National myth: Rewriting America and China

In this episode Ken Liu discusses the power of myth in the construction of national narratives and the revisionist work that epic fantasy can do to rewrite them, drawing on the weight of time as omnipresent to narrative intent.




[Narrative Futures Intro Music]


Chelsea Haith: How do the stories we tell shape how we think about the future, the present and the past. What is speculation for? And how might we construct better narratives for a better future?


Narrative Futures is a podcast coming to you from Futures Thinking, a research network housed in The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities.


My name is Chelsea Haith, I’m a doctoral researcher in the Faculty of English, here at the University of Oxford. Ken Liu joins us in this episode of Narrative Futures to discuss alternative technologies, realism versus
speculation and how narratives can produce erroneous national mythologies.


man with dark hair in white shirt and black jacket looking to the left

photo credit: Li Yibo

This podcast is interactive. Following the interview you’ll be treated to two writing prompts designed by novelist and creative writing tutor extraordinaire Louis Greenberg. We invite you to share your responses to these with us via email at
We’ll share these on the blog, where you’ll also be able to find the full transcript of each episode with links to the books, writers and ideas that we discuss. As the world so radically changes we hope these conversations and ideas give you insight
and inspiration to think about how else we might live and create collectively, going forward.



[Narrative Futures music]


Ken Liu is the multiple award winning author of the silk-punk epic trilogy The Dandelion Dynasty as well as two collection
of short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He has also won a Nebula,
a World Fantasy Awards Prize, a Locus prize and the Theodore Sturgeon award. He is also widely praised for his translation of CIxin Liu’s work. Ken also works in programming and law, though he is an author first, and one who is particularly well-suited
to screen adaptation. His highly-lauded short ‘Good Hunting’ was adapted for the popular Netflix series ‘Love, Death + Robots’, and the films Beautiful Dreamer and Real Artists are also based on Ken’s short fiction.


What you’ll hear next is an extract from a short story called ‘Staying Behind’ which
explores existential questions of life after Artificial General Intelligence, or the Singularity.


[Extract from Ken Liu’s story: Staying Behind]


CH: That’s lovely. Thank you. I mean that gives us a perfect sort of jumping off point to talk about the ideas in this podcast, and also in your own work. Thinking about narratives of the future, sort of narratives that we tell ourselves
that might change the future, and the idea of the Singularity and you know the Silicon Valley quest to upload and sort of transcend the fallibility of the human body. I mean what do you think about the ethics of that?


KL: You know I think one of the most fascinating things that I’ve observed over my career in technology is this notion of the Singularity. It seems to be always about thirty years
in the future. It was that way back in the sixties, then the seventies, the eighties, the nineties, the aughts, and now the, you know, [laughs] 2010s and 2020s. It always seems to be just about thirty years away. So my sense is that it’s less a technological
thing and more of an ideological thing.


The very idea of a machine intelligence being objective and therefore able to solve the problems that we cannot solve, the kind of literally deus ex machina that will save, I think it’s an ideologically driven notion, and it’s a displaced for of religious
fervour. I don’t think it’s actually particularly interesting as a matter of technology; it’s much more interesting as a way of basically abandoning our responsibilities to solve our own problems, and to think that machines will somehow do it for
us. It’s a kind of avoidance, you know, it’s trying to avoid the real issue by displacing it and saying that a machine will come and save us. It’s no different than the idea, you know, many people have of, you know, the next generation will solve
the problems we have. You know, they are the hope, they are the future. Well, unfortunately [laughs] that’s always going to be the case. Saying that just means that we’re not taking up our own responsibility to solve the very problems that we already
know about and that we should be working on.


CH: Absolutely. Yeah, I find that that narrative of, you know, the youth are the future, and kind of we kind of create these future selves, slavebots that can resolve the harm that we’ve done, then all of the work that things like the
climate strikes, or you know school strikes for climate, will sort of coalesce into a utopian future. And it very much feels like, as you say, a replacement for religion. It’s God for atheists. And you mix these ideas
really beautifully with… these sort of ideas about tech with emotional consequences, really beautifully in another story of yours called ‘Thoughts and Prayers’.
And you kind of… you vary across your short fiction in kind of what sort of futures you’re imagining or you think are possible, and I really like that kind of playing with multiple potentials that you do. What draws you to one particular kind of concern
over another, and how do you kind of intermingle all of these technological ideas with you know the richness of the myth that also infuses so much of your work?


