The Orbital Library: Interviewing Ken Liu

“All writers are writing science fiction in a certain sense in so far as they explore concepts of alienation and modernity.”

Ken Liu is a Chinese-born American writer whose body of translations and original fiction is helping shed light on the current boom of science fiction and fantasy writing in China to English-speaking audiences. A lawyer and programmer by profession, he made his publishing debut with “The Paper Menagerie,” a short story about a mail-order bride and her son coping with cultural alienation through the care of sentient origami animals. The story swept the science fiction and fantasy establishment, garnering the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards in a stroke. Many more stories and translations were to follow.

Liu first came to my attention through his translation of The Three-Body Problem, the first book in a trilogy by the bestselling author Cixin Liu, popularly regarded as the key figure in China’s science fiction community.

The novel is made up of two interwoven narratives, one set in near-future China (no concrete dates are given) and the other during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Ye Wenjie is an astrophysicist and engineer whose father is brutally murdered during an uprising of the Red Guards. Branded a reactionary because of her family ties, she is sent to  a rural labor camp. Her troubles are compounded when the authorities learn of her interest in the nascent environmental movement.

Back the present day, Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher, is called in to assist an investigation into a series of suspicious deaths, all involving fellow top-level scientists who committed suicide following abrupt and unexplained problems involving their research projects. These deaths have an apparent connection to Three Body, an immersive virtual reality game where players build civilizations on an inhospitable world governed by three stars, Trisolaris.

The narrative alternates between episodes of high adventure and rigorous exposition, covering everything from the early history of computing to erosion issues in rural China. Underlying all these events is a particular concern about the state of scientific progress. The scientists in Three Body come to grief over whether they can truly understand the natural universe.

This theme finds rich echoes in the science fiction of the last forty years, particularly in Definitely Maybe, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. But while the Soviet scientists of that novella worked against an abstract force of nature stopping their research, the antagonists of The Three-Body Problem are embodied and willful. Some are even human beings.

Below is a conversation I had with Ken Liu about Three Body, translating from Chinese, and his original fiction.

You describe yourself as having a fondness for “sentences that sound perfect only in one language.” Can you give a favorite example?

I can give you several:

“Traduttore, traditore.” (Italian: “to translate is to betray”)

((lambda (x) `(,(reverse x) ‘,x)) ‘(`(,(reverse x) ‘,x) (x) lambda)) <— this is a quine in the programming language Scheme: it’s a program that results in itself when executed. No quine in other languages has quite Lisp’s beauty.

“Hige sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre, mōd sceal þē māre, þē ūre mægen lytlað.” (Anglo-Saxon, from The Battle of Maldon. The sound qualities are impossible to replicate in a translation)

You recently received special recognition at the Xingyun Awards [the Chinese counterpart to the Hugo Awards] for your translation of The Three-Body Problem and wrote about the large amount of support and goodwill you’ve received from fans of the book. Frankly, I can’t think of a case where British or American readers were as interested in the foreign reception of their favorite author. Why do you think that’s the case with Liu Cixin?

I think this is largely the result of the colonial legacy of the modern world. Western culture, especially Anglo-American culture, has a hegemonic hold on the rest of the world. For members of marginalized cultures like the Chinese, receiving Western recognition for a beloved literary artifact via translation brings a complex mixture of emotions, among them joy due to validation and affirmation. British and American readers, belonging to a hegemonic culture, would not understand or experience such emotions, as exporting their cultural artifacts to the rest of the world is commonplace.

My hope is that over time, as and if Western hegemony recedes, Chinese fans will treat positive Western reception for a translated Chinese book with simple equanimity or not care about it at all.

Three Body contains a lot of exposition on different topics in science and technology, which implies a certain register in English because of Greek and Latinate roots. So I’m curious about the terminology in Chinese. Does that make for a stylistic challenge in translation?

