Aug. 14th, 2016

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Ken Liu burst onto the SF/F scene just over 5 years ago, and was an immediate sensation. He combined a depth of insight into the human condition with creativity and an unflinching ability to capture both the best and the worst of the human condition. And he wrote like someone who’d written—and thrown away—the proverbial million words before exposing his efforts to his rapidly growing audience. One wonders what slightly tarnished gems might have been discarded along the way. This book, Liu’s first collection, has no discarded gems, though you may have seen some of them before in other settings.

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species delves into the meaning of books and how that meaning and its implementation is likely to vary among sentient species. Each book form is simultaneously clever and profound. In the case of the Allatians, whose noses are basically giant phonograph needles, books are recorded on metal-backed wax disks and played much the way we old farts used to play vinyl LP records. And just as with the vinyl, each book is subtly transformed each time it’s played, leaving a different book for the next reader to read. Habits ponders several other innovative ways of recording too-transient thoughts, and how those thoughts morph and slip away from our control when they enter the minds of our readers.

State Change is a more overtly metaphorical, magical realism type of story of our soul and how we can spend it on frivolous or profound things. Rina, for example, was born with a soul in the form of an ice cube, and everywhere she carries it with her, it melts just a little despite her best efforts to protect it in a thermos; in contrast, a friend carries her soul in the form of a pack of cigarettes, and once each has been smoked, it can never be regained. Some guard their soul jealously; others spend it profligately. Rina’s challenge is to learn that there is (perhaps) a law of conservation of souls, and that living one’s life sometimes involves a change of state, as in the transformation of her ice cube into water, and that living is more important than hiding one’s soul in an ice bucket. The metaphor breaks down somewhat in the sense that great souls grow over time, but it’s nonetheless an effective story if one doesn’t try to carry the metaphor too far.

The Perfect Match starts as a seemingly utopian tale of a much-evolved personal assistant (Tilly), the descendant of Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana blended with Google. Initially, the story is unusual (for a Liu story) in being overtly didactic, but we soon learn about the perils of sharing far too much information via social media and its future equivalents. I’ve always been in the camp who believes you shouldn’t publish anything online that you’re not willing to share with billions of others, and that this policy would keep me largely safe, but Match reminds us that online life isn’t nearly so simple. And just as we learn that important lesson, Liu’s writing relaxes and recomplicates, becoming less didactic and exploring the fuller complexity of the issues raised by such a story as a few souls begin to rebel against the largely unexamined status quo. This would have been a great distopian novel in other hands, but Liu says most of what needs to be said in much les space. There’s much to think on here, and particularly the realization that withdrawing from technology (rather than engaging with it) is no solution.

Good Hunting takes us further afield, and into deeper emotional waters. The setting is pre-modern China, during the period when the British were exerting their distinctly non-benevolent colonial will upon the Chinese people. It’s a tale in “the magic goes away” genre, but in this case, it’s not only technology (steam engines and the like, which slowly evolve in a steampunk direction) that is responsible, but also how the British cultural gestalt is crushing, severing, or pushing aside traditional Chinese magic. There are echoes of stories from many previous authors in which Faery is swept away by the human tide of cold iron, but this is not explicitly a tale from that tradition; the concept has undergone a sea change in its travel overseas, in its interrogation of colonialism, and in its exploration of how magic may survive, albeit transformed, in a new world. Good Hunting is told from the perspective of the son of a Chinese demon hunter who spares a fox demon in his youth, and who, as an adult, loses his older profession and takes on the new one of engineer as the native Chinese magic slowly disappears. Good Hunting is about surviving crushing colonialism and drastic cultural change, and ends in trademark Liu style: in hope of a better future, but with a lingering residue of sadness for what was lost.

The Literomancer is the first story that smacks you upside the head with a nearly unbearable mixture of harsh reality and the beauty that somehow persists in even the harshest times and places. The tale is set in post–World War II Taiwan, where American spies and agents provocateur conspire with the exiled Nationalists to overthrow the Chinese Communists by any means necessary. With scary echoes of today, there are tortures and human rights abuses in which the people of both regions are treated as nothing more than expendable pawns in the great American game of geopolitik. And they’re distasteful pawns, at that; this is a period of egregious and pernicious racism that was still present during my primary school years, when I was the ethnic kid. (In contrast, my children grew up in schools that resembled a miniature United Nations. It’s one of the few things that gives me hope in a world that appears to be sliding, year by year, ever deeper into the shit.) Our POV character is Lilly, the daughter of an American spy, who is befriended by Kan, the pseudonymus literomancer. Kan tells fortunes (the “literomancy” of the title) through his keen sense of empathy, supplemented by a profound knowledge of the etymological roots of Chinese calligraphic characters. None of this saves him when he runs afoul of the Americans. The story does not end well; it ends so horrifically you shouldn’t read this story if you’re feeling emotionally fragile. Yet you should read it when you’re feeling stronger because exactly the same shameful practices have been carried out in living memory, suggesting that we never learn from our mistakes when we forget the past. That being said, Liu retains his faith in the power of words to lead us to better places—if only people will listen.