KL: So this is my theory about futurism and technology oriented sci-fi in general. I think oftentimes sci-fi is understood as some sort of future prediction, futurism. You know, either it’s constructing possible futures, or it’s about
imagining what the future should be, something like that. And often when folks who are not in sci-fi especially, when they’re trying to make a case for why sci-fi is relevant for “mainstream” readers, the approach they take is to argue that sci-fi
invents the future. You know, they bring up examples like, you know, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, you see people using tablets. You see,
that means sci-fi predicts the future, you know. It imagined the idea of tablets long before they were really there. And my response to that is, that’s a profound misunderstanding of the point of sci-fi and the value of sci-fi.


Number one, those kind of predictions are irrelevant and useless. There have been many so-called stories about people being inspired by sci-fi to invent things, like none of them have turned out to be true. And even if there were some level of inspiration,
it’s… the… it’s no more than people getting inspired by, you know, ancient myth of people flying to invent airplanes, you know. I don’t think sci-fi is really ultimately about the future at all. It’s really only about the present, as all storytelling
tends to be. You know, when we tell stories about historical episodes, we’re not really interested in history, we’re only interested in ourselves. Stories about the past are really stories about the present, and stories of the future are really only
stories about the present. I think of sci-fi as a kind of particular technique of representing the present.


So-called realism is one way, it’s like an oil painting. Sci-fi is more like abstract art. It’s ultimately about seeing the world around us, it’s a way of… it’s a filter, right, it highlights certain things in the present that are otherwise hard to see,
if you use the realist lens, and it brushes over other aspects of reality that are not relevant for the particular story that you’re trying to tell. So all sci-fi, whether you’re imagining, you know, fifty years in the future, a thousand years in
the future, or some other planet or some other species, these are ultimately stories about humanity, and they’re about the present. They’re about the anxieties, the challenges, the hopes, and the even the lies that the present tells itself. That’s
what sci-fi actually is about; it just tries to do it in a way that empathises certain things and not others. It tries to extrapolate from current trends into an imagined future, but if you actually study the history of technology, the history of
how societies evolve, extrapolation is probably the worst way to do future prediction. It almost never works that way. Nothing increases in this linear extens—or whatever, manner. Something strange, unexpected always happens, you know, that’s what
keeps the world unpredictable and interesting.


So for me, you know, when I’m doing sci-fi in different stories, what I’m really trying to do is to explore different aspects of the present that I find worrisome, troubling or hopeful, and extrapolating them out, and I try to tell stories about them.
But ultimately these are stories about the moment we’re living through, they’re not about some kind of possible future, they’re really not. They’re about seeing the present more clearly, in the same way that when you apply a certain kind of filter
to a photograph, you can see features you don’t otherwise see. That’s what sci-fi does.


CH: I love the idea of sci-fi being abstract art. I have a Picasso postcard on my desk pinboard, and I’m thinking about how sci-fi comes
out of the period after modernism—sort of what we think of as traditional sci-fi, comes out of the period after modernism. It’s kind of part of some kind of surrealist postmodern art period where you’re trying to evoke something of the present. I
mean, so much sci-fi is imbricated in you know postmodern theory, as someone like Fredric Jameson has made fairly clear. And I love the ideas about you know so-called realism, because there is the presumption that realist texts present the world that
is real, and that sci-fi is not mainstream for the reason that it doesn’t. And yet, as you say, sci-fi is about the present.


