Silkpunk Sci-Fi Author Ken Liu Talks Fantasy, Technology and the Future of the Human Race

An interview with the author of The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms
Saga Press

Ken Liu, author of the Dandelion Dynasty series, is one of the leading new voices in science fiction. His worlds are teeming with airships and submarines crafted from silk, sinew and feather. Liu spoke with Nexus Media about “silkpunk,” tech culture, and what today’s innovators can learn from science fiction. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ken Liu
Ken Liu Lisa Tang Liu

In your Dandelion Dynasty series, you reimagine transportation, military hardware and the rest of the technological landscape in a style you’ve come to call “silkpunk.” How did you come up with that approach?

In creating the silkpunk aesthetic, I was influenced by the ideas of W. Brian Arthur, who articulates a vision of technology as a language. The task of the engineer is much like that of a poet in that the engineer must creatively combine existing elements of technology to solve novel problems, thereby devising artifacts that are new expressions in the technical language.

In the silkpunk world of my novels, this view of technology dominates. The vocabulary of the technology language relies on materials of historical importance to the people of East Asia and the Pacific islands: bamboo, shells, coral, paper, silk, feathers, sinew, etc. And the grammar of the language puts more emphasis on biomimetics — the airships regulate their lift by analogy with the swim bladders of fish, and the submarines move like whales through the water.

The engineers are celebrated as great artists who transform the existing language and evolve it toward ever more beautiful forms. Indeed, even the fictional system of writing used in the novels embodies that view — writing is one of our most treasured and important technologies.

From that vantage, innovation is a matter of developing novel combinations of existing technologies, much as poets working in the oral tradition recombine stock phrases, kennings, hypnotic patterns and repetition into new compositions. Innovation is also the constant harnessing of new phenomena, much as poets constantly freshen their language by incorporating slang, technical jargon, found language, thief’s cant, uptalk and other new linguistic manifestations. The fact that the internal combustion engine is not yet part of the technical vocabulary in that world matters not one whit.

How does silkpunk compare to other “-punk” subgenres, like steampunk?

The “silk” in silkpunk refers not to a source of power, but to an entirely different, expressive technology language. The inventions in this new language pay homage to and are inspired by actual feats of engineering in East Asian antiquity (e.g., Kongming lanterns, powerful auto-crossbows, lodestones used to solve practical construction problems) as well as references to wonders of engineering in fictional texts and oral legends (e.g., battle kites, transportation vehicles that move on their own like animals, grand mazes and palaces that harness elemental power).

But I’m not limited by either history or the East Asian literary tradition: I also consider what would happen if the technology language of silkpunk were extended to harness entirely new phenomena such as the mysterious “silkmotic force” that plays such an important role in the second book [of the Dandelion Dynasty series], The Wall of Storms.

And compared to some other “-punk” subgenres, perhaps I take the rebelliousness and disregard for boundaries inherent in the concept more seriously. The engineers in my world are innovators as well as rebels, leading figures in a perpetual revolution that seeks not only to change the mechanical inventions that populate our lives but also the machinery of social engineering and government. The technology language isn’t just about how to build things, but also how to construct societies.

I hope readers enjoy a fantasy world in which engineers are the wizards and heroes — it’s the kind of fantasy world I want to explore.

silk punk
Ken Liu selected this image to illustrate the silkpunk aesthetic from his novels. Francesca Myman

In creating the world of your novels, the fictional Islands of Dara, you studied how culture influences technology.

The evolution of technology is, like the evolution of literature, heavily path-dependent. Culture plays a far more important role in the acceptance, adoption and spread of technology than many of us are willing to acknowledge.

Take the evolution of cooking methods and how we eat in our kitchens, for example. Every object and appliance in a kitchen is there because of the owner’s particular preference for foods to be prepared a certain way, which is heavily shaped by both the owner’s cultural background and the accidents of history. (See Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork for a fascinating history of this vast and delicious topic.)

Our cultural preferences are influencing the way we innovate in all areas. For instance, the kinds of activities people in China enjoy on mobile phones are very different from the kinds of activities people in Japan enjoy on mobile phones, which are also different from the kinds of activities Americans enjoy on mobile phones, and this is not even accounting for differences in subcultures and classes and other groupings. These differences lead to different business opportunities for the internet giants in each country, and thus different apps and virtual goods.

A similar pattern is playing out in the different cultural myths and romantic narratives surrounding the automobile in various parts of the world, which lead to differences in the acceptance of public transportation, self-driving cars, and electric vehicles.

Perhaps it’s more important, and a better approach, to change background culture to make it more compatible with a desired kind of technological outcome (e.g., more widespread use of alternative energy or fuel-efficient cars) than to push on the technical side alone.

Something is more likely to be accepted and popular when it is perceived as a desirable experience that conforms to — at least in this country — core American values. It might be useful, for example, to think about how we can craft new narratives about independence and the freedom of the road based on self-driving cars.

It might also be useful to change the cultural conversation around electric vehicles and associate them not just with frugality and tax credits, but to also emphasize their different acceleration characteristics and “feel” to the driver, to portray them not only as more efficient than gas vehicles, but a more exciting driving experience. Cultures have foundational myths that direct their technology paths because technology choices are also emotional choices.

I don’t think any lessons can be learned from history other than that the evolution of technology is very much dependent on accidents and past choices, and much more like the evolution of artistic trends than a predictable, tamable process. The evolution of art is not only driven by artists, but by a conversation between the artists and the audience.

As audiences learned to decode and derive meaning from new mediums and new styles, artists also learned to craft new works that conformed to and challenged those codes, always keeping an eye out for risk-taking discoveries from peripheral communities and accidental combinations that strike an emotional chord. Technology is also a conversation between inventors and the society they invent for, and the mutual learning between technology innovators and technology users.

A good conversation is not predictable, and so I think making technology predictions is a fool’s game and never engage in it.

In the Dandelion Dynasty series, zeppelin-like airships play a major role. Were you inspired by the resurgence of efficient airships in the U.K. and elsewhere?

I’ve been following various ventures for reviving airship travel for years. But again, I wouldn’t dare to guess how likely they are to succeed. Too many factors are involved beyond the feasibility of the technology — airships faded out of aviation history largely because of an accident.

I can’t speculate on why others might like airships, but I like them for their energy efficiency and the romantic image they project. In my novels, the bamboo-and-silk airships move not with propellers, but by means of giant feathered oars. When lit up from inside at night, the airships pulsate through the empyrean like jellyfish in an abyss of stars. I think of that as the iconic image of the silkpunk aesthetic.

In creating your novels’ fictional universe, you gravitated towards rebellion and challenging accepted norms.

Rebellion and change are the norm in all human societies rather than the exception, but different societies have developed different sorts of political technologies to limit the damage from violent change.

We may think of an electoral revolution as a perfect solution to the need for changing governments in response to changing social needs, but the coup-d’état can also be a great technology in certain societies by limiting the number of people who are harmed in a change of power. They are just different technologies for solving the same basic problem. I wanted my novel to reflect that fundamental truth about all human societies.

I wrote my novels to entertain and to serve as a fantastic mirror in which readers can see whatever reflections of the problems of modernity they wish to see. All texts are, in the end, mere playgrounds for readers to exercise their imagination, and so every reader reads a different book and constructs a different reading experience, even if they engage with the very same text. I would love, therefore, to hear what readers think are the silkpunk solutions to our problems!

This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.