How novelist Ken Liu is bringing Chinese sci-fi to the Western world
“Trying to predict the future is a loser’s game,” Ken Liu says from his office in Massachusetts, in the United States. Just how strange this sentence sounds depends largely on which Ken Liu is talking. If it is Ken Liu the corporate lawyer, just beginning his morning’s work, you wouldn’t give the declaration much thought. If, however, you’re quizzing Ken Liu, the 40-year-old rising star of the international science-fiction scene, then a statement disparaging prediction is more intriguing, to say the least.
Disparage /dɪˈspærɪdʒ/ to suggest that sb/sth is not important or valuable 贬低；轻视
To be fair, Liu is responding to my crude, if unavoidable, opening question: is something special happening in the universe of Chinese science fiction right now? Last year, Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem became a global bestseller and the first translated work to win the prestigious Hugo Award for best novel (the Hugos are sci-fi’s Oscars). This year, Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing won the Hugo for best novelette, beating none other than Stephen King to the prize. And Ken Liu had a hand in the success of both works, bringing them to international attention.
Despite his protestations – “I am not an expert on Chinese science fiction. I probably know more than anyone else in the West, but that doesn’t actually mean I am an expert” – Liu is an ideal person to respond.
Born in Lanzhou, Gansu province, but resident in the United States since he was 11, Liu began his writing career with short stories. His most famous work, The Paper Menagerie, won several awards, including a Hugo. Liu has since expanded his range, producing two novels – The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms – that mix fantasy, speculative fiction and a universe founded on Eastern and Western narrative traditions.
Liu’s preferred term for the hybrid is “silkpunk”. When asked for a definition, he says it is about rebellion, about “respectfully appropriating the past and disrespectfully challenging authority”. This has its political, technological and cultural dimensions, but also literary ones. Liu says his imagination was fired by foundational Western epics such as Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey.
“I am also blessed, unlike my fellow Anglophone peers, with this very rich Chinese literary tradition, from the old historical romances all the way up to modern web serials,” he says. In particular, he recalls rushing home from school to eat lunch with his grandmother and listen to performances of stories such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms on the radio.
Anglophone /ˈæŋɡləʊfəʊn/ a person who speaks English, especially in countries where English is not the only language that is spoken 讲英语的人（尤指在英语非唯一语言的国家）
“What is fascinating to me is the way I view everything in terms of parallels and connections. When I read about Achilles and Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad, I can see parallels in Chinese historical romances, in the way the first emperor of the Han dynasty and his chief rival are portrayed.”
One obvious consequence of Liu’s dual nationality is his more recent work translating some of China’s finest contemporary science-fiction writers into English. “When I act as a translator, I am really doing a performance for my fellow Anglophone readers in the West,” he says.
The conspicuous successes of Liu Cixin and Hao have made Ken Liu the unofficial cheerleader for Chinese science fiction on the global stage. This status will only be enhanced by the recently released Invisible Planets, an anthology of short stories compiled and edited by Liu, from some of China’s leading science-fiction authors.
In addition to Liu Cixin and Hao (whose excellent Folding Beijing is included), there are stories by Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, Tang Fei, Ma Boyong and Cheng Jingbo. Bookending the fiction are illuminating essays by both Lius (Ken and Cixin), Chen and Xia, exploring everything from a history of Chinese speculative writing to how the genre reflects 21st-century China itself.
（注：1、《看不见的星球》收录的短篇小说包括： 陈楸帆《鼠年》《丽江的鱼儿们》《沙嘴之花》；夏笳《百鬼夜行街》《童童的夏天》《龙马夜行》；马伯庸《寂静之城》；郝景芳《看不见的星球》《北京折叠》；糖匪《黄色故事》； 程婧波《萤火虫之墓》； 刘慈欣《圆》《赡养上帝》。
Liu’s increasingly visible sideline as a translator owes more to happenstance than design. “It was something I did originally by accident and as a fan. I was reading these very exciting stories and novels being published in China, but my fellow Anglophone fans were unable to read them.”
Liu’s big break came when Chen asked Liu’s opinion of a new English translation of his story, The Fish of Lijiang. “It was very competent,” Liu recalls. “But it didn’t have what is needed in literary translation, which is to capture the voice of the writer.” Liu told Chen it would be easier to completely rewrite the translation than to fix it – which is what he did. “That little accidental favour for a friend turned into something I have done regularly.”
Break piece of luck, esp one that leads to further success 机会; 幸运; （尤指）转运, 转机: a big/lucky break 难得的[幸运的]机会
Liu estimates he has translated more than 40 pieces of short fiction and four novels, including what became Liu Cixin’s Three-Body trilogy. In addition, Liu is working on a number of projects that should see the light of day over the next year: translations of Chen’s debut novel, The Waste Tide, and Baoshu’s “fan fiction” extension to The Three-Body Problem, Three-Body X.
