Ken Liu on Chinese sci-fi

Source: NYT (12/3/19)
Why Is Chinese Sci-Fi Everywhere Now? Ken Liu Knows
The Massachusetts-based translator has done more than anyone to bridge the gap between Chinese science fiction and American readers.
By Alexandra Alter

Ken Liu outside his home in Stoughton, Mass. Credit… Amani Willett for The New York Times

In the fall of 2012, Ken Liu received an intriguing offer from a Chinese company with a blandly bureaucratic name: China Educational Publications Import and Export Corporation, Ltd. It was seeking an English-language translator for a trippy science-fiction novel titled “The Three-Body Problem.” Liu — an American computer programmer turned corporate lawyer turned science-fiction writer — was a natural choice: fluent in Mandarin, familiar with Chinese sci-fi tropes and culture and a rising star in the genre. Liu had only translated short fiction at the time, though, and capturing the novel in all its complexity seemed daunting.

“The Three-Body Problem” was unlike anything Liu had ever read. A mind-bending epic set in Beijing, Inner Mongolia and on a distant planet, the novel was full of heady technical passages about quantum theory, nanotechnology, orbital mechanics and astrophysics, intertwined with profound moral questions about the nature of good and evil and humanity’s place in the universe.

But as he began translating, Liu was confronted by what seemed like a more fundamental problem: The narrative structure didn’t make sense. The story careered around in time, bouncing between present-day China, as a panic builds among scientists and government officials over a coming alien invasion, and Beijing in 1967, near the start of the Cultural Revolution, when an astrophysicist watches helplessly as her father, a physics professor, is killed by members of Mao’s Red Guard for being a “reactionary academic authority.” The astrophysicist loses faith in humanity and uses a high-power radio transmitter to broadcast a defiant message to aliens in a nearby solar system, an act that has dire consequences.

Studying the novel’s chaotic timeline, Liu pinpointed what he felt was the story’s natural beginning: the scenes of political violence and oppression during the Cultural Revolution, a traumatic moment that triggers the interstellar clash that follows. In a move that was unusually invasive for a translator, he suggested pulling up the historical flashback, which was buried in the middle of the narrative, and turning it into the novel’s beginning.

When Liu proposed this radical change to the author, a rising figure in China’s burgeoning science-fiction scene named Liu Cixin, he was prepared to be overruled. Instead, the author instantly agreed. “That is how I wanted it originally!” Liu recalls him saying.

As it turned out, the Cultural Revolution had torn Liu Cixin’s family apart. He was just 3 when the political upheaval began, and still remembers hearing gunshots at night and seeing trucks full of men wearing red armbands patrolling the city where he lived in Shanxi province. When the situation there became too volatile, his parents, who worked in a coal mine, sent him away to live with relatives in Henan. The brutality of Mao Zedong’s revolution was also central to the story that Liu Cixin wanted to tell in “The Three-Body Problem.” But his Chinese publisher worried that the opening scenes were too politically charged and would never make it past government censors, so they were placed later in the narrative, he says, to make them less conspicuous. Liu reluctantly agreed to the change, but felt the novel was diminished. “The Cultural Revolution appears because it’s essential to the plot,” Liu Cixin told me during a Skype interview through an interpreter. “The protagonist needs to have total despair in humanity.”

When the English translation of “The Three-Body Problem” was published in 2014, it was hailed as a groundbreaking work of speculative fiction. President Barack Obama praised the novel, calling it “just wildly imaginative.” Mark Zuckerberg recommended it to his tens of millions of Facebook followers; George R.R. Martin blogged about it. Publishers around the world chased after translation rights, which eventually sold in 26 languages, including Turkish and Estonian. It won the 2015 Hugo Award, one of the genre’s most prestigious honors, making Liu Cixin the first Asian author to win the prize for best novel. It was also the first time a novel in translation had won the prize. The book and its two sequels went on to sell nearly nine million copies worldwide.

Now, Liu Cixin says, he recommends that Chinese sci-fi fans who speak English read Ken Liu’s translation of “The Three-Body Problem” rather than the Chinese version. “Usually when Chinese literature gets translated to a foreign language, it tends to lose something,” he says. “I don’t think that happened with ‘The Three-Body Problem.’ I think it gained something.”