KL: Right. I mean realism is a very interesting technique. You know, you can go back and look at the way literature was written in the time of Milton, for example, right. You know, is Paradise Lost a realist piece of work? In some ways it is! [laughs] But the very notion of realism had to be constructed. You know, you can look at the earliest novels like Clarissa,
and compare them to what we think of realism now, you can see distinct shifts. You know, the very notion that a realistic character is a character with a great deal of interior depth that you get to know by reading is a fairly modern invention. You
know, Clarissa was not like that at all! [laughs] That was considered a realist narrative at its time. So even the way that we think of someone as being real, or a character as being real, and the way that we value certain literary representations
of reality, has changed over time. And like you were saying, you know, sci-fi… you were talking about Picasso, but the sci-fi writer who I think is closest to Picasso would be somebody like Philip K. Dick,
who really had that kind of vision of the world. And I think that’s what he was trying to write about. His robots and androids were not really robots and androids at all; they were metaphors for the incredible alienation and spiritual emptiness of
modernity, and that’s what, you know, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was really about. It’s not about androids; it’s about
the fact that we all feel like other people around us are somehow not real, that they’re not people at all.


CH: Yeah. Likewise Vonnegut, right.


KL: Except, you know, sometimes he’s not described as a sci-fi writer, for whatever reason.


CH: Yeah. There’s so many writers who aren’t, and I think… I mean, you yourself are kind of on the cusp, right, because you shift between these genres that, you know, have these boundaries that don’t make sense to the person who’s writing.
I saw you at a convention in Cape Town in 2017 when I was still living there, and you were on a panel I think titled “speculative fiction”. And you were vehement about not being labelled
that way, and it’s really stuck with me, into my thesis work, and I was wondering how you felt about that kind… those kind of generic distinctions?


KL: You know, I was never a big fan of genre distinctions. I think I’ve always said that when I choose to read I don’t particularly care about which section of the bookstore, you know, a book is from. And when I write, I don’t set out
with an idea that I’m going to write, you know, a hard sci-fi story. So I’m going to follow the conventions of hard sci-fi. Because I… to be frank, I don’t really think those conventions are particularly stable, and I don’t think they need to be respected.
If we want… we… if we really wanted to respect genre conventions rigidly, you know we’d still be writing Golden Age sci-fi now, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. I do understand that some readers find these genre distinctions very valuable, because
they help guide them to the type of stories they like, and they help making sense of things.


So for example, you know, if I say, “I’m looking at something. I was so shocked my eyes fell out,” in a realist narrative you would understand that’s a metaphor, but in a sci-fi story you might think that literally means the actually fell out, you’re
a robot, or something like that. So I understand that, you know, genre labels do have some meaning, in the sense that it sets your expectations as a reader, and helps you interpret the work, but I think the benefits are very limited, and the harm
is far greater. The issue is, I’m drawn to narratives in which some aspects of reality that we normally think of as metaphorical is represented as literally true. Those are the kind of stories I like to tell. So, you know, metaphorically we may think
that someone’s love brings the world to life, that’s a metaphor, but I would tell a story in which a mother’s love would make these paper animals come to life—literally. They actually move around and jump around and talk. That’s you know an example
of the kind of liberalising of metaphor that I do.


When I do things like that, if the metaphor that’s being made literally true, it’s not explained, people usually call that fantasy. If there is some sort of plausible or pseudo-plausible explanation for why that happens, people call that sci-fi. I don’t
particularly care either way. I happen to be very interested in technology, having worked as a technologist for so many years, so I enjoy using the language of technology as part of the metaphor. So that’s why, you know, a lot of my stories are considered
sci-fi as a result. I don’t really write them with that intention, that’s not what I care about. As I mentioned earlier, I want to just look at reality through a different filter, trying to reveal aspects that are otherwise not easily seen. And it
just happens to be the case that technology is such an important part of our modern world, it’s hard to not draw its implications out, and to extrapolate from it, and to use it as the foundation of liberalising metaphors in my stories. And so that’s
why a lot of my short fiction tends to be sci-fi, in the traditional sense, just like the story I was reading from.


CH: Yeah, but then you’ve got Dandelion Dynasty trilogy, which kind of sits on the other end of those kinds of concerns, but I think in the same way uses metaphor to talk about kind of present day concerns, right?


