Ken Liu’s new novel The Grace of Kings is a sprawling fantasy set amidst war, rebellion, and border-crossing intrigue. But it also features a truly fresh technological world to explore. Here, Liu explains to us where that technology came from—and just what exactly “silkpunk” means.
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Ria: One of the most striking things about the book is the technological world your characters inhabit. There’s a lot of familiar tech in there that’s sourced in unfamiliar ways (for instance: a battle kite that is used, essentially, a lot like a jet pack). What influenced your take on technology in this book? Did you use any historical sources for inspiration about what a parallel technical world might look like, and if so, which ones?
Ken Liu: On the tech side, I’ve described the aesthetic in this book as “silkpunk,” and I’m going to crib from my answers to past interviews a bit:
Like steampunk, silkpunk is a blend of science fiction and fantasy. But while steampunk takes as its inspiration the chrome-brass-glass technology aesthetic of the Victorian era, silkpunk draws inspiration from classical East Asian antiquity. My novel is filled with technologies like soaring battle kites that lift duelists into the air, bamboo-and-silk airships propelled by giant feathered oars, underwater boats that swim like whales driven by primitive steam engines, and tunnel-digging machines enhanced with herbal lore, as well as fantasy elements like gods who bicker and manipulate, magical books that tell us what is in our hearts, giant water beasts that bring storms and guide sailors safely to shores, and illusionists who manipulate smoke to peer into opponents’ minds.
The silkpunk technology vocabulary is based on organic materials historically important to East Asia (bamboo, paper, silk) and seafaring cultures of the Pacific (coconut, feathers, coral), and the technology grammar follows biomechanical principles like the inventions in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The overall aesthetic is one of suppleness and flexibility, expressive of the cultures that inhabit the islands.
A lot of my ideas about this alternate technology aesthetic were inspired by W. Brian Arthur’s theories about technology, especially the notion of treating engineering as a creative art that solves problems by recombining existing machines into a new machine that achieves a new purpose — in a sense, engineering is very much like poetry.
I consulted numerous sources on the history of technology in East Asia as well as old US patent filings to get a sense of the kind of creative engineering that people across time and cultures have engaged in, and of course I drew much inspiration from fictional accounts of technology in old historical romances.
Ria: Silkpunk is an evocative way of describing that mix of organic materials with machine-driven tech. I’m curious as to whether you see it as a category specific to this book or as a more general one. Are there other works besides TGoK that you would also describe as silkpunk?
Liu: A good question. I coined it to describe a specific aesthetic ideal I had in mind, and I’m not sure I know of many other literary examples. If pressed, I’d say something like Zhang Ran’s “Three Feet of Snow in Jinyang” — an alternate history in which Medieval China invents an analog of the Internet — and Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters — in which Aristotelian physics and Chinese qi theory both turn out to be true — may qualify.