The success of “The Three-Body Problem” not only turned Liu Cixin into a global literary star; it opened the floodgates for new translations of Chinese science fiction. This, in turn, has made Ken Liu a critical conduit for Chinese writers seeking Western audiences, a literary brand as sought-after as the best-selling authors he translates. (Among Chinese sci-fi authors and fans, he is often referred to affectionately as Xiao Liu, Little Liu, to distinguish him from Liu Cixin, who is known as Da Liu, Big Liu.) Liu’s translations have reshaped the global science-fiction landscape, which has long been dominated by American and British authors. Over the past decade, he has translated five novels and more than 50 works of short fiction by dozens of Chinese authors, many of whom he has discovered and championed himself.

Liu with the manuscript of his upcoming novel, ‘‘The Veiled Throne.’’Credit…Amani Willett for The New York Times

This year alone, Liu published three major new translations: “Broken Stars,” an anthology of short fiction by 14 Chinese sci-fi writers; a translation of “The Redemption of Time,” by Li Jun, who writes under the pen name Baoshu, which takes place in the aftermath of an interstellar war; and a translation of Chen Qiufan’s “Waste Tide,” a grim dystopian novel that unfolds on a polluted peninsula on the coast of China, where impoverished migrant workers recycle the world’s electronic trash. Next year, Saga Press will publish Liu’s 624-page translation of Hao Jingfang’s novel “Vagabonds,” a meandering philosophical parable about an ideological rift between a communalistic human colony on Mars and an increasingly capitalistic Earth.

Some of the most thought-provoking science-fiction writers in China aren’t being published through traditional channels, so Liu searches internet forums and social-media messaging sites like Weibo, WeChat and the self-publishing platform Daoban. He has found sci-fi stories in unusual corners of the internet, including a forum for alumni of Tsinghua University. Chinese friends send him screenshots of stories published on apps that are hard to access outside of China. As an emissary for some of China’s most provocative and boundary-breaking writers, Liu has become much more than a scout and a translator. He’s now a fixer, an editor and a curator — a savvy interpreter who has done more than anyone to bridge the imagination gap between the world’s current, fading superpower and its ascendant one.

Liu has also grown adept at navigating political minefields, finding ways to transmit writers’ political or social critiques without being too direct. Some of the writers Liu translates use the framework of science fiction to explore the dystopian consequences of China’s rapid economic and technological transformation, setting a story in the distant future or on another planet in order to tackle taboo issues like the lack of social freedoms, the exploitation of migrant workers, government land seizures, economic inequality and environmental destruction. In an odd inversion, some of the stories he has translated into English have not been officially published in China, at times because of their politically sensitive nature. “It’s a very tricky dance of trying to get the message that they’re trying to convey out, without painting the writers as dissidents,” Liu told me over coffee one day, as we sat in the kitchen of his home in Massachusetts. “A lot of Chinese writers are very skilled at writing something ambiguously, such that there are multiple meanings in the text. I have to ask them, how explicit do you want me to be in terms of making a certain point here, because in the original it’s very constrained, so how much do you want me to tease out the implications you’re making? And sometimes we have a discussion about exactly what that means and how they want it to be done.”

It’s no surprise that sci-fi is booming in China, where the breakneck pace of technological transformation can feel surreal. Economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty, and brought extreme wealth to the upper and political class, but technology has also become a tool of state oppression. Some Chinese factories have outfitted workers with devices that measure brain-wave activity to monitor their emotional fluctuations and alertness. Bird-shaped drones have been used to surreptitiously spy on citizens, and surveillance through facial-recognition technology is widespread. On social media and messaging apps, posts containing certain banned words are automatically censored. China is now also leveraging its technology to conquer the solar system: After lagging behind in the space race for decades, the nation recently made a historic landing on the far side of the moon, where it has plans to build a permanent research base, and aims to have a rover exploring Mars next year.

“In China, there’s this official propaganda position that science fiction is about imagination and this is what the future is all about,” Liu told an audience in New York in April, when he appeared on a panel with Chen Qiufan at the Museum of Chinese in America and spoke about the growing popularity of Chinese science fiction. “In reality, much of the most interesting science fiction is much more subversive,” he continued. “It is a kind of wry commentary on what is happening in society. And because so many things are changing in China so rapidly, science fiction feels like oftentimes the most realistic way to describe what’s happening.”

