Interview: Ken Liu on “Arc”
- Tell us a little bit about “Arc.”
Lena Auzenne, the protagonist, is an artist who works with plastinated bodies (like the Body Worlds exhibits). Then she learns about a new medical procedure that puts the aging process on hold. For her, the two become inextricably entwined in her life.
- What was the inspiration for this story, and how did you come to write it?
I wrote this after reading Sonia Arrison’s _100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity …_ (the book has a very long, search-engine-friendly subtitle which I’ve cut short here for the sake of aesthetics). To simplify somewhat, the book is a discussion of the many implications—social, legal, psychological, and otherwise—of the longevity revolution, when many individuals in the West will be able to live long past the age of 100 and stay healthy and vigorous for the bulk of that span. It’s very interesting; I recommend it.
A second source of inspiration comes from US Patent 4205059, “Animal and Vegetal Tissues Permanently Preserved by Synthetic Resin Impregnation,” and US Patent 4302157, “Method for Preserving Large Sections of Biological Tissue With Polymers.” These are the “plastination” patents issued to Gunther von Hagens of Body Worlds.
I saw a kind of parallel between making death appear like life and stretching life out to defer death — both seem to be about suspending time. And I wanted to write a story to explore them.
- What research, if any, did you do for “Arc?”
Besides following up on some of the scientific sources cited in Arrison’s book (I try to always go to primary sources), I watched some videos on the plastination process.
I really think YouTube may be one of the greatest research tools for a writer.
- Many, if not all, of your stories have an emotional poignancy to them, and I was wondering if you could speak to that at all; perhaps why/how you find yourself drawn to write serious material.
Some of the thematic shifts in my work no doubt have to do with the births of my two daughters. Being a father has changed my emotional center of gravity, made me pay attention to things I haven’t thought much about before, and altered the way I feel about what is meaningful in my life.
Since I use writing as a way of thinking, it’s probably inevitable that my recent fiction would reflect my changing thoughts.
- What might you want someone to take away from reading “Arc?”
It’s a cliché in fiction for someone offered a chance at immortality to either suffer terrible consequences or to refuse it — indeed Arrison ridicules this pattern in her book. The notion that death gives life meaning is a failure of imagination.
So I rewrote this story many times, trying to get Lena to be content with living forever, but the story just would not work.
In the end, Lena decides to shape her life into an arc, because giving our lives a pattern is what we mortals yearn to do. We want to make our life into a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
(This is not to say that this is the only kind of story that can be told. I’ve since tried to write another story where the heroine, faced with the same choice, chooses differently, and I think I succeeded. But that required a very different kind of character from Lena.)
Whether the narrative drive _should_ be how we think about our own life is something I invite the reader to think through with me.
- Is this story personal in any way to you in its subject matter or in the writing of it, and if so, how?
While writing the story, I wondered if my daughters will indeed live to see the human race conquer death. And I realized that I was okay with possibly belonging to the last generation to die. Lena and I are not so different, after all.
“Arc” appears in the Sept./Oct. 2012 issue of F&SF.
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