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Interview: Ken Liu on Bao Shu’s “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear”

– Tell us a bit about “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear.”

In this novella, we follow the life story of a man who is born in what appears to be the China of the early 21st century. As he grows up, makes friends, falls in love, and launches a career, we gradually realize something strange: the larger events of the world appears to be happening in reverse from the order we are familiar with.

 

– What can you tell us about the author of the novella, Bao Shu?

Bao Shu is a rising star in the Chinese SFF scene. A prolific short fiction writer, his fame exploded with the publication of the novel, _THREE BODY X_, which is a sequel of sorts to Liu Cixin’s _THREE BODY_ series, the most popular hard SF novel series in China, and which casts the events of the series in a new light. Last year, his debut original novel, _THE RUINS OF TIME_, won the Chinese Nebula Award, one of the highest honors of Chinese SFF.

Bao Shu’s fiction tends to play with time in various inventive and surprising ways, a feature that can probably be attributed to his academic background in philosophy.

 

– How did you become aware of Bao Shu’s work, and why did you decide to translate it?

I had known about Bao Shu’s work because I make an effort to keep up with the Chinese SFF scene. I enjoyed his short fiction immensely, and, as a fan of Liu Cixin’s novels, I liked the way _THREE BODY X_ expanded and explained the universe of _THREE BODY_ as well.

A friend of mine, San Feng, whose opinion on Chinese SF I trust implicitly, recommended “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” as one of Bao Shu’s best stories. I read it and immediately agreed with the judgment, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to find a good market for it in the US or the UK, as pro-rate markets for novellas were relatively scarce. But then I just couldn’t forget about the story, and I decided to query editor C. C. Finlay to see if the magazine would have interest in a translated novella. Charles was receptive, but ultimately the translation would be done on spec. I’m glad the risk worked out.

 

– Can you speak at all to the historical and political context of this story, in light of its examination and reinterpretation of recent Chinese history?

As you can see from the author’s postscript, Bao Shu is reticent about claiming major political purpose for the story. I think I’ll honor his wish and follow his lead.

I wouldn’t say that the story is some sort of political manifesto. At its heart, I view it as a very human story about an individual who does his best to preserve his humanity through turbulent political times beyond his control—in that way, it is the story of most of the people of China.

 

– What about the political content of “What Has Passed…” got it banned in China?

Censorship in China is complicated. There are no hard and fast rules about permitted content because the official regulations are phrased in ambiguous language that is open to interpretation, though everyone understands that certain topics, such as the student protests of 1989, are extremely sensitive. The exact boundary of what could be published is hazy and constantly shifting—on purpose—and so editors and authors engage in a fair amount of self-censorship, though the exactly amount changes depending on the political climate.

The original Chinese text for this story was posted on two Internet forums for SF fans and writers and had an enthusiastic reception. (Incidentally, it is fairly common for SFF authors in China to post drafts of their stories in this manner and receive feedback from dedicated SFF fans prior to submission to and publication in magazines.) It was soon deleted from one of the forums by editors; the other forum, however, kept it up. This is an illustration of how the censorship regime in China is one of shades and gradations, and certain things could be said in certain places as long as it wasn’t too publicized.

Regardless, everyone understood that no Chinese magazine would touch this story, and the author and I both felt that translation and publication overseas would be a good way to share the story with more readers.

 

– As a writer yourself, what challenges and rewards does translating the work of another author present?  Why do you undertake as many translation projects as you do?

Translation is a performance art, and I always feel a heavy responsibility to the original author and the original text when I perform it for a new audience. It’s a difficult art, and there are countless linguistic and cultural decisions I have to make constantly as I traverse the boundaries between one literary community and another. It’s a different sort of creativity than that employed in writing original fiction, and I’m always learning, which keeps it interesting.

I think translation also forces me to analyze what makes stories tick at a deeper level than the analysis I do as a mere reader, and so I view translation as another way to study the craft of fiction.

Finally, I feel there’s a great deal of interesting stories being told in Chinese from perspectives absent in English fiction, and so I’m happy to share these stories with my fellow English readers via translation.

 

– What are you working on now?

My debut novel, _THE GRACE OF KINGS_, a silkpunk epic fantasy based on the rise of the Han Dynasty, is going to be published by Saga Press on April 7, 2015. I’m now working on the sequel, which is scheduled to come out in 2016. I hope to have a few more translation projects and short fiction pieces come out later this year.

“What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” ran in the March/April 2015 issue of F&SF.

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