Ken Liu was born in 1976 in Lanzhou, an industrial city in Gansu Province in Northwest China. His parents moved abroad when he was 4 — his father went to study statistics in East Germany, while his mother pursued her graduate degree in chemistry in the United States — and Liu remained in China with his paternal grandparents, both science professors who were “book hoarders,” he says.

As a young boy, he was a promiscuous reader. He read his aunt’s Taiwanese romance novels, his grandmother’s Mandarin translations of “Sherlock Holmes” and her copy of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” a 14th-century historical epic set during the Han dynasty. He read his grandfather’s mathematics and chemistry manuals, which he didn’t understand but tore through anyway. In elementary school, he came across Mandarin translations of American science fiction. He read Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and didn’t realize it was science fiction, mistaking the descriptions of a post-apocalyptic urban hellscape where humans enslave androids for a realistic depiction of life in America. He was particularly struck by the notion of a world without animals, where people had robots for pets — “It seemed to fit with my idea of the U.S. as a very high-tech place,” Liu recalls. He also picked up Mandarin editions of novelizations of movies like “The Empire Strikes Back” and “E.T.,” which gave him a taste of American pop culture. Liu remembers being baffled by the big suburban houses in “E.T.,” and by the notion of a holiday where kids dressed in costumes and got candy from strangers. “For me, it was a window into American life,” he says.

Portraits of Liu’s grandmother (left) and his wife’s grandmother sit on a shelf in his kitchen. Liu credits his grandmother’s love of origami as the inspiration for his first acclaimed short story, “The Paper Menagerie.” Credit…Amani Willett for The New York Times

Reading “E.T.” didn’t fully prepare Liu for life in America. When he was 11, he moved to Palo Alto, Calif., where his mother worked as a pharmaceutical chemist and his father worked as a statistical analyst. He didn’t speak English and hadn’t lived with his parents since he was a toddler. He enrolled in a public school, where he went by Ken, a name his mother picked because it was the closest English analog to his Chinese name, Yukun.

Books provided a familiar refuge. He learned English in about a year, and soon was reading novels like “A Wrinkle in Time” and “The Yearling,” then moved on to American classics by authors like Faulkner and Melville, and science fiction by Orson Scott Card, Margaret Atwood and Arthur C. Clarke. He excelled in school and went to Harvard, where he majored in English and studied computer science.

When he graduated in 1998, Liu worked as a software engineer, first at Microsoft, and then at a start-up called Idiom Technologies, where he met his wife, Lisa Tang Liu. The work wasn’t glamorous — he built what he describes as “back-office-database-type stuff” — but he liked it: “It was much more fun to work at that level because you’re closer to the machines.” Then the dot-com bubble burst, and Lisa was laid off from her job as a project manager. Liu grew disillusioned with the tech industry and began searching for something new. He went into programming because he liked rules and systems, so he decided to try another rules-based trade and went to Harvard Law School. After graduating, he clerked for a federal judge, then worked as a corporate lawyer specializing in international tax planning and real estate. It was demanding, and not particularly stimulating. Liu, who at that point had two young daughters, and had grown up apart from his own parents, didn’t want to be an absent father. He became a litigation consultant specializing in patent infringement and technology cases — a job that brought him close to machines again, examining source codes and disassembling smartphones and tablets to study the underlying mechanics.

Throughout his shape-shifting professional odyssey, Liu wrote fiction, though he never imagined he could make a living from it. Eventually, he published his short fiction in sci-fi magazines, and won acclaim for his strange, surreal stories, which sometimes take place on distant planets or intergalactic spaceships heading for habitable worlds, but often center on strained family bonds. His 2011 story, “The Paper Menagerie,” about an American boy whose mother, a Chinese immigrant, makes him delicate origami animals that come to life, won the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award, making Liu the first author to sweep the genre’s three major awards for a single work. Four years later, he published “The Grace of Kings,” an epic fantasy novel that drew on both Western mythology and epics and on historical legends about the Han dynasty. In 2017, he quit his job as a litigation consultant to focus on writing.

