Fiction » Science Fiction

The Best of Speculative Fiction

recommended by Ken Liu

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

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The Hidden Girl and Other Stories
by Ken Liu

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Ken Liu, the multi-award winning author of The Paper Menagerie, explains how using elements of fantasy and science fiction can help us examine deep truths about the human condition, as he recommends the best of contemporary speculative fiction.

Interview by Cal Flyn

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

OUT NOW

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories
by Ken Liu

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You’ve put together a reading list for us that features some the best works of contemporary speculative fiction. Let’s start by first defining the term: what does speculative fiction comprise, and how does that relate to science fiction and fantasy?

Well, I have a difficult time with genre labels. I don’t necessarily use these terms specifically to describe my own writing or even other people’s books. I suppose what I would say is, to me, speculative fiction is generally the type of fiction that uses the technique of literalizing some aspect of reality that we usually speak of as metaphorical. By making that aspect literally true—by making that metaphor literally true—we are able to gain a different perspective and understanding of reality.

Sometimes in that type of fiction, when the metaphor that’s being literalized is in the form of magic, we call that ‘fantasy.’ When the literalized metaphor takes the form of technology (past, present, or future), we call that ‘science fiction.’ That’s my understanding of it.

Your latest collection of short fiction, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, uses elements of both science fiction and fantasy.

That’s it. If any readers are interested in a short story collections in which I delve into different genres, meditate upon the concept of what it means to be an individual connected to other individuals around you, and what it means to remain human in the face of cataclysmic change, then maybe you can check out the book.

Your previous book, The Paper Menagerie, won many awards. I believe the titular story was the first work of fiction to simultaneously win Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards. So you’ve obviously had a huge amount of success in this field. What drew you to speculative fiction, however it’s defined, to start with? What does it offer that realism doesn’t?

I’ve always been drawn to stories that present a different view of reality. It’s sort of like how, when you are playing with photographs or videos, you can apply different filters to them. Sometimes the filters enhance colors, sometimes they make certain features more prominent and others not. Sometimes they allow you to see a larger dynamic range than you would be able to perceive otherwise.

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I think speculative fiction does the same thing, by taking some aspect of reality and making that metaphorical aspect literally true in the fictional world, you’re now able to essentially view the world through a different set of filters, that enhances certain things you don’t otherwise see, and draws connections between things that you don’t otherwise think are connected. I really like that idea of trying to twist reality, if you will, and apply a different filter to it so that you can see more clearly and into the deeper Truth, with a capital T, of the human condition.

I love that explanation. Let’s talk about the first work of speculative fiction you’d like to recommend. This is Riot Baby, a coming of age story about siblings with magical powers. But really, the heft of the story is focused on racial inequality in the United States. Could you tell me a little bit about why you recommend this book?

Oh, yeah. Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi, a Nigerian-American writer, is such a powerful, powerful book. It is amazing. It is, in some ways, a superhero story that literalizes power, powerlessness, and anger, and allows us to understand and view racial injustice in America in a way that I think few works have been able to do for me, at an emotional level.

Tochi is an incredible writer. I’ve followed his writing for years, and it’s been amazing to see him grow and experiment, and try out different things. One of the things about Riot Baby that particularly amazed me is just the creativity and beauty that Tochi puts into using language. The characters have superpowers, and we’re talking about very spiritual concepts. So rather than just using a standard, conservative style to describe these experiences, Tochi chose to really experiment and stretch language, to describe and encompass experiences and sensations that we otherwise cannot experience. He embraces the limitations, as well as the strengths of the medium we’re working in.

“It allows us to understand and view racial injustice in America in a way that I think few works have been able to do”

Tochi, of course, is a very skilled screenwriter as well. But for Riot Baby, he chose to use experimental language in a lot of places, using prose to do things that film and TV cannot. I love novelists who embrace that aspect of prose writing, and make us think, and use language in ways that weren’t possible before, or that we hadn’t thought of.

I just love this book. It’s wonderful.

That sound invigorating, both as a reader, and as a writer: to see someone flexing muscles you didn’t know existed.

