Ken Liu


Light the torch in the pre-dawn starglow.

White sands come to life beneath my feet like a new galaxy,
liquid fire,
molten glass,
thawing ice.

A good day for pilgrimage.

With each step, the jagged grains press into the flesh of my feet, not painful, but a constant probing of the boundary between my body and the world. After a while, it feels as though the sand is yielding to the skin rather than the other way around—truth, if one can see at the level of atoms vibrating, whirling, bouncing, tumbling in the eternal dance of Kali, the consciousness of the universe breathing through sand-me-sand-me-sand-me.

Mother said, Everything comes in threes.

That was how she began every story: the three little pigs, the three companions of the faithful monk who journeyed to the west, the three paths that had opened to humankind: to become guests among the stars like rocket-comets with fiery tails, to ascend into the cloud-nirvana and live as electronic spirits, or to stay behind in this world:

a palimpsest of our wandering trails,
a watercolor washed in the hue of regret,
a book composed from the stories of our accumulated errors.

We chose the third path, said Mother. We know through stories; we are made of stories; we cannot escape stories.

The sun-silver peeks over the horizon, and the universe expands and takes form in a great exhalation out of the darkness. A fresh page of white dunes spreads before me, waiting for me to make my mark.

Gingerly, tenderly, torch held aloft like a giant’s writing brush, I make my way through the first realm, the Realm of Death-Void. The fire flickers, hisses, snaps against the sand haze, an echo of the primordial mist from which all Creation emerges. A story then, a story about the birth of this place, which is also about me, about us.

In this place, they once tried to bind the dance of atoms to the will of Man, lit a torch brighter than the heart of the sun, called forth a demon of destruction whose dance erupted into the sky as a minatory parasol, raining down sand fused into green jewels whose facets glinted with the promise of uncountable deaths.

Those who called the demon covered their eyes in shame and averted their faces, stumbling in the darkness to describe what they had wrought in a new language cobbled together from ancient poetry.

Afterwards, the demon became a looming presence that held the planet hostage. Millions, billions of lives hung in the balance, growing and trembling and heart-aching and aging and denying and dying in its shadow. Through the white sands, new creatures scurried and scuttled, their living code scrambled by the demon’s lingering ghostly emanations, their limbs and shapes deformed. Seven- and eleven-legged spiders cartwheeled through the desert, furless rats howled at the moon, cactuses blossomed with asymmetrical starburst flowers that accused with sightless eyes: you-notme-you-notme-you-notme.

It was the nadir of our species, the incarnation of suffering, an atomized world where we each danced our random, quantum dance, each divided against the other, the strong will of our madness an impenetrable wall propping up the weak force of our corrupted nature.


From the sea we came; to the sea we return.


Cradled by the swaying tides,
there is no weight,
no burden,
no up or down,
like space,
like the endless emptiness between the stars,
like the ripples in the rubber sheet of
the gravity wells
by lumbering,
gyring planets.

We come, we go;
we emerge,
we submerge;
we toil, we rest.

Synchronize your breathing,
the exchange of air
between the inside and the outside,
between the sea and the sky,
between self and other,

But that division is false. We're not mere foam upon the advancing waves; we embody its curve and shadows. We aren’t only born in the ocean, we contain oceans. The blood that courses through our veins is composed of salts identical to those that flavor the ocean—we carry private seas, surging in waves that echo the motion of the tides. Every feature of our body reminds us of our ancestry: our auricles are shaped like whelks, our cochlea the chambered nautilus; and when we hold up a conch shell to our ears, we hear a distant storm raging over the domain of Thalassa.

In that murmuring of our ancient mother, a story may be discerned.

Once, we filled the sea with the detritus of our civilization, the discarded husks of our consumption, the used-up abrasive microbeads generated by our pursuit of beauty, the expirations from the steam-powered steel lungs of our ever-expanding cities, the toxic shedding from our illusive, ephemeral youth.

The great leviathans stopped singing; finned schools departed from our view; rainbow-hued corals lay bleached like underwater deserts, a realm of death as terrifying as the withered white sands thousands of miles away, where lay the ground-up bones of dead giants.

But time flows not as an arrow; rather, it cycles like the great whirlpools of the Pacific, always wandering through the abyss, always revolving through the darkness, always returning—not to home—to an ever-spiraling ascent toward the surface, toward light.

Poison is merely that which Life has not learned to digest. The endless eons have evolved bacteria that derive energy from the deadly rays of decaying atoms and microbes that convert the fossilized ooze upon which we built our civilization into living force. Time would also have taught Life how to convert all the toxic excreta we left behind into food, shelter, clothing; to alter the deadly into the lively; to sprout with nourishment yielded by the ruins.