Liu and I first met on a freezing day in early March in Stoughton, a small town outside Boston where he lives with his wife, Lisa, now a photographer, and their two daughters, who are 7 and 9. Liu — who at 43 is wiry and energetic, with a close buzz cut, thick eyebrows and a round, boyish face — met me at the train station, and had absent-mindedly left his Airpods in his ears. As we trudged through piles of snow on unplowed sidewalks, we talked about a screen adaptation of one of his stories, and his forthcoming translation of Hao Jingfang’s novel, which he compared to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed.” The novel unfolds in 2201, a century after a human colony on Mars declared independence from Earth, where society has become increasingly technocratic and capitalistic. Liu told me that he isn’t sure how American sci-fi fans will respond to the book, which is more of a philosophical thought experiment than a plot-driven space odyssey. “It’s not the sort of thing popular American taste favors,” Liu says. “It will be valuable for American readers to be exposed to it.”

At his home — a small, cheerful house that’s full of his daughters’ drawings and Lego creations — Liu showed me his office: a dark, cavelike room on the basement floor, cluttered with classic sci-fi and fantasy works by Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and Tolkien, books in Mandarin by contemporary Chinese authors, computer-programming manuals, a Classical Chinese dictionary, copies of Chinese epics like “Journey to the West” and “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” an annotated edition of Confucius’ Analects and shelves of Chinese sci-fi magazines and anthologies. Near his desk, he keeps his four Hugo Awards, two for his own short fiction and two for translations.

Liu told me that he never set out to be a translator, a profession that doesn’t pay especially well. “Translation seemed incredibly boring and technical,” he says. In fact, it was a Chinese writer who first discovered Liu, not the other way around. In 2009, Chen Qiufan read one of Liu’s short stories, “The Algorithms for Love,” in an online English-language sci-fi magazine, and sent Liu an email to say how much he liked it. They kept in touch, and a year later, Chen asked Liu for his opinion on an English translation of one of his stories, which he had commissioned from a translation company. Liu wasn’t impressed and offered to edit it, but ended up redoing the translation from scratch.

Liu at home. Credit… Amani Willett for The New York Times

The story, “The Fish of Lijiang,” takes place in a future China, where corporations manipulate their employees’ sense of the passage of time in order to boost workers’ productivity. Liu’s translation was published in the sci-fi magazine Clarkesworld in 2011, and won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award for short fiction the following year.

Liu realized there was a growing appetite for Chinese science fiction. As he read more of it, he was stunned to discover a huge and diverse body of literature — works that ranged from hard sci-fi, surreal horror and cyberpunk to dystopian alternate histories, political satires and chuanyue time-travel tales, a popular sub-subgenre in which a modern-day protagonist is transported back in time, often to a Chinese dynastic period. “I had no idea there was a vibrant science-fiction community in China,” Liu says.

At the time, few people outside China did. Before the success of “The Three-Body Problem,” Western publishers and literary agents were largely oblivious to the proliferation of sci-fi in China. “Ken Liu was basically working by himself,” says Mingwei Song, an associate professor at Wellesley College who specializes in modern Chinese literature. “Only a few people outside China saw the rise of science fiction there. After his translations, it suddenly became visible.”

For Liu, the discovery felt more personal. He got the same giddy feeling he had as a boy when he first read Chinese translations of American science fiction, a sense that he had entered a portal into another world. Reading science fiction written in his native language gave him new insights into his former home, a place that had changed almost beyond recognition since he left.

Liu’s approach to translation is unorthodox — perhaps because he came to it somewhat late in his eclectic career. Strict fidelity to the source material is not his chief goal, nor is producing a smooth, Americanized version. “It’s not a sentence-by-sentence or word-by-word recreation,” he says. “It’s about, how do I recreate the overall effect?”

Rather than glossing over cultural and colloquial nuances that would be lost on most Western readers, he tries to highlight them. To the irritation of his publishers, he sometimes resorts to footnotes to explain unfamiliar terms or episodes from Chinese history, rather than omitting or Anglicizing them. In his recent anthology, “Broken Stars,” he used footnotes to explain the principles of Chinese alchemy, to describe how an agrarian rebellion against the Tang Dynasty in the ninth century led to the dynasty’s demise, and to unpack a rather layered “inside joke for Chinese sci-fi fans.”

Some cultural references remain untranslatable. In his introduction to “The First Emperor’s Games,” a satirical story by Ma Boyong that hinges on the delightfully absurd premise that China’s first emperor was a video-game addict, Liu notes that “much of the humor of the story depends on knowledge of Chinese internet culture and ancient Chinese history, so liberal use of Wikipedia may be necessary for some readers.”