Oh, it’s inspiring. It really is. It makes you, as a writer, to want to do more, up your game, because it’s just so good.

Brilliant. Let’s talk about Peter Tieryas’ United States of Japan. It’s a work of alternate history.

Right. I think Peter himself describes it as a kind of spiritual sequel to The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. It’s an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II, and Japan has conquered parts of the United States. And it’s a book in which there are giant mechas, and there are references to gaming culture—a lot of nerdy, geeky references that we love to see in science fiction. But more than that, what really made me just sit up and take notice is the way Peter uses this novel to confront some of the darkest episodes of World War II in the Pacific theater.

Here in the US especially, fictional explorations of World War II tend to be very focused on the European theater, and don’t pay enough attention to the horrors committed by Imperial Japan, the terrible suffering and the incredible bravery and sacrifices the Allies made in the Pacific theater. Peter’s book, using alternate history, explores these episodes of injustice and how do you seek freedom and liberty and remain human in the face of unspeakable atrocities and oppression?

I found the lens through which he did this to be emotionally wrenching. Overall, the novel is a deeply moving, powerful cry for freedom in the face of darkness and atrocity.

Alternate history is such an interesting form of thought experiment. It’s really a study of historiography, of how simply changing who it is who gets to tell the story of history gives a new perspective on a shared past.

Yeah. It gives you a new lens to see the history we have in this timeline.

I was interested in what you said about it being considered “the spiritual sequel” to the The Man in the High Castle. How similar are we talking? It’s not a work of Philip K. Dick fanfiction.

No, no, absolutely not. I wouldn’t say that. I think Peter’s point was: The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which the Axis powers won, and so this is similar in that sense, but no, it’s not at all similar to Philip K Dick in other ways.

Let’s move on to Sarah Pinsker; this is A Song for a New Day. Its concept seems very prescient. Tell us about it.

Sarah Pinsker is one of the most lauded writers of short-form speculative fiction. She’s won many awards, and gotten a great deal of recognition for her work. A Song for a New Day, I believe, is her debut novel, her first long-form piece of fiction.

The novel is in the subgenre of post-apocalyptic fiction, and imagines a world in which a plague has caused all of us to become isolated, particularly relevant in light of the current COVID-19 virus outbreak. In the world of the novel, everyone is living like a hermit, working from home, eating at home, studying at home, and there are no large-scale gatherings anymore, and entertainment is usually done through virtual reality.

Almost uncomfortably prescient.

So, the very visceral experience of going to a live concert, of that connection between the performer and the audience, of being part of an audience, and performing for an audience—these experiences are no longer possible. And because Sarah is a musician herself, she is able to talk about music and these music-mediated shared experiences in a way that few others can.

“This is a story about why live music and shared experiences are critical to the formation of social consciousness”

This is a story about why that kind of experience is critical to the formation of social consciousness, and of the fight for freedom. The post-apocalyptic world is corporate controlled, and music is completely dominated by corporate interests who want to maintain the status quo, but individual independent artists still want to perform and write rebellion anthems, and awaken the people to the possibilities of collective action rather than just virtual crowds. Sarah draws on her experiences as a professional musician to portray why that matters, and to give people a sense of the potential of resistance in live music.

It’s not a subject that I had thought a lot about or knew much about, and once again, this book allowed me to see reality through a different lens.

This is counterculture as a resistance against totalitarianism.

Corporate totalitarianism. Yes, I think that’s right.

Our next work of speculative fiction is of a very different breed. This is S L Huang’s Zero Sum Game. It’s another debut, which was picked up by a publisher after first being self-published; its protagonist is described by the publisher as being “the geek’s Jack Reacher.” That says to me: smart, mind-bending action story. Does that sound right?

Yeah, that’s right. I like that. Zero Sum Game has an action hero whose superpower is math. The hero is an expert in mathematics, and has the ability to see the math behind everyday things, and she uses that to perform superhuman feats. We don’t really get a lot of speculative fiction in which the thing that allows the heroine to do wondrous feats is math! It’s fresh, it’s exciting, it’s fun, and it’s so moving. You care about her. So, if you like action-packed stories that feature a strong, clever, wonderful protagonist who uses math as her superpower, this is the book for you.