KL: Yeah, absolutely. I mean The Dandelion Dynasty is a set of… they’re called epic fantasy books, and I call them “silkpunk”, mainly
because—they are a fantasy, of course, because they take place in a secondary world that’s not our world, and there are you know magical creatures and gods who are literally real, and they actually interact with the characters. But on the other hand
it’s really not a fantasy book in the sense of Tolkien. There is some magic, but very little of it. The primary speculative element is the technology in the secondary world. It’s a world
that is just discovering electricity, if you will. And because the technology tradition of the world is based on materials and engineering practices—practices prevalent in classical East Asia in our world—there is a very distinct sense in which the
technology evolution is going down a different route.


So I call it silkpunk because, you know, it’s sort of an extrapolation of East Asian engineering principles into a fantastical world. But in some ways you can sort of view the entire trilogy of books as a kind of celebration of engineering as equally
important as magic. The great heroes in my epic fantasy novels are not wizards but engineers, and by focusing so much on their language of technology, I ended up really talking about the world we’re living in. You know, they’re early modern people,
and we’re sort of post-modern. But in some ways our concerns are very similar. We have the same kinds of worries about what does it mean to be a nation? What does it mean to have shared mythology? What does it mean when that story turns out to be
not the story of everyone? Who gets to tell the story of the founding of the nation? Who gets excluded from it? You know, these are the struggles that the United States is going through right now, and I think around the world other countries are going
through the same thing, a reckoning with our history. You know, when you have a foundational mythology that you thought everyone shared in America, and then you realise that that’s actually not true. Some of us have known that to be not true for a
long time; others are just discovering it. But at least here is a moment when we’re all trying to come to terms with it, and trying to figure out, how do we take the old story, revitalise it, cast away pieces that are no longer fit, and turn it into
a more inclusive, more hopeful, a better story that all of us can believe in.


I mean, that’s ultimately what these revolutions are about. It turns out that, you know, my epic fantasy books were written over a period of a decade, and so some of them were start… the earliest books were started before the present moment, of course,
but it turns out that many of the concerns in these books are very much… they’re concerned about the present. So as I was writing them, I was obviously not thinking about some you know some far-away place that has nothing to do with this; I was very
much thinking about the same problems plaguing us. Human nature is in some ways universal, and the problems of fantastical peoples I imagine are not particularly different from the problems that we have to go through in our own lives. And that in
some ways is full of what makes literature interesting, and what makes it hard.



CH: Yeah, I love the idea about your sort of your fascination with the engineering characters, and how they are kind of contributing to the building of a sort of a new world, and then the link that obviously to America’s conception of
itself as—or like, well I suppose conception by the colonial conquistadors as the New World. And then the kind of the sense of as the people… as sort of white invaders moved across America, they became… or America became this kind of frontier space
constantly. And we have your kind of present concerns about the Internet as being a fairly kind of Wild West space, you know. It’s unregulated and nationless.


KL: That’s absolutely right. I mean, you’re talking about the fact here that we’re always reconceiving and retelling the story in which we are the builders, we’re the makers, and the story’s denying our role as agents of destruction.
You know, as you point out, the settlement, colonisation of the United States is a process of destruction, but it’s often told in a way that suggests it’s merely a story about construction. The rise of Silicon Valley is the same way. I mean, you know,
I talk about foundational mythologies a lot, but mythologies are very important, far more important than people give them credit for, you know. So for example, right, every year the smartest people, the smartest college grads in the United States
go work at Silicon Valley. And people… when you try to ask people, you know, why do they think this is, the general answer is always, “Oh, because that’s where the money is.” That’s actually not the best answer.


It’s often not actually helpful to think of things that way, and I’ll say why, because having worked in the tech industry myself, I have some sense of this. The smart people that Silicon Valley companies are recruiting are, of course, smart, but they
can make money in any number of ways. And there are lots of ways to make money that have nothing to do with Silicon Valley—Wall Street would be a much better way to make money, if that’s what they wanted and cared about. But nonetheless, many people
decide to go into Silicon Valley, not Wall Street, mainly because they are… they go there because they actually believe in ideals. And ideals are that, this is a world in which if you know how to code, and even better if you know how to use a soldering
iron, you can make a dent in the universe, you can really change the world. Technology is a magnificent force multiplier, and software is our epic poetry.


