Ken Liu’s output is as amazing as his stories
The ability to write fiction while commuting could be advantageous for any aspiring writer. But Stoughton novelist, short-story writer, and translator Ken Liu has been particularly prolific on his weekday round-trip MBTA train rides between his home in Stoughton and Boston, where he works as an intellectual property litigation consultant.
Since 2010, Liu has produced more than 100 short stories, completed two novels, translated two volumes of China’s most popular hard-science fiction saga, and edited the first major English-language anthology of short fiction by Chinese authors. His work has earned some of science fiction and fantasy’s most prestigious honors, with one story, “The Paper Menagerie,” winning a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, and a World Fantasy Award in 2011, an unprecedented sweep.
Liu’s latest collection, “The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories,” is being published today by Saga Press. Its 15 short stories and novellas draw on Liu’s eclectic interests and reflect multifaceted experiences as a software engineer, lawyer, scholar, translator, and parent.
Liu, 39, emigrated to the United States at age 11, arriving in Palo Alto, Calif., when his mother, a pharmaceutical chemist, was completing postdoctoral work at Stanford University. Along with his programmer father, the family eventually settled in Waterford, Conn.
He described his early years in the US as “a difficult time. You have to learn a whole new language and a whole new system of rules.”
In high school, Liu’s big academic interest was math, and he devoted a lot of energy working out theorems and “figuring out interesting graphs that could be generated by different equations in various coordinate systems. “I still think in a parallel universe I became a mathematician,” he said.
He went to Harvard, where his scholarly interests were diverse. He majored in English, but studied computer programming, too, because he was interested in puzzle games and wanted to learn how to solve them “programmatically.”
After graduation, he worked as a software engineer at Microsoft and for Boston-area start-up Idiom Technologies. There he met his wife, Lisa Tang Liu, then a project manager, now an artist and photographer. They have two daughters, ages 3 and 5.
Liu returned to Harvard for law school, which he called “an intellectually amazing experience.” For his final project, he chose to write fiction, rather than a traditional piece of legal scholarship.
“I like the law,” he said in a telephone interview. “I like the part that’s about reasoning, about persuasion, about telling stories, about trying to build structures that fall within rules. I said, ‘Why don’t I try to write a piece of fiction that’s very much about legal thinking and how to apply it to a period of history?’ ”
The result was “All the Flavors,” a novella that mixes history and legend, in which a group of Chinese workers transforms — either through magic or the rule of law — an Idaho town during the 1860s Gold Rush. “All the Flavors,” first published in 2012, appears in Liu’s new collection.
After Harvard, Liu clerked for First Circuit Appeals Court Judge Sandra Lynch, who remembers him fondly and said he was quite gifted.
“He learned how to solve very complicated legal problems which require a fair amount of perseverance and an ability to tell a story that’s accurate, makes sense, is compassionate, and that reaches the right result under the laws that govern us all.”
She added: “He was fun to work with. He’s quiet until he feels comfortable, and then he’s much more outgoing.”
Liu later worked as an associate attorney at Goulston & Storrs, a Boston law firm. The birth of their first daughter caused Liu and his wife to reassess his legal career and contemplate a job change that would let him scale back and focus on other interests, such as fiction.
Leaving the firm allowed him to publish dozens of well-regarded science fiction, fantasy, and mainstream stories each year.
Liu’s productivity as a writer of short fiction is nearly unheard of in science fiction. “If you wanted to find someone to compare that kind of output, you’d probably have to . . . look at the bibliographies of legends like [Isaac] Asimov, [Robert] Silverberg, and [Harlan] Ellison to find anyone who had made a similar impact on the field,” said John Joseph Adams, series editor of the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, in an e-mail interview. “And Ken has somehow done this while holding a full-time job and having a family — and remaining one of the nicest guys.”
Liu’s stories range from “The Regular,” a serial-killer thriller with a high-tech twist, to “The Waves,” one woman’s voyage to the stars and back, to the heartbreaking title story of his new collection, in which a Chinese mail-order bride breathes life into origami animals as a way to connect with her son.
Although wide-ranging in subject and tone, the stories in “The Paper Menagerie” share many commonalities. They often feature non-Western protagonists and settings, a willingness to experiment with narrative, an attention to technical detail, and a determination to portray Asian history with sensitivity and accuracy.
Last year, Saga Press published Liu’s debut novel, “The Grace of Kings.” It began as a National Novel Writing Month collaboration between Liu and his wife, a “silkpunk” saga in which epic fantasy combines with Chinese historical romance.
Tang Liu eventually dropped out as coauthor, but she and Liu continued to bounce ideas off each other. Liu ended up taking detailed notes of their fictional world to keep everything internally consistent and accurately based on a “set of aesthetic ideas about how certain classical East Asian technologies could have evolved.” Instead of depicting a setting dependent on chrome, glass, or metal, the world of “The Grace of Kings” runs on technology based on silk, paper, bamboo, and other biological products.
In addition to his own fiction, Liu’s work as a translator has become a major part of his output. He was recruited to translate Liu Cixin’s (no relation) “The Three-Body Problem,” considered to be one of the best Chinese science fiction novels. Last year, the book won a Hugo Award for best novel, an unprecedented honor for a translated work.
“It’s the most inspiring and successful translation of contemporary Chinese science fiction,” said Mingwei Song, associate professor of Chinese at Wellesley College.
In November, Tor Books will publish “Invisible Planets,” the first collection of contemporary Chinese short science fiction to be released by a major American genre imprint. Liu provides the translations, the introduction, and accompanying essays.
“It’s kind of cool that I know of all this great science fiction being written in China, and most of it is not really well-known in the West,” Liu said. “Maybe I can try to build a bridge by doing some of that work.”
Amid these literary projects, Liu continues litigation consulting at the Boston office of Stroz Friedberg, a cybersecurity and computer forensics company. Heading back to Stoughton at the end of the day still suits him — it’s convenient and affordable, he said.
The science fiction fans and fellow writers among his Stroz Friedberg colleagues and his Stoughton neighbors congratulate him when he’s up for awards. Otherwise, Liu doesn’t spend much time discussing his fiction with them.
“In general, writers who talk to their colleagues and neighbors constantly about their own writing seem to me pretty insufferable,” Liu said. “I try not to be that guy.”