What Is ‘Silkpunk’?
The recent animated hit “Pantheon” offers a fascinating look at a future in which digital immortality is just a click away. Based on three short stories by Ken Liu, the show tells the story of an Asian family caught up in a secret project to upload human minds onto the web, with detours into hacking, online games, and belated father-daughter bonding.
Something about Liu’s work seems to attract adaptations. His 2012 short story “Good Hunting,” about a friendship between a young Chinese engineer and a fox spirit in a rapidly industrializing colonial Hong Kong, was turned into one of the most critically acclaimed episodes of the first season of Netflix’s “Love, Death & Robots.” The central metaphor of that story, as well as the stories that became “Pantheon,” is the double-edged nature of technology as a tool for both the oppression and emancipation of marginalized figures. Meanwhile, tension hums in the background — between local traditions and imported cultures; the speculative possibilities of technological development and the realities of their use; and between the ossified traditions of the sci-fi and fantasy genres and Liu’s persistent desire to decolonize those tropes.
Liu’s recently concluded “Dandelion Dynasty” series of novels offers a deeper view into the last of these struggles. With a tale spanning three generations of thinkers, tinkerers, and adventurers, the first thing that stands out about “Dandelion Dynasty” is its intensely visual nature. It’s no wonder animators love him. When you enter the lands of Dara and Lyucu, the world unfolds before your eyes like a dream: Warriors soar through the sky on silk wings; gigantic, scaly whales leap out of the water, glistening like jewels; chefs compete to produce the best sun-fried eggs, pickled caterpillar, and pot stickers dipped in plum sauce; shamans dance to the beat of drums as scholars in long robes debate before the emperor; and surrounding everything, deities in animal form bicker over the fate of the archipelago.
Just don’t call it “Asian-influenced fantasy.” Liu prefers the term silkpunk, a term he coined ahead of the first installment of the Dandelion Dynasty series in 2015. Similar to its cousins, cyberpunk, steampunk, and solarpunk, silkpunk represents a mix of two equally important elements: silk — an aesthetic style inspired by Asian-Pacific mythology, history, and culture — and a punk-like tendency to question, deconstruct, and rebel. Cyberpunk, born out of the turmoil of the technology boom in the 1970s, critiques the hegemony of tech tycoons and social inequalities. In Liu’s hands, silkpunk seeks to excavate the buried roots of tradition and exorcise the ghosts of colonialism from the Asia-Pacific region.
The “Dandelion Dynasty” series is, at its heart, a sci-fi and fantasy encyclopedia. It feels like an attempt not just to tell a story, but to lay the groundwork for a different kind of “cosmonarratology”: a new, cosmopolitan style of writing that erases preestablished narrative boundaries and provides an alternative to our current idea of Westerncentric modernity.
That may sound grandiose, but it’s appropriate to the scale of Liu’s ambitions. He mines his predecessors both within and outside the Anglophone literary tradition: John Milton, Homer, Geoffery Chaucer, “Beowulf,” “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” “Records of the Grand Historian,” and “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio.” A battle scene is written with the wit of a bard and the grace of a historian, tavern tales are patterned off Pu Songling’s ghost stories, and emotional beats between two characters may take the form of a poem that incorporates 17th century English meter and Tang dynasty motifs. The books’ characteristically Asian-Pacific aesthetic and natural imagery — bones, shell, bamboo, and, of course, silk — signify the change of setting while also acclimating the average Anglophone reader to a kind of storytelling outside the conventional bounds of speculative fiction.
As a translator, I can’t help but notice Liu’s clever melding of cultures in “Dandelion Dynasty.” The series might be the most ambitious endeavour of translation I have ever come across. Here, the definition of translation expands beyond the act of moving a text between two languages to become a means of rendering traditions in modern terms, to merge seemingly disparate cultures, and to freely blend literary traditions. Translation, in this broadened sense, means to bridge, blur, and expel preconceptions.
Take the series’ central story, for example. Rather than build something quintessentially Asian or Western, Liu rejects the dichotomy by using the symbolic language of the former to retell the foundational myths of America. The questions he asks are similar to those that animated another great translation project: the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” What would contemporary America — or contemporary Anglophone literature — look like if the culture of each and every immigrant truly had the opportunity to play an equal role in its culture and life?
In a way, Liu’s cosmonarratology is reminiscent of other boundary-crossing figures who work in the realm of speculative fiction: J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, created a myth and even imaginary languages; the great wuxia martial arts romanticist Jin Yong, whose work Liu himself calls “cosmopolitan” in the introduction he wrote for a recent translation of “A Hero Born,” also blurred lines between various literary traditions.
The average human’s inbuilt algorithm for rhetoric is not so different from that of an artificial intelligence: We’re trained on the most readily available data, and we tend to follow the same pattern once a model is established. The work of expanding the linguistic and imaginative repertoire of a community thus falls on the shoulders of the writer. Liu’s work takes a stab at the monumental feat of expanding the boundaries of language and literary tradition. First, by grounding his work in the beauty of a multitude of cultures, he broadens the lexicon of the English language. Second, it can be also read as an act of decolonization: an attempt to free sci-fi and fantasy from its overreliance on the Anglophone literary tradition.
Across the artificial borders of nation, race, culture, and language, cosmonarratology emerges as a solution and a source of inspiration. As early as “Good Hunting” and his Hugo-winning “Paper Menagerie,” Liu has always been interested in telling tales of how a dominant culture impacts its peripheries. In this, his work can serve as a lighthouse for up-and-coming Chinese diaspora writers. Embracing an intellectual and emotional life of duality — and always unable to respond to the persistent question of “where are you from?” — I see myself mirrored in Liu’s works. Reading them, I feel encouraged to explore the dimensions of minority life, grab it by the horns, and produce a work that only someone who can simultaneously access multiple cultural and linguistic worlds can write.
Silkpunk is neither about showcasing diversity and underscoring one’s “origin story,” which could quickly degenerate into an ethnocentric trap where everyone is shoehorned into their own little box of cultural representation, nor is it about appropriating the flashy elements of Asian-Pacific culture and grafting them indiscriminatingly onto fundamentally Euro- or American-centric stories. The result is neither Chinese nor Western, but a kaleidoscope of vibrant, varicolored myths: a reimagination of the past with the potential to rewrite the future of sci-fi and fantasy.
Editors Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A promotional image for the animated series “Pantheon.” From Douban)