The language of science in modern Chinese is largely derived via translation from the West (first through Japanese—at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th—and then latter directly from English and other European languages). To discuss these words in depth would require space far beyond what an interview like this can provide, but yes, there is a rhythm and “feel” to science discussions that would be different from passages describing love or fear.

Translation-wise, the scientific passages are the least challenging from a linguistic point of view—as I noted, the Chinese words are derived from translation in the first place. But they are challenging in the sense that I can’t just provide a word-for-word translation of the scientific concepts. I try to understand the science and the engineering details and then re-describe what Liu Cixin is describing in a manner that I think is more lucid or effective for English readers.

Of course, the register effect you note in English (or the stylistic differences I note above in Chinese) is likely only noticeable to someone who is paying attention specifically to it. There’s a certain aesthetic in science fiction (and one which Liu Cixin largely subscribes to) which states that the prose used to tell a science fiction should be largely transparent, and the language should not draw attention to itself. I think Liu largely succeeds, but he doesn’t strictly follow this maxim, as there are places in his books where he goes for much more poetic and memorable renderings that revel in the beauty of language.

In the first volume at least, Three Body takes a very pessimistic view regarding humanity’s continued survival (at least in the long term) and the usefulness of science and technology for achieving that end. Is that a common element in Liu’s work? If so, how does he treat the theme elsewhere?

It’s interesting you view it that way. I’d argue that Liu Cixin is an optimist (this will be more apparent in the next two books). I’ll quote you something Liu Cixin himself said in an interview:

I am an adamant optimist when it comes to humanity’s future. I believe science and technology can bring us a bright future, but the journey to achieve it will be filled with difficulties and exact a price from us. Some of these obstacles and costs will be quite terrible, but in the end we will land on the sunlit further shore. Let me quote the Chinese poet Xu Zhimo from the beginning of the last century, who, after a trip to the Soviet Union, said, “Over there, they believe in the existence of Heaven, but there is a sea of blood that lies between Heaven and Hell, and they’ve decided to cross the sea.” This is a theme in all of my fiction.

Liu Cixin is credited for lending a certain amount of respectability to science fiction among China’s literary establishment. Are you also seeing Chinese writers of mainstream literature experimenting with the genre, such as, for example, Gary Shteyngart or Mitchel Faber in English?

I’m not very fond of genre labels, and so I would argue that all writers are writing science fiction in a certain sense in so far as they explore concepts of alienation and modernity and “what it means to be human” and all the other tropes that are literalized to a greater degree in works typically marketed as “science fiction.” This is no different in Chinese than in English.

I will note that many science-fiction writers (in both America and China) will not agree with me because they have a different definition of “science fiction.” That is fine :-) I do not particularly care about agreeing with them.

You now have two short story collections translated into Chinese. How closely did you work with the translator(s)? And on that note, how, if at all, does the practice of translation inform your own original writing?

Depends on the story. In some cases I work very closely with the translator—especially if we have a good working relationship and consider each other friends. In other cases I provide only some minor corrections and feedback. In still other cases I have nothing to do with the translation at all.

I think after doing so much translation work, I’ve become much more aware of inequalities in the relative prestige of different languages and cultures—and the effects such inequalities have on artists and audiences. I would like to see the world become a flatter place, where one language isn’t considered “more prestigious” than another and one culture isn’t deemed “more powerful” or “better” than another, but that is a dream as unlikely as the wildest imaginings of science-fiction. In my own writing, I think I pay much more attention now to marginalized voices and cultures deemed “inferior” by those with louder voices and better weapons.


Ken Liu’s fiction has appeared in F&SF, Asimov’s, Analog, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld, among other places. He is a winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards. He lives near Boston with his family. Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a fantasy series, will be published by Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint, in 2015. Saga will also publish a collection of his short stories.

Matthew Spencer is a writer, born and raised in western Colorado, who lives in Seattle, Washington. He worked as an English-language teaching assistant for the 2013-14 academic year in the town of Bad Ischl, Upper Austria. He blogs about art, music, history, and literature at Unpaginated.