Great. I think this is the first of a series. So there are more Cas Russell books to come.

That’s right. A lot of books to explore, once you’ve been through the first one.

It’s also billed as being “accessible.” I wonder if you might say something about this idea of accessibility; do you feel that speculative fiction is a genre perceived to be difficult, or as having a high bar to entry?

I think the perception that speculative fiction is inaccessible is largely based on the idea that it deals with experiences and references the nontechnical reader may not be familiar with. But any kind of fiction, whether it’s about people falling in love on college campuses or a small-town murder mystery, requires some knowledge about the particular world that it takes place in. It’s all about the writer’s skill to make you want to learn about that world so that you can appreciate why characters care about the things they do. It’s true that Huang makes a lot of jokes about math that you’ll love if you have some knowledge of higher math, but Huang does a masterful job of making you care about the things that Cas cares about so that if you don’t care about math, you end up getting her view of the world and why it’s beautiful and compelling.

I think that brings us to book number five, This Is How You Lose the Time War. It’s an epistolary novel, a collaboration between two authors who are very well thought of, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

Yes. Both Amal and Max are extremely lauded and well-recognized authors in their own right. So it’s amazing to see the two of them come together and produce something that’s even grander than the sum of both parts: they’re both already fantastic authors, and combined together they become a super author.

I suppose you could call it a time travel story. It takes place across all history, and features two protagonists, two women who are essentially spies—saboteurs for rival visions of the future, who are trying to twist the timeline to lead to their respective faction’s visions. But then they fall in love with each other, and it becomes a story about how love drives us to resist the oppressive, all-encompassing worldviews of all totalitarian visions. How do individuals carve out their own timeline in the face of impersonal authority?

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The story is incredibly beautiful and moving, and the language is so poetic. You get such a great sense of the two protagonists, their distinct personalities, their distinct ways of viewing the world, of seeing time. You traverse across all history; episodes that are often not well-known to your standard Western historical education are highlighted. So I think this is just an incredible book to pick up. It’s also short. The two of them packed so much into so little space. It is just a concentrated dose of beauty that explodes in your brain and overwhelms everything.

Oh, I love a slim but powerful volume. Do you know: did one author take one character and the other author take another? Is that how it came together?

That I do not know. I haven’t specifically spoken with the authors about their composition process. That seems like a very natural way of doing it, but I don’t believe that’s in fact what they did. Amal, at least, specifically has said repeatedly that the book is by the both of them, with the implication that every word in the book represents the effort of both. So I’m going to follow her lead and imagine it that way.

Thanks. How do you keep up to date with the best new writing in this field? Do you follow particular publishers, or websites?

My theory is that every good book has its ideal audience, and the entire apparatus of publishing, of publicity, of book tours, and book blogging, BookTubing, and the conversation that we’re having right now—all of these efforts are geared towards connecting the right book with the right reader.

The discovery problem is actually surprisingly hard to solve. A lot of times, books that should do well don’t do well, just because it somehow failed to reach the ideal audience, its ideal readers just didn’t know that the book existed.

So all of us have to try harder at boosting the books that we love, in the hopes of somehow bringing them to the attention of the right readers. There’s a large measure of luck and randomness in how this happens, but it’s not just luck. The only way we can make luck work better is to all work harder on recommending books.

That’s music to our ears.

Having said all that, I do myself try to open myself up to as many channels of recommendations as possible. I listen to other readers whose taste I trust. I do a lot of outreach and participate in fandom. I talk to other authors and try to be of service to new authors. I pay attention to what other writers I admire are working on. I follow new book releases and industry news to see what’s popping up. I try to build buzz for books that I think are wonderful, and hope that in that effort, I can make everyone’s lives a little richer by connecting the right books to the right audiences.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Ken Liu

Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. He also authored a Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking,
the mathematics of origami, and other subjects of his expertise. Liu’s newest book is The Hidden Girl and Other Stories.

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Ken Liu

Ken Liu is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. He also authored a Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking,
the mathematics of origami, and other subjects of his expertise. Liu’s newest book is The Hidden Girl and Other Stories.