So if you really wanted to change the world, and make a difference, technology is where you go, right. This is the same narrative that I was talking about, you know, it’s like, if you’re a person of great ambition, then you go into the “Wild West” to
build things. So if you’re a person of great ambition, and great ideals, and lots of hope… and have lots of hope, then you go to Silicon Valley, because you can build things, you can create a new world. You know, what’s not said is the amount of destruction
that you’re going through, and you’re going to… the havoc you’re going to wreak, and the fact that ultimately, when you go work in Silicon Valley, what you’re really doing is you end up being co-opted and slowly assimilated into that culture in which
the only problems you’re interested in solving are problems technology can in fact solve. And they become the problems of a particular class, of a particular demographic, and a particular group of people of a time and a place, and your vision becomes
narrowed down until those are the only problems that you see and you think are worth solving.


Furthermore, you end up in a position where you convince yourself that everything you do is for the ultimate good of everyone. So this is why, you know, you can… Silicon Valley companies convince the world’s smartest people to go work for these companies
in order to “change the world”, and have them basically come up with ways to sell you more ads, and they still think that they’re changing the world for the better. This is, you know, the great con that’s being pulled right in front of our eyes, and
it happens because the mythology of what Silicon Valley is and what technology can do is so powerful. The stories that we tell ourselves about what we’re doing and who we are, they are far more important than we give credit for.


CH: Yes. I want to talk a little bit about time in your work—you’ve spoken about this before, but I think it’s really fascinating, and I think anyone listening to this will find your ideas really interesting. I think the presumption that
time is linear is something that your work—I feel—throws out, and you’re far more interested in kind of the non-linearity of time. And the way that you, you know, you weave myth and technology and human relationships together I think is really indicative
of that.


KL: Thank you! So one of the things that fascinates me is the idea of time being a… in some ways, a consequence of the particular way our consciousness works. I mean, this is you know a well-known phenomena. Our nerves actually are not
particularly fast conductors of signals. You know, when you stab your foot or something, it actually takes a bit of time for that signal to go all the way from your toe into your brain. So essentially, when you’re walking around, the sensations that
you’re feeling from the bottom of your is you know almost a second—it takes almost that long to get all the way up to your brain. So, the fact is you don’t feel—even though it is objectively true that your brain is trying to trying to integrate signals
coming from different parts of your body, and therefore there is a delay between parts of your body that are far, compared to parts of your body that are close to your brain—you don’t experience that delay, really, that you don’t experience that sense.
You experience this integrated, unified body, and everything happens to you simultaneously. And that’s the result of essentially an illusion that your brain constructs. Your brain has to take all these disparate signals coming at you from different
moments of time and integrate into one coherent whole.


So in some ways you’re always time travelling already, just you’re integrating a swath of time into a single point. Simultaneously, whenever you remember something of the past, you know the way it works is you’re actually reliving that moment in your
mind—you’re time travelling again. And that kind of time travelling is actually very important in terms of our cognitive abilities, the way we anticipate and build stories about what other people’s intentions are, how they motivate themselves, what
they’re trying to do, how we should respond. We’re always telling these stories and reliving our past, in the process trying to understand our own thinking and other people’s intentions. The way we experience time isn’t, you know, some sort of objective
reality; it’s a thing that we have to construct. So I find that very fascinating, and so a lot of my stories try to play with that idea of finding connections and integrating different moments of time into one. In some ways I feel like we’re always
living with… not just in one moment, but in all history.


You know, when you’re walking through the streets of London, or visiting Cairo, or going through… taking a trip to Japan, or something, you’re always living through thousands of years of history all around you. It’s sort of like when you’re standing out
there under the night stars, you look around and you see all these points of light, but some of these points of light are hundreds of millions of light years away, some of them are just dozens of light years away, and so the light from different moments
of time, different moments of the universe, are reaching you all at the same time. You're bathed in the entire history of the universe, literally. In the same way that when you’re walking through the streets of your home town, you’re walking through
layers of ghosts, and all the history of those who came before, the people who were slaughtered, the people who did the slaughtering, and all the people whose blood flows through your veins, and all their victims as well. You know, all of history
is always with you at all times, and to me, you know, that’s just a very important thing to keep in mind when when we tell stories.