Time devours all; time redeems all.

We simply had to learn to speed up time, to carry out the will of Nature herself, even as an arrow carries out the will of the bow that launches her.

And so the ocean is once again full of life, full of particolored corals that resist and tolerate and even welcome acid, full of singing fishes, frolicking whales, and other creatures of legend that have returned to roam their ancestral realm.

Listen, as you surface, to this pelagic blazon.

Seaweeds dangling from that chin
To the sun they wave each morn.
The hollow wind of two sea caves
Echo and swell in these nostrils.

For Bahamas, the Eyes will do,
Their limpid tranquility forlorn.
The jagged coast of the furthest shore
Bound the grayish hairline.

A pair of Leviathans ranging —
Blowholes of Light! —
Beneath periodic waves,
Their prey on photonic fins.

How terrifying the depths —
I laugh —
The Mid-Atlantic trench.
How calm when it is closed.

For Faith, I tremble.
The whales, playful,
Spill the wave beyond tidal pools.
Magnified — the scene unfolds:

On this Ocean He
Plied his ship,
No constellations to guide Him.


We have come to the second realm, the Realm of Alteration-Flow.

Open your senses.

living green
deadly glow

tinkling water,
stars striking
crystalline spheres.

wind-animated leaves,
defoliated jungle-graveyards

Taste and smell
muddy shore
slimy, scaly fish and crustaceans, the
a billion fermenting bacteria and fungi,
drunk on the wine
wild garden.

Blaise Pascal once said, "Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed." We are all reeds nodding along in the shallows of the divine consciousness, flexing stalks bending to the susurrating breeze that uplifts us even as it humbles us.

I step into the water.

The water

p a r t s

changing me even as I change it.

The river is not the same river of a moment ago, neither is the light, the breeze, the stream of consciousness and life that envelopes me, that constitutes me. Time passes even when I stand still; all is Change.

For this is the meaning of the pilgrimage we take through the universe. Life adapts, changing the world so that the world may change it. Once we set ourselves up as the opposite of Nature, only to find that in the vastness of time, such an attitude is mere vanity.

Long ago, the seas rose, the tides an argument that has no answer. Soil turned to desert, the fields of death an exclamation point against our arrogance. The very stars mocked us with their eternal light, when we sought to map the infinite onto the finite.

We've learned. Animals and plants deformed by our actions have taken root in a world transformed by us, just as we've learned to re-accommodate our machines to a world that has learned to speak back. The ecosphere and the technosphere are not distinct realms, but one continuous domain. Just as there is no boundary between the sand grains that press into my feet and the cells that make up my body, there is no boundary between what is natural and what is artificial—the world is one grand engine, into which we are the living gears. The universe is one mighty river, into which we flow as self-organizing drops.

We sculpted our genes to fit seamlessly into the world-mosaic, Mother said. We rebuilt our cells to be powered by the inhalation and exhalation of the planet, laying down each rung in the double-spiral of our living code to be a staircase ascending to the ephemeral eternity.


Before the leaves of trees unfurl, they are tucked inside tiny buds like the solar sails of the space arks that left the Earth for the stars. Pleated, folded, gathered by zigzagging creases, they bud following the same laws of mathematics as the wings of dragonflies exuviating from the nymph stage; as the expanding, concertina-like, fluted sides of Chinese lanterns being lifted for the ancient New Year; as the origami maps of the streets of Kyoto being spread by long-ago tourists in that fabled city.

From the smallest of beginnings come the grandest of visions.

And so, as you gaze up at the trees around me, you are gazing at a fleet of starships with their living solar sails extended, braving the haze of a fiery orange nebula for terra incognita.

Once, the great cities of this planet were choked in a similar-looking haze of tiny particles that made eyes water and throats itch, and ate away at the linings of the lungs of people and creatures great and small. The leaves of trees, braving the assault, were riddled with holes like streets signs in a war-torn city.

The solution unfolded through a change in perspective.

Just as shields extending thousands of kilometers among the stars could be folded up to fit into a single rocket, so is the mist around you a product of origami. Tiny particles, linked to each other to form a sheet of webbed links, can pop or dip the microscopic valleys and mountains made of creases in the sheet to change its properties. Whether directing the flow of water or altering the angle of sunlight, the mist, an extension of the forest canopy, maintains temperature, moisture, and concentration of nutrients. The meta-material mist is at once natural and artificial, a living tool.

It is the grandest dream of every species to have its creations be indistinguishable from the hand of Nature. We are guests among the stars, but we yearn to be seen not as sojourners, to be woven into the very creases of the universe, as the Daoist philosophers said.

