. The missionaries would say, “How can you do this?” But for the Chinese, this is not a problem. The idea of holding multiple, even conflicting beliefs at the same time and trying to find a compromise among them is natural.
Now, this is not to say that traditional Chinese culture does not believe in taking a stand on important matters. But it is true, in general, that traditional Chinese culture tries to avoid open conflict, preferring to find a way to encompass differences without losing distinctions. It’s a slightly different way to view compromise: not as a loss of difference, but as a means to understand difference and emphasize commonality, and to encourage change and growth on all sides. A lot of my fiction is driven by this way of viewing the world.
BH: Do you feel that it is important, at this particular moment in our political consciousness, to address the growing sense of conflict and competition between Chinese and Americans? There is also so much talk in today about the “rise” of China, how the States and the Western economies need to be concerned about it, and the constant litany of fear-mongering and rhetorical saber-rattling from politicians we are treated to on a daily basis. I see aspects of your fiction trying to counteract or mitigate it.
KL: That’s absolutely true. As you point out, this rising tide of anti-Chinese rhetoric in the U.S., and to some extent in Europe as well, is probably based on fear. At first I thought it was based on ignorance, but I’ve come away from that. Now I think it’s based on selective filtering on what some people choose to believe.
Given all the interest in China, given all the interest in representations of China, there are now many fictional works (including speculative fiction) using settings and characters that are ostensibly Chinese in some way. But many of these stories are based on racial Othering, on practicing the belief that the Chinese are the symbolic canvases on which authors and readers have projected Western fears. Moreover, some of these stories I’ve read are written by authors who are cosmopolitan, who have some experience with China, so “ignorance” isn’t an adequate explanation. Perhaps in such cases the authors had already made up their minds about what they’ll find in China and simply picked evidence that strengthened their beliefs.
This is problematic, and in extreme cases, some of these stories are reminiscent of the rabid, racist ravings of the likes of Jack London back in the day. And so I try to add some depth to representation of China and the Chinese, and add a voice that isn’t often heard.
Some readers dislike it. I’ve been criticized for pushing a “Chinese” agenda, which is very comical to me. I’m sure many Chinese like me would love to know what such an agenda is, as it’s perfectly unclear to us.
BH: From what corners do you hear that sort of criticism?
KL: I’ve gotten that a few times, both from people I know and don’t know.
I’m sometimes pessimistic about the benefit of what I’m doing, because this sort of work–of adding depth and complexity, of giving flesh and blood to Chinese characters who are thought of as faceless hordes–seems only useful to readers who are like me, who are open and receptive to those ideas in the first place. To readers who are not, this is irrelevant. People, all of us, have this vast capacity to justify what we wish to believe, regardless of the evidence. So in terms of changing people’s minds, I don’t think my work has any effect whatsoever. For people who are already predisposed to fault the Chinese, who treat them as the Other, I don’t think my work has any impact, regardless of my own yearning for reconciliation and understanding that is reflected in my fiction.
BH: That is either an admirably realistic or a terribly cynical assessment of your work. It seems to echo Auden’s ironic lament that “poetry makes nothing happen.” But surely there is a wide swath of views that are in between, that are not settled either way, that your fiction could reach?
KL: I hope you’re right!
BH: Something along these lines came up in the interview you did with SF Signal. You and the interviewer were talking about the Japanese internment and how this historical episode was not known to some readers. I suspect that there are lots of readers who just don’t know enough to have views that are dug in…
KL: That may be. That’s the hopeful view, which is that misunderstanding is the result of ignorance as opposed to deliberate filtering.
There are days when I’m still hopeful. Maybe I have to believe that this is true to keep going. I believe that I don’t know many things in the world and that I’m open to persuasion when I find out more, so that is probably how most of us operate. But there are many days when I don’t feel that way, when I feel like I’m writing into the wind, when I have this sense that people aren’t interested in learning about anything that they don’t already know. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between.
BH: Well, look at the two pieces that were nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo. “The Paper Menagerie” is about a lack of communication that sustains cultural misunderstanding in a domestic, personal setting, and “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” is about the same thing, but in the broader international context of conflicting official histories. Both are weighty stories that destabilize established positions, that ask readers to enter into a space of uncertainty. And they were nominated for the top prizes in SF.
KL: But in those cases, my explanation when I’m, as you put it, in my cynical mode, is that I’m talking to people who already agree with me in some sense. The readers who I reached or touched are readers who are predisposed to seeing the world in the complicated, unstable way that I see it.
BH: I see that, of course. But I’m going to put on my Pollyanna hat again–
KL: I like that hat!
