Ken Liu, a well-known science fiction writer, recently wrote a small but very informative story that can be found under the title of Byzantine Empathy, whose main idea is related to stories about the crypto-currency and its accounting technology. The writer gives a new breath to the cryptocurrency, which was previously associated only with terrorism and drug dealers, showing it completely from the other side and emphasizing its feature and importance as a powerful driving tool. We decided to learn more from Mr. Liu, what exactly he was guided by and why he decided to bring this subject of a technical nature into the world of science fiction.
Ken Liu’s Writing Style Has Coding Street Cred
Rock-star Jimmy Sun, who is also a very interesting character and, in cooperation, the developer of the Bitcoin Core (BTC), said that Ken Liu, science fiction writer, is an “upscale coder” and he was very pleased to have the opportunity to work with him on one project. Mr. Liu talks about his life as something “strange and bizarre”, which, nevertheless, led him to write professional fiction. He spent a lot of time on such a large project as Microsoft, and also coded for other start-ups, after which he tried himself in the field of corporate tax legislation, having previously defended his doctoral dissertation. Ken also has awards for special achievements in translations from the Chinese language. Thanks to him, the English-speaking population of our planet was able to learn about the amazing world of Eastern science fiction. All these stages of his life led to the birth of the recent story Byzantine Empathy. It is based on the basic elements – code, law, language, to which Ken Liu assigned special significance. This work is based on a competent approach to the crypto-currency and distributed accounting technology that are the main part of the whole history.
Ken Liu closely cooperated with Wade Roush, who is the editor of Soonish podcast. It was Roush who gave the assignment to Mr. Liu to write a short story. All these resulted in the emergence of the Byzantine Empathy as a piece of the anthology. At the same time, Mr. Roush had a request that Ken Liu use his deep skills during the translation of “Fields of Gold”, written by Liu Cixin. It should be also mentioned that Ken Liu has won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for his great translation of “The Three-Body Problem”. Anthropology, published jointly with MIT Technology Review and MIT Press, will surely attract the attention of the community of crypto-currency.
Why did your choice of considering various aspects fell on the Byzantine Generals’ problem?
Ken Liu: A small history gives an opportunity to qualitatively beat only one aspect of all the huge amount of information related to crypto-currencies. Therefore, I chose the leadership of consensus in the system for the central episode, because it is as close as possible to the history of mankind that I would like to show the reader.
In many information sources and works, the distorted and invented adaptation of crypto, which, in small or large extent, is connected with drug trafficking and world-class terrorism, can be met. However, Ken Liu chose totally different vision, and it is very interesting to know if this was a conscious step?
I did not pursue the goal of acting in opposition to the dominant mass of narratives. I wanted to show my vision of algorithms, mathematics, ideas, and history of crypto-currencies, which I find beautiful and entertaining. I wanted to open a new fresh vision of this wonderful world and give it my due. Often the mass media have a direct impact on the perception of certain topics, and the saddest thing is that they, in trying to connect the public to complex ideas, make them primitive and, as a result, senseless. I preferred the use of primary sources, in-depth articles, source code, and those who live in the realm of crypto, fully giving themselves to this sphere. I wanted to create a story in which every reader will see, understand and appreciate the depth and beauty of the crypto world.
How did you manage to get to “Twelve Tomorrows”?
I received an invitation from Wade Roush, the editor, to become part of the project. It was necessary to create a history related to the technology area, which would be part of the MIT Tech Review. After a little thought, I decided that the blockchain and VR are just what I need, and these are the areas in which I am well versed. That’s how my story was born.
How did you come up with the idea of creating a fictional crypto-currency, empathium?
I spent some time researching the problems that society faced in providing assistance to victims of disasters and NGOs. There are a lot of subjects that are aimed at studying behavioral manners and showing sympathy for those who became victims of the catastrophe, affecting both man-made and natural. Thus, I came to the conclusion that it would be possible to attract the blockchain and VR, using them as an instrument of direct influence on these problems. In this way, the fundamental foundations of empathium have emerged.
Tell us, please, why you chose two such resonant themes as cryptocurrency and virtual reality for your story?
I find blockchain something special and interesting, not only because it is similar to applied mathematics, but also because it is the basis of a new round in the history of technological consensus development and an important element of collective decision making. Such elements also include monarchies, courts, elections, juries, and so on. VR, in turn, is a kind of habitat, a new medium, essentially the same as Internet, television, radio, books, which are the catalysts for empathy and the building of group and individual equality. Therefore, how can the author of science fiction ignore two such exciting technologies that have such a significant impact on our present days and upcoming future?
Any Symbolic System Can be Hacked
Has your experience in the field of corporate law affected your writing style?
If you look closely at the system of work of legal structures, you begin clearly see how they behave in restraining and determining corporate decision-making, choosing a strategy of competition or cooperation, and how simple and easy it is to avoid all these established guidelines and restrictions. As a result, I can say that hacking the system of any society is something inevitable, and even a fictional society is no exception.
Your professional skills and knowledge include many versatile spheres. So what does connect your interest in the fields of programming, law and science fiction writing?
Thanks to my extensive experience in the fields of law and technology, I am inclined to see the world through a certain system of symbols. In fact, lawyers and programmers have a lot in common. First of all, it concerns the way of thinking, based on reading symbols and carrying out various manipulations with them. Both are some kind of hackers, who are capable of building symbolic constructions, which help them to achieve the necessary goal, complying with the inner rules of the working system.
Starting out as a science fiction writer, I noticed that this activity uses the same techniques. Readers are amenable to emotional outbursts caused by various literary cunnings, which writers resort to. The task of the writer is to immerse the reader in the story as naturally as possible using the same tricks that are often used by programmers, creating new programs and applications, and lawyers, building complex corporate structures.
Somehow it looks like the analogy that I see. People who are inspired by the work they are doing, whether programmers, lawyers or writers, always strive to go beyond technical authority. In any legal evidence and source code, you can see something beautiful, special and creative. The same thing happens with works of fiction. The ultimate goal is to build a powerful emotional construction, which takes on the basic functions. But on the other hand, in order to create it, you must put your soul and use transcendence, which is the fundamental element of any creativity.