See the light of day to begin to exist or to become publicly known about 开始存在；问世；开始为人所知
Liu sounds circumspect when the conversation returns to that initial question about the “sudden” popularity of Chinese science fiction. “I don’t like generalisations. If you ask 100 different Chinese science-fiction authors to give you the summary of present science fiction, they will give you equally diverse answers.”
For evidence, Liu points to the variety of voices in Invisible Planets. “Chen Qiufan or Ma Boyong write stories that feel very pessimistic about where progress has taken us, about what we have given up to be technological humans.” Contrasting with these dystopias are stories such as Xia’s Tongtong’s Summer, which starts as a melancholy portrait of old age and China’s widening generation gap, and ends with a strangely touching, hopeful vision of an automated future. “She is saying, ‘We have made a lot of progress but people are adaptable. We can figure out how to make this all work.’ It’s not about better plans from the government or magical fairies coming down to save us. Change comes from the individual taking responsibility for their own happiness and trying to convert the tools of cold, impersonal technology, of globalised capitalism, into our own freedoms.”
Melancholy /ˈmelənkəli/ a deep feeling of sadness that lasts for a long time and often cannot be explained 忧郁；伤悲
Liu concedes that contemporary China provides fertile soil for the writers in Invisible Planets. “Liu Cixin said that sometimes the reason that science fiction is in decline is our lives are becoming more like science fiction. When people can’t figure out whether a rumour that Apple’s next iPhone is a transparent piece of glass is true or not …” Liu laughs.
While grappling with cutting-edge technological development is nothing new, in science fiction or life, what distinguishes China from the rest of the world is the sheer scale and speed of that change. “The industrial advances that took centuries in Western nations have occurred in roughly 30 years,” he says. “Within the space of two generations, you have families where the parents lived an existence essentially like the 19th century and their children are now in Beijing working at some of the most advanced technological companies in the world.”
Grapple with to try hard to find a solution to a problem 努力设法解决
If one grand theme unites the new generation of authors, it is attempting to narrate the social, political and personal confusions created by this intense transformation. “My personal view is that a lot of urban Chinese – the educated elite – feel a great deal of anxiety because they are experiencing modernity in a very compressed and accelerated fashion.”
Liu is only too aware that the hi-tech aspects of this present are not the whole story. He mentions Hao, who as well as writing award-winning stories works with children in rural villages whose parents have left to find work in distant cities. “In China, you have hundreds of millions of children who don’t even have basic nutrition. They grow up in concrete houses paid for by their parents’ wages but the concrete floors are bare.” Hao helps the grandparents raising these abandoned children learn better childcare techniques.
While even the best science fiction cannot hope to match such noble practical contributions, Liu argues that it can help breed empathy. And empathy, he continues, is ultimately what links the sardonic surfaces of Chen’s The Year of the Rat and the surrealism of Tang Fei’s Call Girl, both of which are included in Invisible Planets.
Sardonic /sɑːˈdɒnɪk/ showing that you think that you are better than other people and do not take them seriously 轻慢的；轻蔑的；嘲弄的
“It is about connection. Fundamentally, what we need is a story to make sense of it all. We need to tell each other stories, to make up new stories to transport us, to give us a moral centre in this very chaotic, impersonal sea of data.” Liu pauses. “I think it is very beautiful.”
Lao Dao had gone home, first to shower and then to change. He was wearing a white shirt and a pair of brown pants—the only decent clothes he owned. The shirt’s cuffs were frayed, so he rolled them up to his elbows.
People who had just gotten off work filled the road. Men and women crowded every street vendor, picking through local produce and bargaining loudly. Customers packed the plastic tables at the food hawker stalls, which were immersed in the aroma of frying oil. They ate heartily with their faces buried in bowls of hot and sour rice noodles, their heads hidden by clouds of white steam. Other stands featured mountains of jujubes and walnuts, and hunks of cured meat swung overhead. This was the busiest hour of the day—work was over, and everyone was hungry and loud.
The dishes were a mess while pairs of chopsticks continued to search for elusive, overlooked bits of meat amongst the chopped peppers. Lao Dao sniffed his forearms again to be sure that the stench of garbage was off of him. The noisy, quotidian chaos around him assured him with its familiarity.
The other two youths weren’t interested in the conversation and concentrated on shoveling food from the plate into the mouth. Li watched them, and his yearning gaze seemed to go through them and focus on something beyond.
The loud chants of the woman next to him hawking her jujube interrupted his thoughts and gave him a headache.
Strong–willed, Lao Dao’s father had held fast onto the thin reed of opportunity as the tide of humanity surged and then receded around him, until he found himself a survivor on the dry beach. His father had then kept his head down and labored away in the acidic rotten fetor of garbage and crowding for twenty years. He had built this city; he was also a resident and a decomposer.
This was their lot: to eke out a living by performing the repetitive drudgery as fast as possible, to toil hour after hour for rewards as thin as the wings of cicadas.