Most people have heard of steampunk: the subgenre of science fiction and science fantasy that’s often set in alternative histories of the British Victorian era, and in some cases the American Wild West, with steam power still in usage. The style is similar to the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, whose works often focused on machinery. For a better image of steampunk, try Howl’s Moving Castle, League of Extraordinary Gentleman, The Infernal Devices trilogy by Cassandra Clare, and the short lived Joss Whedon show Firefly.
Ken Liu embraces and challenges the steampunk genre with his own sub-genre silkpunk. The author is well known for his short story “The Paper Menagerie” which won several prizes, his translation of The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, and The Grace of Kings, the start of his silkpunk trilogy. Book two, The Wall of Storms, was released last year. Liu additionally has a background in law and technology, and uses these fields to create the technological fantasy of an alternative China.
“Like steampunk, which is a blend of fantasy and technology inspired by the Victorian era, silkpunk is a blend of fantasy and technology inspired by prototypes from East Asian antiquity,” said Liu on the genre of his new series.
The Grace of Kings is the story of two unlikely friends, the son of a duke and a bandit, who overcome a series of adventures from airships, to shapeshifting gods in their quest, to going up against the emperor. When the emperor falls, their lives don’t take the routes they expect, and now the leaders of separate factions find themselves against each other.
The novel features a great deal of ‘pure fantasy,’ monsters and meddling gods, but the technology that makes it silkpunk was derived from real history. Liu draws from legends and history with an easy comparison made between the character of Kuni Gari to the founder of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang.The author stays true to the idea of technology and Chinese history, he just adds fictional characters and sentient narwhals.
“In creating the silkpunk aesthetic, I was influenced by the ideas of W. Brian Arthur, who articulates a vision of technology as a language,” Liu said.
Culture plays an important role in technology being accepted and spread through society. If no one was willing to accept the idea of the car, the invention would have died and we could still have wagons. Liu takes a hold of this concept with an emphasis on the language of technology, with the submarines moving like whales through the water, and the hope that this society will progress. The Grace of Kings features technology inspired by history: bio-mechanics inspired submarines, battle kites, and airships. Ken Liu devotes as much time to technology that he does to the magic, and balances art and writing with war.
“The narrative techniques used in the novel form a conscious blend of Chinese wuxia, oral pingshu, Han-era historical biography and Ming-era classical novels, along with tropes taken from Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon epics,” Liu said of his style.
Liu isn’t the only author influenced by this rising genre. Debut author J.Y. Yang creates a world that has an imbalance of technology with the dominant society having advanced biotechnology. The Red Threads of Fortune and The Black Tides of Heaven are two novellas that center on two twins living in this silkpunk world, each following one of the twin’s perspectives. The novellas are stylized differently, one following three decades and the other follows two and a half days. The science/magic system in the novellas has the option of five ‘fundamental energies’: gravitational, kinetic, thermal, electromagnetic, and biochemical. The novellas will be released September 26th.
Will you be reading the upcoming silkpunk works? Had you heard of the sub-genre beforehand?
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