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Interview: Ken Liu on “BookSavr”

Ken LiuWhat was the inspiration for “BookSavr” or what prompted you to write it?

The most direct inspiration for the story was the “Clean Reader” app that generated so much coverage a few years back. It got me thinking about the relationship between readers and texts, and our own cultural ideas about authority and the author’s control over their words.

In some sense, readers have always been free to rewrite the texts they consume. Fiction is a collaborative art between the reader and the writer, wherein texts must be first packed with the reader’s own assumptions about the world and interpretive frameworks before they can be unpacked. Strategies of resistant reading are as old as Plato, and fanfiction can be understood as one specific type of “reading” conducted through re-writing. But we seem to draw the line at explicitly altering the words on the page as a reader.

We don’t apply the same standards to all texts. Few of us have any pride of authorship over business writing or functional texts (like contracts), but fiction feels particularly personal to the author. Do these standards evolve over time? Do advancements in technology change attitudes? New genres and ways of storytelling? I wanted to explore these questions.


Was this story personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I don’t know how you can be a fiction writer and not put something of yourself in every story. I am, however, particularly resistant to having others change my words (even contracts).


Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “BookSavr?”

It’s surprising how little machine learning and AI advances have affected the literary arts. Visual artists, game designers, filmmakers, and so on have been collaborating with algorithms for decades (filters, effects, transformations, procedural generation …), but nothing comparable exists in the literary field. I looked into the potential for applying some of these techniques in fiction writing and reading (or re-writing-as-reading).


What aspect of this story was the most fun to write?

Just imagining the sorts of fun you could have as a reader if the technology were available (and the horror you would feel as an author).


In what ways do you think the publishing industry has changed over the past ten years, and how do you see your career within those changes?

I think it takes much longer than ten years to see what are short-term fluctuations and what are signs of long-term, permanent shifts. I’m generally optimistic that economic and technological changes will allow (and are allowing) readers to access a more diverse, inclusive set of voices, to find the narratives in which they feel at home. But optimism alone is not enough to guarantee results.


Why do you write?

To tell stories that I want to read and that no one else is telling.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

Everyone I’ve ever read. Everyone who’s encouraged me. Everyone who’s told me that a story of mine resonated with them. However, I think some of my biggest influences have been books I disliked intensely: because I wanted to do things differently from them.


The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken LiuWhat are you working on now?

I’m working on edits for the conclusion of my silkpunk epic fantasy series, The Dandelion Dynasty. The process is exactly what you’d expect: thinking about cover ideas, writing notes to the copyeditor, refining the text based on suggestions from beta readers and my editor, putting footnotes in the mini-wikipedia for my world, confirming character itineraries and travel times against the map, designing airships from the saga to be 3D-printed, debating with myself the rhyme schemes to be used in constructed languages, revising descriptions of silkmotic machines after engineering trials on prototypes … you know, the usual.

I’m also working on a few short-fiction commissions that I’m excited about. Years of intense focus on the epic fantasy series meant that I wrote very few short stories in the interim, and it’s been fun to rediscover the joy of the short form. I’ll have a new collection, THE HIDDEN GIRL AND OTHER STORIES, come out from Saga Press (US) and Head of Zeus (UK) in 2020, and it’s been fun to wrap up the production on that too.


Author Bio: Ken Liu ( is an author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings) as well as The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, short story collections. He also authored the Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker.

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, the mathematics of origami, and other subjects of his expertise.


“BookSavr” appears in the 70th Anniversary Issue of F&SF.

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Click on Ken Liu’s photo (image by Lisa Tang Liu) to visit his website.


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