The only times Liu got evasive during our conversations were when I asked him about the political implications of his translation work. Dissident writers have been jailed in China, and Liu often worries for the safety of the authors he works with.

“These writers are very creative and courageous in doing what they do, but as somebody who is not subject to the same constraints and the same kind of pressures that they are under, I try not to bring them trouble with what I’m saying,” Liu told me when we were sitting in his kitchen, speaking quickly and somewhat urgently, but taking, as he often does, extreme care with his words. “As a translator, it’s very easy to slip into the role where you feel like you’re explaining, or are in a superior position to the author to say what you think they meant to say, or to say what you think ought to be said. I think it’s very dangerous. When you’re translating somebody from a different culture, who is subject to a different political system and who is writing for a different audience than you are, you have to be very careful about not substituting your voice for the author’s voice and not taking away the author’s prerogative to tell the story she wants to tell.”

Sometimes the writers Liu works with feel they have more freedom in an English translation to draw pointed parallels to contemporary Chinese society. When Ma Boyong published his 2005 short story, “The City of Silence” — which takes place in the year 2046 in a repressive country where censorship is so extreme that citizens can only use words from a list of approved, “healthy” phrases — he set the story in an alternative New York to avoid directly evoking China’s suppression of free speech. For the English version, Liu and Ma worked together to restore what Ma originally wanted to convey, and New York was changed to “the Capital of the State,” making the similarities to China’s censorship apparatus more explicit.

Recently, rising political tensions with and within China have made Liu’s translation projects even more delicate. This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, a grim milestone that brought fresh crackdowns on free speech, as state censors have grown even more vigilant, all against the backdrop of a trade war with the United States and mass protests in Hong Kong. Some writers who once felt bold enough to tackle political and social issues, however obliquely, have been reluctant to publish their work, or have started self-censoring to avoid trouble.

“The political climate inside China has shifted drastically from when I first started doing this,” Liu says. “It’s gotten much harder for me to talk about the work of Chinese authors without putting them in an awkward position or causing them trouble.” Liu usually travels to China at least once a year to network and meet new writers, and has attended the Chinese Nebula and Galaxy Awards, the country’s most well known science-fiction prizes. But this year he was denied a long-term visa, without explanation, prompting him to cancel his planned trip.

In another alarming setback, when his American publisher tried to send copies of his recent translations to writers in China, the shipments failed to arrive. It was unclear whether the books were seized or simply disappeared into a bureaucratic black hole. Liu finally managed to get copies distributed through visiting Chinese friends, each of whom carried a few copies back in their suitcases. In April, when I met Liu at the Museum of Chinese in America, he seemed irritated by the cumbersome workaround, which he called “preposterous.”

But later, when I asked if he felt he was being blacklisted by the Chinese government because of his translation work, Liu deflected and declined to speculate. “I don’t want to magnify the problem,” Liu told me, as we sat in a cafe a few blocks from the museum. “If the authors want to say something daring, then I will honor that, but I’m not going to impose my own politics on them. There’s a lot of room to say what you want to say if you leave things ambiguous.”

In his recent anthology, “Broken Stars,” Liu published his translation of a dystopian novella by Baoshu, titled, “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear.” In the narrative, history runs backward, and China devolves from a superpower into an impoverished, unstable country, as the protagonist grows older and lives through pivotal events in reverse chronological order, witnessing the 2008 Beijing Olympics, then the Tiananmen protests, the Cultural Revolution, the years of famine and the Japanese occupation. The story’s narrator, “a rising star of science fiction,” at one point makes a metafictional observation about the risk he’s taking by writing about politically taboo subjects, noting that some critics claim “that my work was an example of capitalist liberalism and contained metaphors criticizing the Communist Party.”

Baoshu’s novella was never printed in China. Liu’s English version is the only officially published edition. When I asked Liu about whether publishing an English version was risky for Baoshu, he paused, weighing his words carefully, and finally said simply, “I’m glad I can bring this work out.”

Alexandra Alter is a staff writer for The New York Times, where she covers publishing and the literary world. This is her first article for the magazine. Amani Willett is a photographic artist whose practice is driven by conceptual ideas surrounding family, history, memory and the social environment. He currently teaches photography at the Massachusetts College of Art.

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