Reading “E.T.” didn’t fully prepare Liu for life in America. When he was 11, he moved to Palo Alto, Calif., where his mother worked as a pharmaceutical chemist and his father worked as a statistical analyst. He didn’t speak English and hadn’t lived with his parents since he was a toddler. He enrolled in a public school, where he went by Ken, a name his mother picked because it was the closest English analog to his Chinese name, Yukun.
Books provided a familiar refuge. He learned English in about a year, and soon was reading novels like “A Wrinkle in Time” and “The Yearling,” then moved on to American classics by authors like Faulkner and Melville, and science fiction by Orson Scott Card, Margaret Atwood and Arthur C. Clarke. He excelled in school and went to Harvard, where he majored in English and studied computer science.
When he graduated in 1998, Liu worked as a software engineer, first at Microsoft, and then at a start-up called Idiom Technologies, where he met his wife, Lisa Tang Liu. The work wasn’t glamorous — he built what he describes as “back-office-database-type stuff” — but he liked it: “It was much more fun to work at that level because you’re closer to the machines.” Then the dot-com bubble burst, and Lisa was laid off from her job as a project manager. Liu grew disillusioned with the tech industry and began searching for something new. He went into programming because he liked rules and systems, so he decided to try another rules-based trade and went to Harvard Law School. After graduating, he clerked for a federal judge, then worked as a corporate lawyer specializing in international tax planning and real estate. It was demanding, and not particularly stimulating. Liu, who at that point had two young daughters, and had grown up apart from his own parents, didn’t want to be an absent father. He became a litigation consultant specializing in patent infringement and technology cases — a job that brought him close to machines again, examining source codes and disassembling smartphones and tablets to study the underlying mechanics.
Throughout his shape-shifting professional odyssey, Liu wrote fiction, though he never imagined he could make a living from it. Eventually, he published his short fiction in sci-fi magazines, and won acclaim for his strange, surreal stories, which sometimes take place on distant planets or intergalactic spaceships heading for habitable worlds, but often center on strained family bonds. His 2011 story, “The Paper Menagerie,” about an American boy whose mother, a Chinese immigrant, makes him delicate origami animals that come to life, won the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award, making Liu the first author to sweep the genre’s three major awards for a single work. Four years later, he published “The Grace of Kings,” an epic fantasy novel that drew on both Western mythology and epics and on historical legends about the Han dynasty. In 2017, he quit his job as a litigation consultant to focus on writing.
Liu and I first met on a freezing day in early March in Stoughton, a small town outside Boston where he lives with his wife, Lisa, now a photographer, and their two daughters, who are 7 and 9. Liu — who at 43 is wiry and energetic, with a close buzz cut, thick eyebrows and a round, boyish face — met me at the train station, and had absent-mindedly left his Airpods in his ears. As we trudged through piles of snow on unplowed sidewalks, we talked about a screen adaptation of one of his stories, and his forthcoming translation of Hao Jingfang’s novel, which he compared to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed.” The novel unfolds in 2201, a century after a human colony on Mars declared independence from Earth, where society has become increasingly technocratic and capitalistic. Liu told me that he isn’t sure how American sci-fi fans will respond to the book, which is more of a philosophical thought experiment than a plot-driven space odyssey. “It’s not the sort of thing popular American taste favors,” Liu says. “It will be valuable for American readers to be exposed to it.”