Ancient wisdom, acquired through folding and unfolding paper, has both paved the route to the stars and redeemed our hazy past.

We are tool-using animals; it's in our nature and we cannot deny it. But tools don't have to mean death, destruction, the imprisonment of Nature. Our most powerful technology is language, which is also the most natural of all tools.

What a miracle is language: the web of cascading action potentials along the myelin sheaths of the axons and dendrites in my brain coalesce out of the darkness in my skull as thoughts—like the lightning bugs that flitter from branch to branch in this orange forest or stars and planets out of the haze of the primordial nebula;
these thoughts, unique to my physiology, defined by my experiences, imbued with the indelible colors of my senses, are translated into strings picked from a fixed, tiny table of symbols and sounds;
these sounds and marks then make their way through the void between us in time and space, as air vibrations, as logograms painted on bamboo strips, as wedges carved into clay tablets, as magnetic markings generated by rearranged electrons, as patterns of light and shadows built from graphite on paper;
light strikes the symbols and is reflected onto the retina-film at the bottoms of your clam-bowl-shaped eyes or streams of vibrating air touch the tiny hairs in the nautilus shells nestled deep at the ends of your ear canals;
and then, these physical sensations are translated into more cascades of action potentials in the blue-misted kelp forest that is your mind, shaped by your unique experiences, filtered by your individual mental geography, given meaning by your one-and-only self.

Though our minds are imprisoned in two skulls, as far apart as two star systems isolated at the ends of the galaxy, yet for a moment you can understand me, and I am able to understand you. It is as if you had picked up a bottle on this starlit shore, tossed into the waves from eons ago, and, as you pop off the cork, caressed that other mind tenderly through a wine fermented from symbol and speech. How can we not sigh with wonder at such magic?

Yet we think nothing of deploying such technology. Long before we learned to reshape the genome, to split the atom, to tame the wilderness, to fashion tools out of steel or bronze or stone, we had known how to speak, to connect. A newborn babe learns to wield words as naturally as she drinks mother's milk, as naturally as she learns to toddle, as naturally as the ant learns to dig for the colony or the bee learns to fashion a hive out of hexagons.

Language is the most natural artifact and the most technological appendage of nature.

Technology is, itself, also a language. And like all languages, it reflects the people who speak it and the world in which it is spoken.

When we used stone tools, our technology vocabulary was harsh, limited, and flinty;
when we learned to garden and farm, our technology grammar was flavored with honey and milk;
when we learned to use steam, we spoke with glass, chrome, leather goggles and gears that were redolent of machine oil;
when we learned to split the atom, we spoke with threats, doom, and the death of millions in clouds shaped like mushrooms.

We did not need to push the genie back into the bottle. We only needed to see that the demon is also us, and we had to heed the message in the bottle.

It's also possible to speak using the language of genetic diversity husbandry, of harmonious meta-materials, of energy endlessly folding and unfolding, of technology indistinguishable from nature. It's possible to speak technology like the waves, like the sand, like the river, like the harvest-expecting fields, like this moonlit coast.

The sea is eternal, as is the moonlight. Watch the moon reflect on the waves, pinpricks of hope peeking out of the darkness. The sea is an echo of the universe as we experience it. No man is an island, even islands are not islands. When you look closely at the shore, the shore dissolves into fractal sea-notsea-sea-notsea-sea-notsea. There is no Nature versus Artifice, only the art of nature, as graceful as the poem recited by the cries of wild geese.

The starlit sky is indistinguishable from the star atlas, terra incognita indistinguishable from the map, what we say indistinguishable from what we do, and love is indistinguishable from the empathic indifference of nature.

This is hope, this is faith, this is love.


And now, we come to the third realm, the Realm of Harvest-Hope.

How the stalks bend and sway in the breeze, laden down with the richness of the golden bounty, the same color as the light of the sun. How the flowers bloom and give thanks, as plentiful as grains of sand in the desert or stars in the Milky Way. The torch in my hand is a beacon for the ghosts of all who have perished before—around me, with me, through me, they sigh with the pleasure of the warm sunlight and the weight of memories.

Each kernel here is a grain of parched sand made alive with the water of consilience. Each stalk an engineered life, a thinking reed fashioned by the hand of God and Man.

We've come to the end of our pilgrimage, which is only the beginning of the dream. Meditate, eat, bathe yourself in the drowsy light of the setting sun. Hear the whisper of each grain of sand praying to its own star, see in the vibration of each atom a clockwork soul, embrace the telepresent form of a distant lover through the ethereal mist, taste the luscious nectar of artfully arranged flowers—some of whose atoms once glowed as brightly as the heart of a star, inhale the pungent aroma of a universe constructing itself with and through your sweat and labor.

We’re home.