BH: –because this is a great way to segue into your identity as not only a speculative fiction writer, but also an Asian American writer. The fact that your work is getting serious attention in a genre that has not seen many Asian American writers until recently is remarkable. Also, take a story like “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” a story about a longstanding grievance between China and Japan that doesn’t factor much within the U.S. political consciousness…
KL: Actually, the role the U.S. played in this particular matter is very important to the story. But what you said brought to mind a couple of recent articles I read in The New York Times that I thought were illustrative. There was one article about how South Korea was about to sign a military pact with Japan. I read the headline and thought, “Oh…this is going to become complicated.” Of course, the very next day there was an article about how the South Korean legislature had essentially forced the president to renege because the pact was negotiated in secret, ignored all the historical issues between Korea and Japan, and was unacceptable to the public. The articles themselves provided very little background on these issues and the meaning they held for the public, and gave the impression that the setback was unexpected and that the issues were ancient history. But readers with some knowledge of East Asian history could see from the first article that the process wasn’t going to be that simple, that it wasn’t going to happen the way the officials wanted it to. I think most readers of the Times had no idea what was going on. For them, a military pact between South Korea and Japan is perhaps not very surprising. But to those who know the history…
BH: Some might be thinking, why do they even need a treaty? The war was a long time ago…
KL: Right. It’s incredible how just a little knowledge about history allows you to have better understanding of the world. But about your point: I’ve been very surprised by the reception of “The Man Who Ended History.” I really didn’t think anyone was going to be interested in it.
BH: Why did you think that?
KL: It has to do with what I went through when I was writing it. I did a lot of research by reaching out to the denialists over the Internet. Some of the denialists claim to be Westerners–though there is no way for me to verify that. They participate in English forums and appear to have as their goal the denial of every single war crime committed by Japan during World War Two: “comfort women,” the Nanjing Massacre, Unit 731, etc. etc.
Whenever the denialists show up, they take over the discussion and the other members of the forum end up not sure what to believe. The denialists are very successful at this game. Often, you see the other posters conclude by saying some variant of “Okay, we don’t know what really happened. We don’t care, either.”
I was trying to understand the perspective of these denialists.
It was extremely depressing to engage with them, so much so that it made me lose faith in humanity in some measure just to see the depth of the hatred that these people have for the Koreans and the Chinese. It’s a very curious phenomenon. I was overwhelmed by the experience to some extent. On the one hand, I thought no one was going to be interested in this story, and on the other, I feared that the only people interested in it would be the denialists–to attack it.
So I was very surprised by the general reception. It restored a lot of my faith in the community of readers. Although this is a community where many don’t share my historical background and my cultural references, many in the community could see the importance of this piece of history to me, could empathize with my belief in the universality of being human, of taking a stand against evil. I was very touched by the ways in which writers I don’t know at all have told me that they were very moved by it and that they had found it meaningful.
BH: You dedicated the story to Iris Chang. And we all know about her suicide…
KL: Yes. The story is also very much about her and what she went through. I don’t claim to know in any way, shape, or measure what she went through, but even with the little bit of engagement that I had with denialists, I could see what pushed her to that point. I was very depressed, dealing with these denialists constantly and getting their hate mail and blog comments.
BH: I was not aware of the size and force of the denialist movement. With Iris Chang, I thought it was primarily the horrendous details she had uncovered during her research….
KL: She received death threats. The denialists hounded her. A lot of the details in my novella–the kinds of questions raised by skeptics and denialists–are modeled on the questions she was being asked.
BH: Have you heard from any of the denialists after the publication of your story?
KL: I’ve certainly not heard the kind of hatred I got while reaching out to them during the research phase. I suppose that just means that the novella hasn’t been read by many people.
BH: That may change with the Nebula and Hugo nominations. I’m curious: Evan Wei, the historian in the novella, has a very tragic ending to his life. How would you like him to be read, to be regarded by the readers?
KL: I don’t know if I have a good answer to that. He is, in many ways, a summation of what I see as the complexities of understanding history and trying to face history. Evan tried to do something he believed was right and good. And as the novella shows, there are negative consequences to what he did and the way he approached it.
He tried to do the right thing for the victims, but in some ways he may have harmed their cause. I know that many readers of the novella think it is about the atrocities of Unit 731, and it is about that. But the larger point of the novella is the way in which we in the contemporary world react to these historical events. There is no single right perspective on what we ought to do. In the novella, Evan is both praised and criticized by characters of many nationalities: Chinese, Japanese, American, Taiwanese, etc. Everyone comes to view his work differently.
