My Superpower is a regular guest column on the Skiffy and Fanty blog where authors and creators tell us about one weird skill, neat trick, highly specialized cybernetic upgrade, or other superpower they have, and how it helped (or hindered!) their creative process as they built their project. Today we welcome Ken Liu to talk about how the power of tax enthusiasm relates to Grace of Kings.
My superpower is the ability to get readers excited about taxes.
Taxes are critical in my silkpunk epic fantasy, The Grace of Kings. This is the story of two unlikely friends, a duke and a bandit, who join together to overthrow tyranny only to find themselves on opposite sides of a deadly rivalry over how to create a more just society. There are all sorts of cool things in it: soaring battle kites and airships based on Chinese prototypes from antiquity; unyielding heroes, kennings, and litotes in the mode of Anglo-Saxon epics; magical books that read minds; jealous gods who are concerned with the value of Pi; a street urchin who becomes the greatest battlefield tactician of her generation and teaches women to fight in the skies; ladies and princesses who plot and fight alongside lords and princes; and giant water beasts who bring storms and tempests to human affairs.
What about the taxes?! I hear you; I hear you. Let me get there.
For many years I worked at a big law firm. When people met me for the first time, they’d usually ask me what area I practiced in.
“Tax,” I’d say.
And I could see their eyes glaze over as they desperately tried to figure out a way to run from the conversation. Perhaps they were expecting me to recite Section 409A of the Internal Revenue Code at them or something.
Here’s the thing, though. I’ve worked with many tax lawyers and tax accountants over the years, and we write papers and go to “Subchapter K” conferences and get drunk at hotel bars and make each other laugh with jokes whose punch lines are section numbers from the “code” and the “regs.” I assure you we’re perfectly normal people; we’re just passionate about tax law. And many of us believe that if the general public understood tax law as well as we do, they’d be just as passionate about the subject.
(Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but at least you’d get the jokes.)
At its heart, tax law is a rules-based system that resembles a giant machine made of many levers and gears and escapements and cams and cranks and oscillators. The machine isn’t built to some Jony Ive-esque unifying design but has grown up organically over time to include multiple, redundant wheel trains, secret compartments, rusty, barely-functioning pendulums, and forgotten springs that are just waiting to explode with pent-up power.
And this machine’s objective and ambition are no less than the regulation of the entire economy.
Like any complex system, tax law can be hacked — that is, be made to do things that it (probably) wasn’t intended to do. In the modern world, where more and more of us are involved in manipulating complex symbol systems (we are “knowledge workers,” in corporatespeak), the pleasure of hacking is ubiquitous. Anyone who has figured out an infinite mana combo in Magic: The Gathering, who has devised a way to get a cartload of groceries for free by extreme couponing, or who has discovered the magic words to say to the customer service representative on the phone to get another six months of free data understands the pleasure of hacking.
And that is what tax lawyers do: we compare definitions in the tax laws of different countries until we figure out how to make something look like a “flow-through entity” in one system but a “corporation” in another; we discover ways to convert “ordinary income” into “capital gain” by selling rights in one entity instead of another; we teach our clients how to delay delay delay and use one of life’s inevitabilities — death — to defeat another of life’s inevitabilities — taxes (see stepped-up basis).
But tax law isn’t just interesting because of the hacking impulse; it’s also fascinating for those of us who are more interested in preventing hacking. If you want a fairer, more robust tax system, you have to understand how hacks happen, and why they’re almost always the side effect of rules intended to do good. Governments use the machinery of taxation to discourage certain behaviors and encourage others — and believe me, it works — and there is no other area of the law as contested by lobbyists, industry associations, business leagues, policy wonks, economists, and advocacy groups. To understand a society’s tax code is to understand its social and economic behavior, its attitudes about charitable giving and the profit impulse, its ideals and third rails.
I’ve even written a scifi story based entirely on an alien tax code.
Given my obsession about taxes, I think it’s no exaggeration to say that no other epic fantasy novel is as concerned with taxation as The Grace of Kings: a tax collector finds himself promoted to a general and applies everything he knows about the tax laws to leading an army; wise administrators hack the tax system as well as mass psychology to support a revolution; talk of taxes disguise efforts at espionage; and tax records are to be saved before treasure when a city falls.
The wisdom of a ruler, in my book, is to be judged by his tax policy, and I think that worldbuilding is all the better for this attention to taxes.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. My favorite review on Twitter says this: The Grace of Kings “made a 2 hour wait at the IRS ofc seem like 20 minutes.”
Hey, if I can make taxes sound interesting to you, I’ve got to be pretty good at the really fun stuff, right?
Besides Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, Saga Press will also publish a collection of his short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, later in the year. Get in touch with him on his web site (http://kenliu.name) or on Twitter (@kyliu99).