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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Ken Liu and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Last week were joined by the amazing Ken Liu, who spoke to us about his new short story collection. Ken has in fact published about 120 stories (!), and he says he has collections in other languages like French, Chinese, and Japanese, but that this is his first one to be published in English. He wanted to make sure that he had the right set of stories for an English language collection, and was urged to this by SAGA press.

He said it was important that the stories in the collection reflect what short fiction means to him, and acknowledged Joe Monti for helping him select the stories and choose the order.

Ken says, "I have a different profile in different languages." He says some of his stories don't work as well in particular languages because of the complex issues involved in translation and crossing cultures. Since his stories were all written in English for an English-speaking audience, he said it was harder to pick out which ones to put in the collection because more of them would have been appropriate.

I asked him about a technique he used in two of the stories, which I called "iteration," where he makes lists of alien species and does brief explorations of some of their features, as in "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species." He said that he has always liked experimenting with different forms in fiction, and likes to resist the idea that a story needs to be one particular type of thing with a beginning, middle, and end. He resists "universal" rules and patterns, and in this case was attempting to write a story that is not a story at all, but patterned after an academic scholarly report. Essentially, he says, the story is about how we view the Other, and our tendency to define cultures as superior or inferior. The different aliens read their books but also read one another. He sees aliens as aspects of us as humans, and reading as representing the construction of meaning. Also, he notes that changes in the technology of bookmaking (as when we moved from scroll to codex) influence the way that we create books and define them. We are now undergoing another such change with the advent of electronic formats.

In the second such story, the iterative pieces have to do with alien cognition, and serve as a companion/reflection on a separate, more narrative story. Ken said this one had to do in part with how our metaphor for thinking has changed, as it went from spiritual, to telegraph, to clockwork, to computation.

He views SF/F as an ideal genre for literalizing metaphors and playing with them.

In several of the stories, he chooses to reverse our expectations, as in the story Good Hunting, which begins as a ghost hunter story and then changes when it shifts our awareness to the viewpoint of the fox women themselves. Ken describes it as going from ghost hunter story to "the old ways are lost" story, but then it changes again and reminds us that magic will always be there in different forms. The fox woman finds a way to recover her shape-changing power through steampunk technology. He described it as a way to think about the metaphor of change. Nothing is constant.

We tend to think of cultural preservation as a lack of change, but it's not; living culture is constantly changing. We still make toast, but we don't make it at all the same way we used to. Cultural preservation is about change that occurs with internal agency, rather than with a gun to your head. You as a member of the culture get to decide that this is how you keep it alive and preserve things. We linked this thought back to the idea that culture is both replicated and changed every time it is enacted, and Ken also brought up one of the alien species from "Bookmaking habits," whose method of inscribing books means that they are changed each time they are read.

I also asked Ken about his use of Chinese characters in his stories. Ken said that in the West people have a view of idiograms as mysterious, an impulse to treat them as different or exotic. However, they don't have this aspect in thier native context. They are primarily phonetic to represent speech, with no particular magic quality, though they start with a semantic root in the left-hand radical to hint at meaning, and a phonetic component in the right-hand component. There is a playful and exuberant attitude toward the characters which is often lost; they are not merely recording speech. Ken says that in his stories he tries to convey the Chinese cultural practice of folk etymology for the characters. He compared it with the form of charades played in Jane Austen novels, where people create false etymologies for words like "season" to try to convey them without words.

In one of the stories, a clever lawyer modifies a character in a contract in an undetectable way to change its meaning, exemplifying this playful relationship. I also brought up the use of the character for "umbrella" in the Japanese-based story "Mono no aware." Ken said that there were some similarities between Japanese and Chinese characters, and that the use of the character here was part of the characterization of the narrator, who was a child when he left Japan and went into space, so he has self-constructed an idea of what it means to be Japanese. He is both defensive and protective of his cultural identity to keep it alive. He sees it as something precious that needs to be protected, and is trying to make it alive. He explains it to many people, and those explanations and his final act make it become part of the culture of the ship.

I asked Ken about some of the thematic questions he raises in these stories about the nature of reality, which he called a "huge philosophical question." One way to think about the difference between science fiction and fantasy, he said, was that science fiction holds the idea that the world is knowable, where it might be argued that fantasy does not. It's not so simple, he says, but there is tension between those ideas. He says does not know where he stands on the answer to this question for his own work, though, because The Grace of Kings holds to the idea that the world is knowable. In stories from the collection like "Simulacrum," he meditates on whether the world is knowable. For example, he says, in our world we tend to see "the definitive biography" of a person released, as though this is it, and the totality of a person's being is knowable. On the other hand, there are many different performances of the self, over time and as one presents oneself or interprets oneself differently with different people. We so often act on the basis of habit, and different patterns hold with particular people. In his story, the father and the daughter have locked each other into a limited view of who they are, and each one loves the mask more than they love the changing person behind it. Ken says that maturity of love is when sometimes the love has to change with the person.

We spoke briefly about code-switching, which essentially means altering the way you speak in order to fit different contexts. It's a form of performance and presentation of identity and group membership. Sometimes it is switching between dialects, and other times between recognized languages.

Mirrors also appear in many of Ken's stories. They reflect ourselves and others, and sometimes we even act as mirrors for other people. Ken doesn't view fiction as unrelated to real life. One of its roles is as a mirror, in that he says his work is reflective of real life, but also transforms it. "Worldbuilding" is a distorting mirror, or possibly a corrective one, that will allow us to change or correct biases in real life.

Thanks again for joining us, Ken! The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a fascinating collection, and I hope everyone will read and enjoy it.


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