Singapore Writers Festival

Fantastical fiction and where to find it

Ken Liu is the Chinese-American author behind the Journey To Star Wars: The Last Jedi book series.
Ken Liu is the Chinese-American author behind the Journey To Star Wars: The Last Jedi book series.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF MARJORIE LIU, LI YIBO, LOU ABERCROMBIE
J.Y. Yang
J.Y. YangST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Aliette de Bodard
Aliette de BodardPHOTOS: COURTESY OF MARJORIE LIU, LI YIBO, LOU ABERCROMBIE
Marjorie Liu
Marjorie LiuPHOTOS: COURTESY OF MARJORIE LIU, LI YIBO, LOU ABERCROMBIE

Science-fiction and fantasy authors are at the forefront of the festival's 20th edition, which boasts more than 290 events. Starting on Friday, 12 events over 10 days will focus on speculative fiction. Olivia Ho speaks to four writers in speculative fiction

Ken Liu: Getting personal to go universal

The first science-fiction book that Chinese-American author Ken Liu read was a novelisation of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Fast-forward 30 years and he is adding his own name to the canon that once left him starstruck.

His junior novel, The Legends Of Luke Skywalker, in which children trade stories of the legendary Jedi knight and debate if he is myth or man, is being released today as part of the Journey To Star Wars: The Last Jedi book series.

Liu, a lawyer in his 40s, says: "I've been a lifelong Star Wars fan and it's been very exciting for me to have the chance to contribute to that universe."

Born in China, he moved to America when he was 11. The father of two, who is married to artist Lisa Tang Liu, won rave reviews for his ambitious debut fantasy novel The Grace Of Kings (2015), in which a bandit and the son of deposed royalty join forces to overthrow the brutal emperor of the Dara islands, but later become rivals. It is the first in a trilogy.

Its "silkpunk" style is an organic, Asian-influenced riff on the Victorian steampunk tradition, which draws on 19th-century steampower technology. Instead of zeppelins, for instance, the airships in the novel are propelled by giant feathered oars and billow-like jellyfish.

It is Liu's second time at the Singapore Writers Festival, which he first attended two years ago. Since then, he published his first short story collection, The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories, last year. The title story made history when it became the first to win all three of science fiction's most prestigious awards: the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards.

  • BOOK IT / WHEN FICTION BECOMES FACT: SCI-FI AND THE FATE OF HUMANITY - A LECTURE BY KEN LIU

  • WHERE: The Arts House, Chamber, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Sunday, 5pm

    ADMISSION: $20 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: www.singaporewritersfestival.com

Unlike The Grace Of Kings, for which he had to write a mini Wikipedia on the background that is almost as long as the novel itself, The Paper Menagerie is an intimate, poignant fantasy. In it, a mail-order bride from China, reluctant to adapt to American life, teaches her son to fold origami animals, which come to life.

As a child, Liu would make origami animals with his grandmother.

"I remember the magical feeling they used to have," he says. He combined this with his desire to flesh out the stories of mail-order brides, so often treated as a joke in the societies they move to.

Liu has written about 150 short stories, of which 15 appear in the collection. These range from The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary, in which a breakthrough in physics enables people to go back in time to witness Japanese atrocities in World War II China, to All The Flavors, which envisions the Chinese war god Guan Yu as an immigrant in Idaho during the Gold Rush.

One cannot apply the same rules to writing short stories and novels, he says. "You can't take a mosquito and blow it up to the size of an elephant and expect it to function - it would collapse from weight alone because the exoskeleton has no internal support. Similarly, an elephant the size of a mosquito would suffocate."

He has also been credited for taking Chinese science fiction to anglophone audiences through his translations, such as of Chinese writer Liu Cixin's The Remembrance Of Earth's Past trilogy, the first volume of which won the Hugo Award in 2015.

But it is counterproductive, he maintains, to file fiction into categories or view individual authors as representative of a culture.

"I think it's dangerous for fiction to be treated as an instrument or tool to achieve a specific purpose," he says.

"Every author who ends up having an impact - that happens by accident. They start by having an impact on themselves. The more personal your story, the more likely it is to be universal."


J.Y. Yang: Understand the world before you build your own

While chasing a naga - a mythical giant flying serpent - across the desert sands, a character in J.Y. Yang's Tensorate series curses in what readers from other countries might mistake for a fantasy language, but is, in fact, Hokkien.

