Singapore writers festival

Science fiction tells stories of change: Ken Liu

This is the second time science-fiction writer Ken Liu is participating in the Singapore Writers Festival.
This is the second time science-fiction writer Ken Liu is participating in the Singapore Writers Festival. PHOTO: SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL

Science fiction is no good at predicting the future, declared American speculative fiction writer Ken Liu at his Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) lecture on Sunday. But, he added, what it does is much more effective.

"Science fiction isn't so much about technology prediction, it's about telling stories of change, stories of how to craft the future," said Liu, who is in his 40s.

"When you read science fiction, what you get out of it is a set of ways of talking about things that haven't been invented yet and of guiding the world into the way you want it to be.

"Humans don't know how to understand anything except through stories. Science fiction doesn't predict the future, but it gives us a language to think about it."

This is the second time Liu is participating in SWF, which runs until the coming Sunday. He is known for his epic Dandelion Dynasty novels, his award-winning short stories and his translations of Chinese author Liu Cixin's work.

During his lecture, moderated by Singaporean writer JY Yang, Ken Liu argued that the future is impossible to predict because of the nature of technological evolution. "There are thousands of possibilities that reality will reduce to just one."

But technology is not limited to machinery, he went on. Gesturing at the Arts House Chamber, where Parliament formerly assembled, he said: "You are in fact sitting in one of the most amazing technologies ever to be developed - this chamber, in which a new mode of collective decision-making not seen before in Asia was experimented with."

Dystopian classics such as George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World give us the vocabulary to think about this kind of technology, he said. Because words like "thoughtcrime" and "doublethink" entered our language, we were forewarned to steer away from the totalitarian 1984 Orwell described.

Similarly, the writer William Gibson, who knew almost nothing about computers and hacking, was thus able to speculate freely about their future in his iconic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984), creating the language of "cyberspace" for us to conceptualise the Internet.

What concerns him now is the way in which United States-based technology giants such as Google, Twitter and Facebook are monitoring us across the world. "Big Brother (in 1984) had to forcibly install surveillance technology in homes. Now, we are inviting it in."

He called upon writers around the world to protest against the dystopian vision that could result from a hegemonic America with the powers of such technological platforms. "The fact that this democracy is accountable only to Americans should terrify everyone in the world."

Liu's lecture was sold out, while earlier panels he was on drew long queues. Fans such as civil servant Timothy Yam, 29, said he appreciated how Liu pushed back against the idea of the white mainstream in America by arguing that a Chinese mail-order bride who migrates to the US in his short story The Paper Menagerie is "just as American" as the other characters. "That's a perspective more people need to have."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2017, with the headline Science fiction tells stories of change: Ken Liu. Subscribe