Science Fiction and "Legends of Luke Skywalker" Author Ken Liu Shares Life Lessons

The short story unit in Michael Alan's sophomore honors English class is guided by a packet of numerous short stories. One short short in particular—"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu—is one of the most memorable for students. With its magic and fantasy, nostalgia and heartbreak and cultural loss and assimilation, the short story is the most chosen out of all the other short stories in the packet to be the subject of the unit's final essay.

On April 5, Alan brought science fiction and fantasy writer Liu to speak in the Walpole High School auditorium for his period 1 sophomore English class, Conor Cashman's AP Language and Composition class and other students and teachers.

“I have been giving my classes his short stories for the past five years or so. The students have really responded to his themes about family and culture,” Alan said. “I knew he lived in Massachusetts, so I worked with Ms. Jordan on bringing him to WHS. Mr. Liu’s success and popularity has grown a lot in the past few years, so he has stopped doing talks; however, since he lives so close to Walpole (Stoughton), he made an exception for us.”

Liu began his presentation by claiming that he almost quit writing three times in his life. The first time was due to rejection, as he was turned down from more than 60 semi-professional magazines. Because he was focused on only one story that he had faith in, he did not write anything else in the process.

“When you have doubts, you double down. I had invested myself into this one story, and I decided that the story somehow was the essence of me. If that story was getting rejected, it meant I was getting rejected,” Liu said.

“If that story was getting rejected, it meant I was getting rejected,” Liu said.

Although he revised his story with each rejection, Liu decided that writing might not have been his calling in life, and instead he focused on his career as a lawyer.

However, after five years, Liu never unsubscribed from email lists about writing. One email in particular that he received was a call for submissions of stories that have been rejected before. Liu submitted his story and this time was not rejected, which saved his career as a writer. He recalled that the first time he almost quit writing was when he learned a life lesson: it is important to redirect energy from hoping for milestones to working toward goals.

“We often mistake goals and milestones, which in fact are two totally separate things. A goal is something you can actually control that’s entirely within your power to do. They’re just about you versus the blank page and trying to overcome your doubts. Milestones are nice things that you would like to happen to you. The problem is you are not in control of those things,” Liu said. “It’s very important for all of us to find satisfaction with our own work, with what it is we do, not with external outreaches but internal ones. It’s when you are very focused on your own goals that you can get where you want to be.”

“It’s when you are very focused on your own goals that you can get where you want to be,” Liu said.

The second time he almost quit was in the aftermath of success. He started earning awards and recognition, up until an agent that is well-respected in the writing field approached him and asked to become his agent. Finding an agent is difficult in the business, so Liu willingly agreed. After three years, he sent his agent his novel; however, much to his devastation, his agent replied with no explanation other than the statement that he could no longer represent Liu.

Liu recovered from his writing career's second near-death-experience by reaching his internal goals to produce as many short stories as possible. He also began writing his next novel and looking for a new agent.

“Meeting new agents is a lot like dating, because you get to find out what they are like and in the process find out a lot about yourself,” Liu said. “I ended up meeting a bunch of agents, talking to them, learning about their style. It’s really cool to see how everybody does it differently, and there is really no one specific way to be successful as an agent.”

After a little while, Liu's old agent recommended a new agent, who had a more tough-luck approach than his nurturing style. The new agent sold his novel to Simon Schuster, which Liu questioned because he knew that publishing company did not have an adult science fiction imprint. He soon found out that his old agent was hired by Simon Schuster to start an adult science fiction imprint, which was why he had to quit being his agent before.

“The worst thing that could happen turned out to be the best thing that could happen,” Liu said.

The third time he almost quit was a factor of jealousy. Liu began to meet more authors through festivals, friendships and Facebook. With exposure to people with more recognition than him, he began to doubt his own abilities. Thus, he almost quit. However, he analyzed envy as a way to make himself better. Instead of focusing on the milestones of his peers, he knew that his goals and creations could be bigger and better.

“Jealousy is a compulsion like any other, and if you feel it, you feel it. When jealousy is interfering with your ability to accomplish your goals, the thing to do is not to berate yourself of professional jealousy. What you need to do is to accept that feeling and acknowledge it as an emotion, something you feel as a human being, and then get on from there and find other ways to challenge your energy into the right places,” Liu said.

“Jealousy is a compulsion like any other, and if you feel it, you feel it,” Liu said.

To combat the negatives of jealousy, Liu began to incorporate more generosity in his community by offering to share his own skills in writing workshops. He recommended and promoted other writers that he appreciated. He spoke for the science fiction community.

“The more generous you are toward people around you, the more generous you feel toward yourself,” Liu said.

“The more generous you are toward people around you, the more generous you feel toward yourself,” Liu said.

The second half of his presentation was a question and answer session. He discussed his book "The Legends of Luke Skywalker" and his passion for "Star Wars." When he went to school in China in third grade, he had a choice between reading a book about Confucius or "Star Wars" in his free reading period. Despite his teacher warning him to make good choices, he chose to chose the epic "Star Wars" and grew to love the series. In fact, years later at Harvard, he spent all night reading "Star Wars" instead of studying for an economics exam. All of the choices that he made had good consequences; Lucas Film Publishing one day asked him to write a book for them. In a twist to "The Canterbury Tales," "The Legends of Luke Skywalker" follow pilgrims in a universe telling legends of "Star Wars" events.

“There was almost like a mystical, magical field that connected everything from the moment when I was a little boy preparing me for the ultimate destiny,” Liu said.

Liu was also asked about his prowess with technology and how it relates to science fiction. He is currently working on the final novel in his "Dandelion Dynasty" trilogy, which is like "Game of Thrones," but he replaces magic with engineers and dragons with fantastic machines. His "silk punk" novels, classified with classical East Asian principles in a steam punk genre, use technology as a metaphor for his claims and beliefs. He stated that his novels, therefore, are not science fiction because of the technology; they are science fiction because of his new ideas.

“I don’t think science fiction is about technology or the future at all,” Liu said. “Sci fi is no good in predicting the future. All that sci fi is good for, if you are interested in the future, is giving us a vocabulary for change, how we make human in the face of catalytic change. It’s like any of the fantasy anthologies, using these things that don’t exist as metaphors to talk about very eternal, human things.”

Liu was also asked about "The Paper Menagerie." He once read a narrative from a mail order bride, and he wanted to create his own story about the struggles and misconceptions of such women. He weaved in tastes of his grandmother to his own mail order bride character, as she used to make origami for the young Liu.

The presentation inspired not only Alan's students who love "The Paper Menagerie" but for the diverse audience with passions for creativity.


Abby Rae and Toshak Patel

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