Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ken Liu and The Wall of Storms

Multiple award-winning epic fantasy and "silkpunk" author Ken Liu stopped by the show to talk about his new book, The Wall of Storms, which came out on October 4th. He said that writing this second book was a challenge because while he'd had unlimited time to write the first book, The Grace of Kings, he had to complete this one in only a year.

He said that he did have an outline, which he spoke of in terms of "islands to sail to" in both the figurative and literal senses. He said that he had copious notes which helped a lot, and that he know what kind of book it needed to be.

He had a really interesting answer when I asked him about how he went about fleshing out his outline. Ken is super interested in epic narratives, and foundational narratives, and he said that he was particularly interested in how foundational narratives have different meanings for different groups of people over time. One example he gave was the foundational narrative of the United States, which includes a statement about "self-evident truths." At the time it was written, he noted, the narrative didn't include African-Americans. He noted that now is another time of change for the foundational narratives of the US. These are stories that we live as well as stories that we tell.

Ken sees The Wall of Storms as an illustration of the way foundational narratives change. He compared Book 1, The Grace of Kings, to the Oddyssey and the Iliad because it featured larger-than-life characters doing larger-than-life things and ended with the foundation of a new order. Book 2, The Wall of Storms, is a re-reading of the original narrative bringing in the voices of the poor and women who had less of a role in Book 1. They enlarge and revise the narration.

Ken points out that The Wall of Storms begins with an incident where events from Book 1 are being told by a storyteller. However, the way the story is told does not match Book 1. Mata Zyndu is idealized into a resister to the new order, and changed in a way he would not recognize, just as we revise Greek and Roman narratives.

There is another scene where Kuni Garu's children are called on to evaluate the story of Princess Kikomi, and his daughter Théra gives a new reading for the story. Her teacher welcomes this challenge.

Ken says, "The series in a lot of ways is very meta."

The narrative he creates is very complex. Ken says human beings are narrative-driven, not data-driven. "We don't write some optimization function" for our lives, but we create stories about them that make sense to us. This is one reason why stories are powerful. They define our notions of justice and fairness. This series features repeated uses and misuses of narrative. In Book 1, the gods' play is misused by a human to achieve his ends, and this happens quite a bit in The Wall of Storms. Jia, the new invading leaders, the children, and the soldiers are brave or not brave depending on the story they imagine themselves to be a part of.

Ken says this kind of "meta," self-conscious writing can feel a bit distancing, because it reminds people they are reading a story, which can affect immersion. However, it reflects his own thinking about stories.

He creates complex plots using a wiki of detailed notes about characters, plot, geography, history, dates, food, timelines, etc. One of the things that was new in Book 2 was that he tried to break it up by writing certain chapters in close point of view through letters, pseudohistories, and indirect interior monologue. He wanted to create the feel for a different type of book - one which dealt with second generation political realities rather than a larger-than-life, almost mythic history.

I asked Ken about changes in the character of Jia. He told me that the shift in her character was planned. Book 1 doesn't have a "place" for everyone in it. His plan required that women and other points of view assert themselves in Book 2 to deliberately "blow it up." Jia is constrained in BOok 1, but is growing by the end in her goals and ambitions. It's not clear if she is a hero or a villain, and he says it's "natural" not to know how to take her. It has to do with the question of how we understand history. In The Wall of Storms, the official view of Princess Kikomi accepts the destruction of her reputation, but Princess Théra tries to recover the truth. Jia reveals her motives but in ambivalent ways. She should be a believable, powerful politician who is not likeable. Ken says there is too much emphasis on people being likeable. Jia is one of the most important points of view in the book. Ken designed her to be respected.

I also asked about the character of Zomi. She is one of a new generation of charaters, and Ken describes her as an indication of the success of the new regime and its idea of meritocracy. She comes from a humble background but rises by dint of talent and education to become a powerful figure. In other ways, though, this narrative gets subverted. She had luck in finding a teacher who would advance her. Is that cronyism? Is the promise of social mobility by education an illusion? There are parallels to this in the real world, and the answer to those questions is not clear. Ken says the examination scene is one of his favorites, because he wrote it like a battle scene. He says, "Some of our most defining moments are exams." Zomi criticizes the regime but at the same time is an example of its success. She says there are hundreds of others like her who were not advanced, and asks how anyone can claim the system is just. She critiques the system that she benefits from.

I asked Ken about what kind of advances he made in his "silkpunk" technology. He says that the technology "progresses apace both in peace and in war." He described progress as a kind of poetry. Epic poets don't memorize, but build from a basic outline using tropes and phrases in an improvisation. Engineers have a storehouse of techniques that they improvise with. Technology relies on discoveries that can be harnessed. People learn about new forces and physical phenomena. He wanted this to be low-magic fantasy, where magic is restricted to artifacts and to the gods. The engineers are like the wizards, performing great feats of wonder and amazement. At the end, he says, the nerds and geeks are heroes because new tech "saves the world." Engineers who defy the status quo find new ways to win.

I remarked on how in several places Ken relies on bare dialogue to do his worldbuilding. The risk here, as he describes it, is falling into "As you know, Bob" dialogue where two people converse pointlessly about something they already know. He says he prefers to do infodumps straight as infodumps... but he also says, "I enjoy reading science papers for fun."

One of his favorite scenes is a discussion of tax policy between Kuni and an advisor. Even tax policy can be a lot of fun if explained in the right way. People talk about things that are relevant to them. There are even places where they talk about the foundation of the Dara writing system, and how it enables conversation and inhibits literary production.

Ken says the whole idea of the gods is big in The Wall of storms. It reflects the way gods change, as when Roman and Christian belief systems incorporated practices from the pagan systems that preceded them. This isn't often portrayed in fiction. The Dara gods were not native to the area, and changed with their migration. In this book we see invaders bringing new ideas and the gods responding. Where the truth of the gods lies is left deliberately ambiguous.

At the end of our discussion, Ken brought to our attention a new anthology called Invisible Planets from Tor books. This anthology features contemporary science fiction from China (post 1990s). It's the first English language collection of such stories, and he says it offers people a chance to discover how different and how interesting science fiction is in China.

My thanks go out to Ken for this fascinating discussion! Thanks also to everyone who attended. Next week we will meet on December 7 at 10am Pacific to talk with guest author Marshall Ryan Maresca about his book An Import of Intrigue. I hope you will join us!

To support these hangouts and Dive in to even more Worldbuilding, please visit my Patreon.




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