In spite of potential unintended consequences, we still feel the need to act. So what does it mean to “do the right thing” when you don’t know for sure what that is? The typical American answer is that you do it anyway and deal with the consequences as they come, and this is what Evan chose to do. But I think that some who are steeped in Chinese tradition might say that perhaps the right thing is to not act, especially in light of great uncertainties and potential harm.
How would I like Evan to be read? It depends on what you think is the right thing to do.
BH: These are pertinent questions I see what my more socially conscious students grapple with in profound ways. When they encounter history they had not known, they agonize over how to act on it. Now that they have this knowledge, what are the courses of action they ought to take? Are there correctives that need to be put in place? What should they do to ensure that awful histories aren’t repeated? It led me to consider your use of the word “end” in the title. The “end” of history could also mean, of course, the “purpose” of history.
KL: This novella is where I feel I’ve come closest to my vision of what I want to do with my fiction, even though it is not the best work I’ve done technically, and there are many flaws with it. But overall, it has been satisfying to me because of the way it tries to encompass the multiplicity of perspectives. With the exception of a few minor characters, no one in the story is an outright denialist. But the people who are not outright denialists are nonetheless committing forms of evil in Evan’s view because, to him, they are allowing contemporary political realities to trump our desired reactions to historical crimes, which permeate our lives like ghosts.
Nisi Shawl, while talking recently about writing postcolonial fiction, said, “I know I’m treading on the bones of those who went before me. It’s unsteady ground, even if I’m related to the giants beneath my feet. I walk respectfully, carefully, listening with my outer and inner ears. Repeating what I hear, what you already know, but saying it in my way.”[ix]
That’s what I tried to do in this story. I’m treading on bones I revere, and I tried to be extremely careful about what I could and did say. The hope is to honor the victims and those who tried to give them a voice and to capture the complexity, the pain, and the irresolvable nature of many of these historical issues due to the way they are tied up inextricably with contemporary politics. The dead are, and should be, very much still with the living.
BH: These echo the concerns of those who write about the Holocaust. Art Spiegelman’s self-critical frames of Artie sitting over a pile of corpses in Maus speaks to this, as does the cartoon in the New Yorker of a camp prisoner holding an Oscar in response to Roberto Benigni’s reception of the Academy Award for Life is Beautiful. I could see how “The Man Who Ended History” was a very fraught, personal piece for you to write.
Let’s shift a little. What are your thoughts on treatments of race and ethnicity in science fiction, generally? I know–huge question. Let me reformulate it with more answerable parameters. Which writers have you read whose representations of Asia, Asians, and cultural and racial difference more broadly you appreciate?
KL: This might surprise you, but I really like what Orson Scott Card did in Xenocide. I thought it was one of the most empathetic representations of a nominally Chinese culture that I’ve seen in speculative fiction from that era. Maybe it’s related to Card’s experiences as a missionary, which probably taught him a great deal about attempts to understand other cultures as an outsider. The portrayal of a “Chinese” worldview in the novel feels simplistic, but there is an essential ring of truth to it that perceptive outsiders can sometimes bring to their description of a culture not theirs.
In good representations of Chinese culture in speculative fiction by non-Chinese writers, they tend not to get all the details right, but they can get the right feel, the soul, if you will, of the culture they’re trying to portray. I think that’s what Card did in Xenocide.
Card also said in one of his afterwords that he finds it useful to divide the world’s cultures into cultures that view themselves as centers and cultures that view themselves as edges. It’s an interesting model. One thing that struck me, as someone who mediates between the Chinese and the American sides of my life, is that I think there are many similarities between the ways Chinese and Americans view themselves. These are both cultures that perceive themselves to be centers, to be special in some way. Americans are very attached to the idea of American exceptionalism, where anything that America does is automatically right, and that the idea of America is worth preserving, fighting for, and passing on, no matter how America may be “in decline.”
The Chinese are very similar in that way. Throughout the last few centuries–a very tumultuous period in Chinese history–the “centeredness” of China has remained a cultural constant. Even today, if you talk to very Westernized young people in China, deep down–and please keep in mind this is a generalization, fraught with problems attached to all generalizations–they believe that the idea of China, and of being Chinese, is important, valuable, worth preserving and fighting for. They might be extremely critical of their current government and the inadequate ways, in their view, in which the culture is transforming itself, but this essential attachment to the idea of China, and the idea of America, as a center is very similar between the two peoples. I think that’s what Card got right. And it’s something I tried to bring out in “Saving Face.”
