AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Ken Liu

Would you tell us about the origins of this story? How did the disparate elements—Idaho Territory gold mines, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, a wilderness-dwelling drifter—come together? Did this story require a lot of research?

I’ve studied the history of the Chinese immigrants during the gold rush in the American West since law school, and have written other fiction drawing on this research. The Taiping Rebellion and the abolitionists were also research interests of mine, and so, for this story, I didn’t have to do much new research beyond confirming some facts.

I think there’s a general under-appreciation for the diversity of the “Wild West” and how it was connected to revolutions and events in other parts of the world, and I wanted to write a story that highlighted some of these connections.

In your Lightspeed interview for “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” you noted that writing was a revolutionary technology in that it externalized ideas in a “fixed, tangible form.” But in “What I Assume You Shall Assume,” the magic of words seems to come both from externalization/fixedness as well as from internalization and flexibility. Do these two aspects (externalization/internalization, fixed/flexible) oppose each other or is there some larger logic that encompasses both? Is it more important that the language is social?

Language is the most amazing technology we possess. Think about it: I have some patterns in my brain, and I turn those patterns into sounds in air or marks on paper, and upon perceiving those sounds or marks, you somehow re-create patterns in your brain that are sufficiently similar to mine to understand my thoughts—and sufficiently different to lead to arguments, misunderstandings, as well as new ideas. It allows telepathy! I marvel at it constantly. Of course it’s magic.

I think the externalization/internalization, fixed/flexible dichotomy you note really reflects phases of the same process, a process that is essential to the overall success of the spread of ideas. A revolutionary idea must be sufficiently clear to unify a core group as well as being sufficiently flexible to encompass many different interpretations as it adapts and grows.

The idea of America is one of these revolutionary ideas, and this story is—as many of my stories are—about the ongoing process of interpreting that idea.

Were you influenced in your language choices by writing from the nineteenth century, beyond the Whitman, Thoreau, and Chinese Exclusion Act quotes? Were you worried about anachronistic language in a story that depends so heavily on language?

No modern work is going to reflect 19th century usage without anachronisms—we don’t think in the same way as people in the 19th century, and trying to write in a manner that approximates what we think about our forebears will disrespect both them and us. (And if such a work were produced it would be problematic and boring to read.)

What I cared about was whether the language suited the mood and tone of the characters and what they were trying to achieve—in doing so I drew on a lot of 19th century sources: travel writing, editorials, news reports, memoirs. But ultimately I didn’t care much about being faithful to period usage, only faith to my characters.

How did you decide to include POVs from both Amos and Yun in this story? Was it important to you that they not only tell each other their stories but that we see them react?

I think choosing to tell the story from only one POV would have led to the exoticizing effect so many stories about “the Other” can have. This was my attempt at mitigating that a little bit.

What does fiction—particularly the Weird Western—owe to history? Do we risk obscuring some parts of history in order to highlight some other parts?

The relationship between fiction and history is a complicated issue on which everyone will have a different opinion, and I think there is no easy answer other than that writers have a duty to be careful to the bones they tread on.

I wanted to highlight aspects of the history of the American West that are often neglected: for example, the contribution of the Chinese immigrants and the connection between the American experience and the Chinese Revolution at the turn of the 20th century.

Also, the Taiping Rebellion is often portrayed in a biased, exotic, and superficial manner in Western literature, if it’s mentioned at all. So I wanted to tell a different kind of story, a story that explores other aspects of the rebellion and its meaning for later revolutionaries.

Focusing on these aspects necessitates neglecting other aspects of the experience of the American west, a neglect that can only be corrected by other stories—and that is the advantage of appearing in this anthology.

What is the appeal of “Weird West” fiction? Why do writers—or you yourself—write about it? What do you think readers like about it?

The American West continues to exert a powerful draw on the imagination of writers, especially American writers. It is an extraordinary period of our history, a kind of precursor to the globalized, highly technological society we live in today in which old ideas are challenged. It also epitomizes, in some way, the “American Dream” and “the frontier,” both ideas that have become embedded in the global consciousness. I think writers—and readers—of steampunk, science fiction, and fantasy can all find something in the genre that appeals to them.

Lastly, what are some of your favorite examples of Weird Westerns (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

I have a warm spot in my heart for Back to the Future, Part III. The optimism and deliberate use of anachronisms reflect, for me, some of the best effects of genre conventions. Lavie Tidhar’s “Red Dawn: A Chow Mein Western” and Brooke Bolander’s “Her Words Like Hunting Vixens Spring” are some of my favorite short weird western works, showing creative uses of genre tropes to tell new kinds of stories.