The Singaporean author (right) vacillated on whether or not to leave it in the Chinese dialect, but says it has given many local readers a good chuckle. "I like the idea of Singaporean readers finding something familiar in places they didn't expect to see themselves reflected."

  • BOOK IT / REBELLION: DEFYING EXPECTATIONS IN FANTASY

  • WHERE: Chamber, The Arts House WHEN: Saturday, 7pm

    ADMISSION: Festival Pass event, $25 from Sistic

    INFO: This is a panel discussion among J.Y. Yang, Ken Liu and young-adult author Marie Lu from the US.

  • THE SCI-FI MIXTAPE: CREATING AN ASIAN-INSPIRED WORLD

  • WHERE: Chamber, The Arts House

    WHEN: Nov 11, 5pm

    ADMISSION: Festival Pass event, $25 from Sistic

    INFO: This is a panel discussion among J.Y. Yang, Aliette de Bodard and Singapore-based Indian fantasy author Krishna Udayasankar.

The 34-year-old's debut novellas, The Black Tides Of Heaven and The Red Threads Of Fortune, were published locally and abroad last month by science-fiction and fantasy site Tor.com.

The novellas, which can be read in either order, take place in a "silkpunk" - Asian-influenced riff on the Victorian steampunk tradition, which draws on 19th-century steampower technology - world that references various Asian cultures.

They follow twins Mokoya and Akeha, who are born to the powerful Protector of the kingdom, but given up at birth to a monastery. Mokoya has visions of the future, while Akeha has the gift, or "slackcraft", to manipulate elements in the natural world.

As they grow older, they grow apart. Akeha chooses to join the Machinists, a revolutionary group fighting against their mother's rule, while Mokoya undergoes a terrible tragedy that leaves her wandering the desert hunting naga with a pack of velociraptors.

It is a world that probes boundaries in more ways than one. Children enter the world with no fixed gender and decide on it later in life.

"If I'm creating a world out of my mind, I don't see why I should have to follow the extant gender binary," says Yang. "I wanted to do something different and make people think."

The former journalist and fiction editor is working on the next two novellas in the Tensorate series, to be released next year and in 2019. One will be an "epistolary mystery thriller", while the other will tell the Protector's backstory, but in a drunken monologue.

Yang, who is single, found breaking into the speculative fiction community overseas alienating due to cultural differences, but allows that the genre is more open than others to cultures that are "different" or "exotic" - annoying as the latter phrase may be.

Even so, keeping Singlish phrases in the novellas was a struggle. "People kept correcting the Singlish in the line edits and trying to change the sentence structure. I had to keep putting my foot down."

To help with world-building, Yang, who is trained as a molecular biologist, tries to read diversely: science, politics and economics.

"You need to understand how the world works before you build your own."


Aliette de Bodard: Stories with the power to change the future

When French-Vietnamese author Aliette de Bodard (left) read the Chinese classic novel Dream Of The Red Chamber, she thought: "It would be neat to have this - but in space."

Her novella On A Red Station, Drifting (2012) transforms Cao Xueqin's Qing dynasty family drama into a space opera, set in a Vietnamese galactic empire where women incubate artificial intelligences in their wombs, then embed them into spaceships on which their descendants live, such that a ship becomes both accommodation and ancestress.

  • BOOK IT / "NOT EVERYONE IS OPPRESSED EQUALLY" - WHY WE SHOULD LOOK BEYOND THE MERELY HEROIC: A TALK BY ALIETTE DE BODARD

  • WHERE: Blue Room, The Arts House

    WHEN: Nov 12, 4pm

    ADMISSION: Festival Pass event, $25 from Sistic

For all its interstellar sprawl, de Bodard wanted to preserve the dynamic Cao created of a huge family forced to co-exist in an intimate space, as well as the atmosphere of gentle decay as things fall to ruin.

"I'm fascinated by liminal places in fiction," says the 34-year-old. "I am interested in people who live on the margins because I, too, grew up between cultures."

De Bodard was born in the United States to a Vietnamese mother and French father, grew up in France, but was taught to speak English at home. The married mother of two young sons now lives in Paris.

A systems engineer by day, she creates futuristic or fantastic worlds in her novels, which range from the Obsidian And Blood trilogy - about an Aztec high priest who investigates supernatural murders - to The House Of Shattered Wings, set in the ruins of a Paris wrecked by a magical war, in which a young fallen angel and an immortal of Vietnamese origin try to save the once-great house that took them in.