We’re never telling stories in a vacuum; we’re telling stories in the context of all the stories that came before, and all the stories that gave that particular story meaning. Time isn’t something that just goes on toward the future. You always have to
loop back and integrate the past, and revitalise it, and bring the past forward with you. That’s the only way.


CH: It’s such a beautiful idea, that you’re kind of… you’re walking through ghosts, and yet a very heavy and quite difficult thing to hold on to and to work with and to live with. I wonder how you reconcile, or how you think other people
reconcile, kind of having those multiple histories with them—or not, I suppose.


KL: You know, when I think about history and the past, I was thinking, “Oh, that’s all in the past.” Everything has happened in order to just have me be born. You know, this kind of self-centred view is very much the default state of
modernity. But after I had kids, it really centred things. I suddenly no longer saw the world that way. I saw the world as, you know, I’m just another link in this long unbroken chain from the past into the future, and I have a role to play, and that
is to solve as many of the problems as I can, and try to make the world a little bit better than when I found it. If I can do that, if I can really honestly say I did that, then that’s not bad. And that’s not easy to accomplish, but that’s a worthy
goal to strive for. I’m not, you know, the end of history, I’m not all that important; I’m really just one link in a very long chain, but that matters. And that de-centering of the self gave me a much better sense of how important everything else
in the past really was. And I think in some ways that’s what we’re going through now as a nation, trying to decentre ourselves from the idea that we’re unique, we’re special—we’re not. But we’re connected to the past. The sins of the past are our
sins, and we have to come to terms with it, and recognise how to do better.


CH: Yeah. [laughs] Is the problem perhaps capitalism? [laughs] This is so fascinating. I just… cognisant of the time, I do want to quickly pick your brain about form, because you write your short stories, and then these epics, and they’re
quite very different forms of styles. I mean, one of the things that’s so distinctive about your short story writing is how much plot you can squeeze into a short story, and, yeah, I was wondering if you had a… if you felt a particular way about how
you approach writing short stories as opposed to the epics, and how you think about time in those?


KL: Well, I do approach them very differently. I will say that, you know, the pleasures that they bring to me as a writer are very different. You know I worked on the epic fantasy series the Dandelion Dynasty for ten years. The Grace
of Kings was written, you know, back in 2010, and now it’s 2020, and I’ve just finished the last book—


CH: It’ll be out next year?


KL: Hopefully, yes. Although with publishing, who knows. Everything has slowed down. But I’m hoping that it will still happen next year. But I have to live with these characters for, you know, a decade, which is a very long time, and
I have to really delve into the world a lot. And so when you keep on returning to the same world over and over again, you end up knowing it so well. I mean, in some ways I feel like I know the world of Dara—which is the epic fantasy—better than I
know the real world, which is a frightening thing. And also, the series is about the same age as my older daughter, so you know in some ways it’s like my third child, it grew up right alongside my other kids. [laughs] And it’s, you know, I put a lot
of myself into it and it feels… you feel a kind of relationship to this thing that has grown up with you all this time, you feel about it very differently. And plot wise, you know, it’s like… trying to tell the story, you really get to know your characters
in a very deep, intimate way, that I think I don’t necessarily do with my short stories.