Other than Card…well, I won’t single anyone out. I’ve certainly seen a lot of bad portrayals of Japanese as well as Chinese characters. There is also a general neglect of interesting representations outside of the “big three” of Japan, China, and Korea. For example, whenever Taiwan is portrayed, the complexities of its history–as an erstwhile Japanese colony that had a very different colonial experience from that of Korea or Okinawa, and with layers to its makeup left by the successive waves of immigrants from the mainland–are generally neglected. The same goes for representations of Okinawa, which many in the West see as simply the “tropical” part of Japan, not being aware of its earlier history as an independent kingdom or its unique position as a hub between China and Japan. These histories are contested and layered and inform the present in various ways, and I try to delve into those layers in my fiction.
BH: Do you read fiction by Asian American writers?
KL: I’ve read some. I took a seminar in Asian American lit while at Harvard, which turned me on to many of the works in this canon. For example, Kogawa’s Obasan, Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, etc. I know that many of these works are not widely read now. Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter, for example, is, in my view, very important, but very few people know of it. It is an amazing book, taken in context.
Of all works by Asian American writers, the ones I admire most are Philip Kan Gotanda’s “Yankee Dawg You Die” and Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men. China Men is such a moving portrayal of the male Chinese American perspective. Nothing I’ve read after has ever come close.
BH: Your point about Jade Snow Wong and some of the mid-century classics in Asian American literature are well noted–they are not well known at all. But that’s the result of a good development: contemporary Asian American writers are producing so much fine work, and so prolifically. And I agree with you about China Men …
KL: That’s great to hear. Most people read The Woman Warrior, which I think is wonderful as well, but I think China Men is more moving.
And there’s always this idea, real or not, that the successful contemporary Chinese American writers are women and they tend to write about the experience of women. And so there is much more familiarity with Chinese American female perspectives and experiences. The male writers have met with less commercial success. China Men is, of course, written by a woman writer, but it’s about the experiences of men. And she does such a wonderful job of it.
BH: And of course the book contains multiple responses–to Frank Chin’s charges of her playing fast and loose with fact and myth, to the fetishization of Asian women writers by the literary marketplace, to the interesting relationship between fiction and history. On the latter point, I teach the chapter on the building of the transcontinental railroad, “The Grandfather of the Sierra Nevada Mountains,” alongside Ronald Takaki’s chapter on the Chinese railroad workers. It’s a good comparative exercise for students to consider what each genre achieves that the other does not, and it generates interesting discussions about the “ends” of history and fiction. Not to mention those beautiful passages of Ah Goong looking wistfully at the night sky …
KL: It’s so lyrical. It’s unbelievable. China Men is actually the kernel from which another of my stories sprung. It’s a historical fantasy piece called “All the Flavors,” just published this year, about Chinese miners in the Idaho mountains in the 1860s.[x] It’s one of my personal favorites. I wrote it as a law school paper, believe it or not.
BH: Really! Fiction for a law school paper?
KL: Yes. It’s a novella, just published online at GigaNotoSaurus. There are several scenes in the story I think you will recognize that echo scenes in China Men. I hope I’m not doing the annoying thing that authors do by pushing my fiction…
BH: No, no. The thing is, when we do our due diligence, we try to read everything by the writer. But your output of late has outpaced my rate of consumption. I gave up at some point in the interest of making this interview happen sooner rather than later.
KL: [Laughs] Well, “All the Flavors” is the longest piece I’ve ever written. And it is very much inspired by China Men.
BH: Watch any sci-fi television?
KL: I loved Firefly. I used to be a huge Trekkie, but not so much for the more recent series…
BH: Which Trek?
KL: Well, you can probably figure it out. Given my age, I’m much more of a fan of The Next Generation than anything that came after.
BH: That’s the best one, hands down.
KL: Yes. I like the way that The Next Generation, more than the subsequent series, tries to treat compromise as a value, whereas the later series are far more focused on being gritty and dark.
BH: Enterprise, in particular…
KL: Yes. I was not a fan of that one. Of the more recent stuff, I do like Doctor Who. It’s fun and the writing is great. And I love Battlestar Galactica. It’s wonderfully executed.
BH: The Ron Moore version, I’m sure? Great show. Okay, a question to wrap up the interview. If you were to teach a course in speculative fiction, what would be on the reading list?
KL: Cory Doctorow. I would teach a lot of Cory Doctorow.
BH: I’ve not read anything by Doctorow. What would you recommend?