She says she wrote it to puncture what she considers a harmful nostalgia for 19th-century Paris. "Everyone is playing along, pretending that everything is fine and beautiful, but it is a society living on borrowed time. It literally lives on stealing resources." In this Paris, fallen angels are dismembered by street gangs for the magic in their bones.

Last year, she became the first writer to win two British Science Fiction Association awards, for best novel - The House Of Shattered Wings - and best short story, Three Cups Of Grief, By Starlight, in the same year.

When she started writing science fiction, most of her characters were inadvertently male and white. At one point, she sat down and made a list of all her characters, their genders and where they came from. "I was horrified," she says.

"Now, I'm always writing for my 10-year-old self, telling her, 'You are different, but there's a variety of different people on the page.'"

Diversity on the page comes at a price, she says. "You will sell fewer copies. People will tell you you're writing stories that are not realistic. They're fine with spaceships going from hyperspace from planet to planet, but a woman being president of a planet is not realistic?"

She believes, however, that speculative fiction has the power to change the future. "We fold people into determinate patterns, but we get those patterns from stories.

"Speculative fiction imagines how things might happen differently, good and bad scenarios - if we go on like this, this horrible thing may happen. But there are also futures to look forward to."


Marjorie Liu: Monsters just like mankind

Diversity in fantasy is "not rocket science", says American writer Marjorie Liu (left).

Her bloody, beautiful comic series Monstress, an epic fantasy which she created in 2015 with Japanese artist Sana Takeda, features a wealth of characters in different skin tones, most of whom are women. In this universe, such diversity goes unremarked.

  • BOOK IT / WRITING FOR COMICS WORKSHOP BY MARJORIE LIU

  • WHERE: Living Room, The Arts House

    WHEN: Nov 11, 10am

    ADMISSION: $20 from Sistic

Liu, 39, says in an e-mail interview: "We know we are just as normal as the rest of the planet - and that most of the planet looks like us, anyway.

"The problem is that we've been trained through our books, movies and television to believe that stories live in the realm of white straight heroes - and that takes time to undo. We'll get there, I believe it."

Her father is Taiwanese while her mother is of French, Scottish and Irish descent. Growing up mixed-race, she could find almost no Asian protagonists in fantasy or science fiction, while characters and cultures that appear Asian would usually be exoticised stereotypes.

When she began to write, she wanted to write about what mattered to her: stories about the racial other looking for acceptance. In other words, the story of monsters.

"That was my life, poured into a fantasy setting," she says.

She attended law school, but decided to become a paranormal romance writer instead, penning about 16 novels and novellas in the Dirk & Steele and Hunter Kiss series.

Liu, whose partner is writer Junot Diaz, went on to write for Marvel's X-Men comics, receiving attention for writing Marvel's first gay wedding between superhero Northstar and his partner Kyle in Astonishing X-Men (2012).

Monstress, which won the Hugo award for Best Graphic Story in August, features Maika Halfwolf, a one-armed Arcanic - a persecuted half-breed race - inside whose body lives an ancient, tentacled god, who wakes when hungry and pops out of her arm stump to eat people.

Hunted by a ruthless clan of witch-nuns and seeking the truth behind what happened to her, she escapes with a fox-child and a talking cat across the perilous borderlands of an alternate Asia.

Monstress is based in part on Liu's grandparents' experiences in World War II-era China, but she says the series' depiction of war, racism and slavery remains sadly relevant today.

"War, genocide, weaponised mass rape, the systematic dehumanisation of others through religion, race, gender, class - this is how humans treat other humans. This is what we do."

Monstress asks many of the questions that the Singapore Writers Festival theme of Aram, a Tamil word which connotes "virtue" or "doing good", puts forth.

Many characters, such as the witch-nuns who enslave and murder Arcanics because they think they are demonic, believe that committing such acts is virtuous and will improve the world.

"Doing good is distinct from being good," says Liu. "The first is a verb, the second is oftentimes just a fantasy.

"Monstress is very much a book about how people justify and moralise acts of terrible cruelty in the name of goodness and how important it is to hew to compassion and decency - to do no harm."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2017, with the headline 'Fantastical fiction and where to find it'. Print Edition | Subscribe