For short fiction, they’re more like snapshots of where I was as a writer at that moment. You know, when I look back on the short fiction I wrote, what I’m seeing really is a snapshot of my concerns and struggles and interests in that moment. And because
they’re snapshots, they can afford to be a little bit less detailed in the way the world is conceived. You know, when I’m telling the short story, I don’t need to imagine the entire society of the entire world, I just need to see a corner of it clearly
enough to tell the story. And so I can leave all the rest of it in the dark. So you know it’s… in this huge canvas, I’m really just using a tiny corner of it, so I paint that little corner in great detail, but I don’t need to fill in the rest of the
picture at all. With epic fantasy, though it’s very different. I really have to get the whole thing in there, I look at the whole picture. And so it’s a different kind of mindset and a different kind of mental exercise. Writing short fiction, I can
keep an entire story in my head, and work with it, and contemplate it in its entirety. But in epic fantasy that’s never possible. I can only focus on a little piece of it at a time, and when I zoom out, I lose the details, I cannot hold the whole
thing in my head, and so it’s a very different composition process.


CH: Yeah, that’s really interesting that so much of it is about world building, and you’ve said elsewhere that you kind of… you play with some of the engineering ideas that you write about, and I thought that was a really fascinating
way into some of concepts. So the silkmotic force, yeah, that you said like just… you built. And then, yeah, thinking you know about the silkpunk elements of “Good Hunting”, which you know is one
of your most famous and well loved stories.


KL: I tend to learn things by doing them. I can’t really just read about them, or read a summary of it, and think that I understand it. I mean you know when I was writing about AI, for example, I had to actually build my own neural networks
and feed it data and see what it does to get an intuition for how it works before I can write about it. When I was writing these epic fantasy novels, because they make use of electrostatics, which is really not you know a technology route that we’ve
taken, I ended up having to build some of these machines that I’d described in my books, prototypes and models, so I can understand how they function, and then basically what they do and how it feels to work with this kind of technology. It just,
to me, when you’re writing about stuff like this, it’s just… to me it’s much more fun and much more… it gives a layer or level of depth that you can’t achieve otherwise, unless you actually do it and participate in the thing that you’re talking about.
It gives you a sense of understanding you can’t get otherwise.


[Narrative Futures music]


Louis Greenberg’s writing prompts:


1.         ‘Realism’ is not a default; it’s a choice


In this interview, Ken Liu reminds us that realism is not a default – it’s a series of choices. This links back to points other writers in this series have made about realism and the place of magic in everyday life.

To test this assertion, let’s become conscious about the decisions involved in trying for neutral realism.

In a realistic way, briefly describe yourself pouring some water to drink, sticking to the facts as far as possible.


You might like to pause here, write the description, then come back.




Once you have written your description, think of where your scene is set – is it in a kitchen, an office, a restaurant, in the countryside? First, think of the surroundings you chose not to describe.


Consider how your water source – a tap, a bottle, a well – and your container – a glass, a cup, your hand – may be different from five other people’s


Did you follow the instruction and write about yourself, or someone else, or did you opt to rebel and write a character?


What narrative perspective did you choose? First person, third person?

What does the environment and narrative voice and surroundings say about the protagonist? Did you choose details that would illuminate their character?


How much detail did you put in? Was the scene deliberately overwritten or badly written? What does this say about your view of realism?


Even trying to be as neutral and factual as possible, you have carefully curated your description.



2.         Literalise a metaphor


Liu is drawn to stories in which metaphors are presented as true.

For this exercise, literalise a metaphor.


Choose a favourite or striking metaphor. ‘My legs were jelly’, ‘my head nearly exploded’, ‘there’s an elephant in the room’…

Now write a very brief scene in which this is literally true.


Often this simple exercise can unlock a lot more story – we crack open a door to a whole new world where anything is possible. Does the prompt loosen your imagination? Can you imagine a few more scenes in this story?


[Narrative Futures music]



CH: That concludes this penultimate episode of Narrative Futures. Thanks to Ken Liu for joining us on the podcast. The final episode to be released next week features Tade Thompson,
author of the Wormwood trilogy, joining us to discuss the metaphor of alien invasion, psychoanalysis and the Nommo Awards for Speculative Fiction by African authors.


[Outro music]




With thanks to Ken Liu for being our guest on this episode.


Music credit: The sounds used in this podcast are Technological Vibe and Cyber Technologies by Ricky Rombino, sourced from Premium Beats.


Production credit: This podcast was devised, recorded, and edited by Chelsea Haith. All writing prompts were designed and presented by Louis Greenberg.

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