Science fiction writer Ken Liu has written an important short story, Bizantine Empathy, weaving as central to the narrative cryptocurrency and distributed ledger technology. Finally, crypto breaks out of its ghettoization in popular fiction, where it has been the plaything of terrorists and drug dealers, and instead has been used as an elegant background to a larger point. We caught up with Mr. Liu to ask him more about his motivations for bringing such a technical topic into the science fiction community.
Author Ken Liu Has Coding Street Cred
No less a personage than Bitcoin core (BTC) developer and ecosystem rockstar Jimmy Song praised science fiction writer Ken Liu as “one of the best coders” he’s ever worked with. Mr. Liu describes his career as “bizarre and strange” leading up to his foray into professional fiction writing. He’s coded for Microsoft and various startups, and then decided to earn a Juris Doctorate and try his hand at corporate tax law. He’s also an award-winning Chinese language translator, bringing leading science fiction from the East to the English speaking world. All of these pursuits led him to his recent short story, Byzantine Empathy. It’s at the sweet spot of Mr. Liu’s many forms of mastery: code, law, language. It’s also a literate take on cryptocurrency and distributed ledger technology, which are integral to the story as essential parts.
Twelve Tomorrows is in its fifth edition with Wade Roush, futurist host of the Soonish podcast, as its editor. He tapped Mr. Liu for two tasks. He wanted a short story, and Mr. Liu delivered Byzantine Empathy as part of the anthology. Mr. Roush also asked Ken Liu to employ his considerable skill in translating Fields of Gold by Liu Cixin (Ken Liu’s translation of The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo Award for Best Novel). Published in conjunction with MIT Technology Review and MIT Press, the anthology is sure to draw eyes from the cryptocurrency community.
News.Bitcoin.com: Of all the rabbit hole aspects of crypto and bitcoin, why did you focus in on the Byzantine Generals’ problem?
Ken Liu: In a short story, there’s only enough room to focus on one aspect of the many interesting aspects of cryptocurrencies, and the idea of consensus, of authority in the system, felt to me to be the most compelling subject and the one that dovetailed the best with the human story I wanted to tell.
In my line of work, as you can imagine, I come across fictional adaptations of crypto, either as part or integral to an arc, and inevitably they involve international terrorism or drugs. You’ve gone in an entirely different direction. Was that a conscious decision?
I don’t think I was writing consciously “against” some dominant narrative, exactly. I find the mathematics, the algorithms, the history and ideas behind cryptocurrencies beautiful and interesting, and I wanted to tell a story that tries to engage with these ideas in a serious, empathetic way. Too often, coverage of complex ideas in the mainstream media is simplified to the point of nonsense or forced to fit into existing narratives, and I think sometimes the fiction we read is influenced by this kind of coverage. I wanted to go back to the fundamental papers, the source code, the people who devote their time and energy to crypto, and to tell a story that respects the reader as well as the crypto practitioner, and doesn’t shy away from the complexities of the ideas themselves.
How did you end up being published in Twelve Tomorrows?
The editor, Wade Roush, invited me to contribute. The idea was to write a story centered around some of the technology areas covered by the MIT Tech Review extensively. I thought VR and blockchain, two areas where I have some experience and expertise, would be perfect. The story then came to me essentially overnight.
How did you create the fictional cryptocurrency, empathium?
I’ve studied the problems of disaster relief and NGOs for some time, and there are many institutional issues related to the way we direct and harness people’s natural empathy for victims of natural and man-made disasters. I wondered how blockchain and VR could perhaps be used to help ameliorate/complicate these issues, and those thoughts became the basis for empathium.
You chose two very hot topics as your muse, cryptocurrency and virtual reality for this short story. Why?
I think blockchain, besides being a really interesting bit of applied math, also represents a new development in the general history of the technology of consensus building and collective decision making. (Other notable entries in this history include things like elections, juries, courts, absolute monarchies, etc.) VR, on the other hand, is a new emerging medium, and every new medium (writing, film, TV, the Internet) has profoundly altered the way we empathize with others and construct individual and group identities. How can a scifi writer resist playing with two technologies with such profound implications for the present and the future?
Symbolic Systems Beg to be Hacked
Does having worked extensively in the corporate law field informed your fictional writing?
I think having looked at the way legal structures constrain and guide corporate decision making, competition, and collaboration, and how such constraints and guides can be bypassed and thwarted, I tend to view system hacking as a fundamental part of any society, including fictional ones.
At first glance, your professional pursuits seem all over the place. What is the connection between science fiction writing and having a background in programming and law?
My background is in technology and law (I was a programmer and a lawyer), so I tend to view everything through the lens of symbol systems. There is a great deal of commonality in the way programmers and lawyers think about their respective symbol systems: fundamentally, both are hackers trying to construct symbolic machines that will accomplish a certain effect by following the rules of the systems in which they operate.
It turns out that writing fiction is quite similar. Readers have been trained to respond emotionally to various literary and narrative techniques, and a writer builds emotional machines out of these tricks no different from the way lawyers put together contracts or corporate structures, or the way programmers craft apps and utilities.
Here’s where the analogy becomes interesting though. In fiction, programming, or law, practitioners who love their work are always seeking to go beyond mere technical competence. We’ve all seen snippets of source code or legal arguments that give us a feeling of transcendence, that rises to the realm of art, elegance, beauty. It is the same in fiction. To build an emotional machine that does the job is easy; to build a beautiful and true emotional machine, on the other hand, takes skill, luck, and a glimpse of that transcendence that unites all creative endeavors.