THE END IS NOW Author Interview: Ken Liu

Is it weird to own a big bust of HP Lovecraft that can watch your every move?

The bust of Lovecraft actually scared my daughter when I first put it up on my shelf. (Those eyes!) Following the advice of Gardner Dozois, I put a sock over his head, and now he looks much less intimidating and my daughter laughs at him.


I don’t really think much about him (or any of the other awards I’ve won). Awards are about the past, but writers have to look to the future.

I really enjoyed the family in this story. How has being a parent and having a creative collaborative spouse influenced your creative process?

In my fiction, I’ve always been interested in the “mundane” problems of daily life, of being part of a family and a link in the chain of generations stretching back into history and forward into the infinite future. We learn patterns of behavior from our parents and we pass them on, consciously or otherwise, to the next generation. Sometimes these patterns remain relevant and helpful in new cultural and historical contexts, sometimes not so, and the difficult problem is how to tell which is which.

Great technological transformations may force us to adjust the specifics of family traditions, but the patterns of family, I suspect, will long survive in new contexts.

My wife is a visual artist, and she has a way of framing things, of seeing the beauty in ordinary scenes, that I’ve found very inspiring. I suspect it’s influenced the way I choose and frame my stories over time.

I love how the emoji in the story follows its own syntax and grammar; it really is its own language. Did you invent this structure for the story? What languages do you see evolving as humanity gets closer to Maddie’s world?

Glad you liked it! I can’t say I truly invented this structure. Back in 2001, I participated in an alternate reality game run by a team out of Microsoft to promote Spielberg’s film, A.I. In it, there was a house AI that spoke to people only through images. I remember being completely entranced by the AI—the writers for the game managed to evoke such complex emotions with a few photographs of puppies, sunsets, a scene by some river, etc.

So I wanted to do something similar. Emoji consist of a limited set of pictograms that, in combination, can evoke or say anything. The more context the participants share with each other, the more rich and precise the communication can be. Such allusive, rich communication patterns are the foundation of intimacy and understanding.

As for what languages I see evolving as we move toward being more enmeshed with our computing devices… I really can’t say. I think it’s too early to see the long-term impact of such dramatic changes in the way we remember, stay in touch, meet, love, and hurt each other. We are becoming a race of cyborgs, and new channels of communication are still nascent.

How likely do you think it is that artificial intelligences or uploaded intelligences will actually bring about a cataclysm?

I think it’s not so much the likelihood of things going “wrong” that matters as much as the magnitude of the disaster if something goes wrong. (This is the “black swan” idea from Nassim Taleb.)

We have a tendency to discount the impact of highly unlikely, but catastrophic, events. Large parts of our lives have already been taken over or are in the process of being taken over by AI: algorithmic trading (and the associated volatility and possibility of massive crashes); military robots; self-driving cars; big-data “nudges” in dating, voter-manipulation, jury-selection, and so on. This will only accelerate over time as computers are getting smarter and a lot faster than we are, and the economics will favor robots over people. At some point we’ll find ourselves riding on top of a highly complex, efficient, and fragile web of robotic infrastructure. And when things go wrong, it will be catastrophic.

I don’t know if there’s necessarily a good way to limit our exposure to such risks. My story is actually very hopeful that we’ll survive and figure out a way to recover.

In The End Is Nigh, you contributed the story “The Gods Will Not Be Slain.” In The End Is Now, we get to enjoy “The Gods Will Not Be Chained.” What do you have in store for us in The End Has Come? And what was it like contributing self-contained short stories that were also part of an Apocalyptic triptich?

I have a new story that will bring the family saga to a conclusion that I hope is satisfying to everyone who has followed along. Writing connected stories like this is a lot of fun for me, as I get to develop a world and stay in it for longer than I typically do for short stories. I hope readers have as much enjoyment reading them as I have had writing them.