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Liu, Ken

Entry updated 18 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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English name of Liu Yukun (1976-    ), an American lawyer, computer programmer and author of Chinese ancestry, whose work often focuses on the cultural or Linguistic intersections between the Anglophone and Sinophone worlds. Emigrating to the US as a child, he graduated from Harvard Law School and had his debut with "Carthaginian Rose" (in Empire of Dreams and Miracles: The Phobos Science Fiction Anthology, anth 2002, ed Orson Scott Card and Keith Olexa). It was not, however, until 2010 that he began his immensely prolific short-story output, culminating in the trifecta of his Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award-winning "The Paper Menagerie" (March/April 2011 F&SF), which allegorizes the cultural distance between a mail-order bride and her monoglot son through their shared care of living origami animals (see Absurdist SF). Another short-story Hugo followed in 2013 for "Mono no Aware" (in The Future Is Japanese, anth 2012, ed Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington).

Much of Liu's oeuvre can be read as a polite but forceful engagement with colonialism in genre texts, in opposition to the "racial Othering" of those Western authors who claim to use Chinese characters and themes, but continue to merely project both authors' and readers' own fears onto Chinese mouthpieces. Such works include his Steampunk reworking of L Frank Baum in "The Veiled Shanghai" (in Oz Reimagined: New Tales from the Emerald City and Beyond, anth 2013, ed John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen), which moves the action of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) to China in 1919. Liu also acknowledges a strong inspiration from other authors of the ethnic Chinese experience (particularly in the sense of being Aliens in America), drawing, for example, on the work of Maxine Hong Kingston for his "All the Flavors" (February 2012 GigaNotoSaurus). A didactic novella pointing out that Chinese immigrants comprised 28.5% of the population of Idaho in 1870, "All the Flavors" co-opts the subtext of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1950) to suggest that there are periods where the "Chinese" experience and the "American" experience are interchangeable.

Liu often structures his stories as a metatextual bricolage of transcripts, letters and Infodump quotes from non-existent articles. His novella "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" (in Panverse Three, anth 2011, ed Dario Ciriello) uses Time Travel to confront denialists with the World War Two atrocities of the infamous Japanese human vivisection Unit 731 (see Torture). Inspired in part by Iris Chang's nonfiction The Rape of Nanking (1997) and the controversies and tragedy generated by that book's reception, Liu applies legal theory to genre issues, asking who has jurisdiction over a state's past, when that past includes physical terrain now claimed by other states (see Imperialism). Presented as the script for a television documentary, it uses its nonfiction framework to discuss the flaws and fallacies that can influence our own sense of history itself as a science (see History in SF). Much of Liu's best later work, including most of the tales mentioned here, are assembled in The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (coll 2016) and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories (coll 2020), though not "The Long Haul: From the Annals of Transportation, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009" (November 2014 Clarkesworld), which won a Sidewise Award. The Hidden Girl – winner of a Locus Award as best collection – does however contain "Memories of my Mother" (March 2012 Daily Science Fiction), whose fatally ill protagonist uses Time Travel to visit her daughter as she grows; it was filmed as the 26-minute-long Memories of My Mother (2016) directed by David Gaddie, and was cited in Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Truth (2019) as the base of a fictional film being made by members of the cast.

Liu's first novel, The Grace of Kings (2015) – opening the Dandelion Dynasty sequence – could be described as fantasy, though Liu himself coined the term "silkpunk" to describe the use here of fantasticated Oriental technology in a way evocative of the plays on fantasticated Victorian engineering that characterize Steampunk; it won the Locus Award for best debut novel. In the following year The Paper Menagerie won a Locus Award for best collection.

Liu has also scored a series of awards and acclaims as a translator, of works by Chen Qiufan, Liu Cixin, Ma Boyong and Xia Jia, discussed in his article "Gathering in Translation" (April 2013 Clarkesworld). His work as a translator is no less lyrical and carefully parsed than his own fiction, and has significantly contributed to the impact and footprint of those authors in the English language. His first book-length publication, Ai de Suanfa ["Algorithms for Love"] (coll 2012), was a Chinese translation of his American fiction, published by the company behind Kehuan Shijie, aptly continuing his prominent position as a liminal figure between the two cultures. [JonC]

see also: Pantheon; Seiun Award.

Liu Yukun

born Lanzhou, Gansu, China: 1976

works (selected)


The Dandelion Dynasty

  • The Grace of Kings (New York: Simon and Schuster/Saga Press, 2015) [The Dandelion Dynasty: hb/Sam Weber]
  • The Wall of Storms (New York: Simon and Schuster/Saga Press, 2016) [The Dandelion Dynasty: hb/Sam Weber]
  • The Veiled Throne (New York: Simon and Schuster/Saga Press, 2021) [The Dandelion Dynasty: hb/Sam Weber]
  • Speaking Bones (New York: Simon and Schuster/Saga Press, 2022) [The Dandelion Dynasty: hb/Sam Weber]

individual titles

  • Ai de Suanfa ["Algorithms for Love"] (Chengdu, China: SFW Publishing, 2012) [coll: trans into Chinese of many of his early stories: binding unknown/]


works as translator


previous versions of this entry

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