KL: You haven’t? You must! Every single one of his works is brilliant. I would start with Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Cory is interesting because he thinks deeply about issues of intellectual property, copyright, and the way our reputational culture is evolving. His extrapolations are so compelling that you feel they must be true, that they’re already true. His worlds are often halfway between utopias and dystopias, both attractive and repulsive. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom transformed the way I think about the reputational economy around us. He also talks about copyright in such a compelling way, at least to me, a lawyer interested in intellectual property.
I’d teach anything by Ursula Le Guin, an amazing writer who I think is under-appreciated. The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are incredible novels. The Dispossessed is particularly interesting because it deals with anarchism, communism, and the overwhelmingly materialist culture of capitalism in a way that is didactic but not boring. Maybe some of her work is dated because they are focused on a binary struggle between two camps that is very much the nature of the Cold War. But as a child of the Cold War, I can feel and relate to what she is dramatizing more deeply than perhaps some of the younger readers.
BH: I remember reading The Dispossessed when I was about sixteen years old, when I barely knew my left from my right. I remember announcing to my friends after reading it that I must be a communist! Because at that time, even with a fairly simplistic understanding of the political systems and ideologies portrayed in the novel, I felt that I would much rather live on Shevek’s socialist-anarchist home planet, Anarres, than the nominally capitalist one he visits, Urras.
KL: [Laughs] Yes. And yet Le Guin doesn’t take a position. When you read through the whole work–
BH: She doesn’t romanticize the life on Shevek’s planet. Life is harsh and brutal there. But then you are so disoriented when you arrive on Urras. Ambiguous utopias indeed. In any case, it was an influential book in my literary education and my budding political consciousness.
KL: Le Guin’s craft is truly something. She writes polemical texts that aren’t simplistic.
BH: That’s certainly true for The Left Hand of Darkness and all of its intricate political machinations among the nations on the planet Gethen. What do you think of “shifgrethor,” the art of indirection in the manners of some Gethenians, as either subtly or explicitly Asianized?
KL: I know that Le Guin has been criticized for her use of outdated linguistic tropes. But I read it as an interesting way of depicting how outsiders view the inscrutability of the supposed Asian way of indirection.
BH: So what else or who else would you teach in your course?
KL: Octavia Butler, of course–just another amazing writer. Butler is interesting because she often rejects the conventional Western answer to threats or violence. In her work, the point is often not to fight. In many cases, there isn’t anything to fight for or fight about anymore. You just have to adapt, and often to what is being forced on you. And her scenarios, as metaphoric narratives about colonialism, are very well conceived.
BH: And of course many object fiercely to that kind of adaptation, especially if they see it as a form of defeat in a win-lose scenario. When I teach the Xenogenesis series, passionate debates sometimes break out in class, and often along gender lines. Some of the men in the class…
KL: They hate it, right?
BH: Yes, because for some, the Oankali’s terms are bound up with an emasculated condition they can’t abide. More often than not, the women in the class are more open to the future proposed by the Oankali.
KL: It’s interesting that you’ve found reactions to Xenogenesis to be a gendered issue. I’ve found reactions to her work to be largely divided on whether you have knowledge of or experience with colonialism.
BH: There is definitely that set of reactions from my students as well. Their sympathies with either the colonized humans or the colonizing Oankali race depend largely on whether they see the humans as imperialists who have met their comeuppance, or as colonized natives whose resistance–a form of a cultural nationalist response–is an understandable reaction, even if it means the preservation of a very static definition of humanity.
KL: Incidentally, I think this is similar to reactions to E. Lily Yu’s “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” another Nebula and Hugo nominee in the short story category.[xi] It’s a lovely piece, but reactions to it are very, very divided. There are those who love the story, and I count myself among them. And then there are those who say that they just don’t understand what the point of the story is, that the story makes no sense to them whatsoever. I think you will like it.
Lily is a subtle and sophisticated writer, and this is one of those stories that is very short, but has a deep political undercurrent. It’s told in the form of a literary fable with these bees and wasps that are anthropomorphized.
But that’s not the story at all. The story is much darker, especially for those who know a little about history, colonialism, and the politics of identity.
Because the idea that something has been done to you, and you can’t get rid of it anymore and will just have to learn to live with it, is very much a narrative of the colonized.
[i] “The Algorithm for Love”: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2004/20040712/algorithms.shtml.
[ii] “The Paper Menagerie”: http://sf-fantasy.suvudu.com/2011/07/new-story-from-fantasy-science-fiction-magazine-2.html.
[iv] Ken Liu, “Monkeys,” Nature 484 (19 April 2012): 410. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v484/n7394/full/484410a.html
[x] “All the Flavors”: http://giganotosaurus.org/2012/02/01/all-the-flavors/