Simulacrum is a short but punchy look into what will happen when it becomes possible to record people and their thoughts in much the same way we take photographs now. Indeed, this leads to the central conflict in the story: Anna, our protagonist, dislikes simulacra because “People shape and stage the experiences of their lives for the camera, go on vacations with one eye glued to the video camera. The desire to freeze reality is about avoiding reality.” When I travel, I bring back hundreds of photos so I can share the story with my friends, but for each photo I take, I spend far more time bathing in the reality. As a result, I return home with memories, not just photos. this issue of memory is central to the story, even though it’s never explicitly foregrounded. Anna is the daughter of the inventor of “oneiropagida”, which are simulacra of people. They’re essentially artificial, since they’re interactive, and that’s what destroys the relationship between Anna and her father: she walks in on her father having a virtual “affair” with some of the women he’s previously recorded. But rather than being primarily a tale of the technology, Simulacrum is the story of the emotional component of the father–daughter relationship and how technology changes it for the worse. In a painful irony, it’s that one memory of her father that becomes Anna’s own simulacra of her father and prevents her from accepting the reality of her father as a flawed but still loving and love-worthy man.

In The Regular, Liu takes a noir turn. This is the story of a Chinese-American private investigator, an ex-cop with a traumatic past, who stumbles onto the trail of a serial killer. This guy’s an interestingly damaged psychopath who appears to be sufficiently high-functioning to fly below the radar—as many psychopaths famously do before they’re caught. But here, there’s a difference: the technology of the story world allows implantation of a device known as a “regulator” that lets you damp down your emotional responses so you can process situations more rationally. (The lack of affect shown while under this regulation produces eerie echoes of the psychopath’s lack of affect, resulting in interesting parallels between the PI and the killer, not to mention the etymological echoes between regular (normal) and regulator (normative), which seems unlikely to be coincidence.) The story structure is conventional and the outcome predictable, but what interested me is how you can spin the ending as a triumph for the human spirit (succeeding without technology) or a failure of that spirit (unwillingness to accept a potentially better technological solution). It’s that thought-provoking dichotomy that raises the story above its plot.

The Paper Menagerie merits its role as standard-bearer for the book, since it illustrates Liu’s trademark emotional intensity and ability to mix (in this case literal) magic with life’s harshest elements. I’ve read this story several times, and always approach it with dread; it tears at my heart. Although it shares a title and focus on remembrance with the Tennessee Williams play, The Glass Menagerie, Liu spins that tale on its axis; here, the protagonist is arguably the narrator’s mother, though we learn her story through the foregrounded narrator. The title’s menagerie is a group of zhezhi creatures (the Chinese equivalent of the better-known Japanese origami) created by the mother, but with a difference: when these ones are breathed into, the spirit in one’s breath brings them to life. Here, they become a small boy’s best friends. The story is told from the POV of Jack, who has a White father and Chinese immigrant (“mail-order bride”) mother. Like all schoolchildren, and doubly so as a teenager, Jack faces the burden of fitting in, a task made more difficult than usual by his mixed-race heritage. Though the story is set in the late 1970s, a time when the post-war racism of previous decades was beginning to ebb, fear of “the other” remained a strong force in society. Faced with the choice between fitting in or prioritizing his mother’s love, Jack makes a bad but predictable choice: he chooses conformity. He has always been somewhat embarrassed by his mother, who has never fully integrated into Western society, and makes strenuous efforts to distance herself from her, eventually cutting off all communication. When he finally realizes his error, years later, his mother is dead and it’s too late to do anything about it. But his mother lives on in the story she left of her life, written on one of the zhezhi animals. It’s a bittersweet reminder of how the distances we create between ourselves and our loved ones can lead to tragedy if we don’t try to bridge the distance.

An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition starts out as a seeming riff on The Bookmaking Habits, musing on memory and thought and how we communicate, though here the emphasis is on the ephemeral forms of communication rather than the frozen thoughts that live in books. Liu provides a few superficially plausible and largely original takes on how thought might work. One, the uranium-based life form, is reminiscent of an old episode of Star Trek the Next Generation. But the story soon morphs into something richer, dwelling on the nature of marital and parent–child relationships, in ways that are uncommonly lyrical for Liu. (It’s not that Liu writes boring prose. Not remotely. It’s just that here, the imagery and approach seem more poetic than prosaic—you should pardon the pun.) As in so many of his tales, there is both joy and a deep sorrow; here, it is the formation and then breaking of a marriage because both partners, though still clearly in love, retain the distinct characteristics that first brought them together rather than morphing into something new that may lack the original attraction but that evolves into something stronger and more stable. This can be both good and bad; a good marriage adjusts over time to make room for each partner to grow. But like the chocolate that is a central image in this story, the results can be bittersweet.

The Waves is Ken Liu’s take on Tom Godwin’s (in)famous story The Cold Equations. Here, the math is equally implacable but no less cold: Earth has sent out a generation ship (a light-sail vessel) on a 400-year voyage to the nearest habitable planet. As in The Cold Equations, resources are severely constrained: the ship contains enough recyclable resources for the future colonists and the children they raise to replace them during the journey, but recycling is never 100% efficient and even with engineered-in redundancy, there’s little margin for error. And there are no gas stations along the way where they can refill and change the terms of those cold equations. When Earth transmits a genetic engineering recipe for immortality, the colonists (revealed through POV character Maggie Chao) face a terrible choice: after the first generation of children is born, each individual must decide whether or when they’re willing to die to make room for a member of the next generation to mature. Interwoven in the story are excerpts from Chinese, Greek, Jewish, and other creation stories that echo the larger problem of how life begins and the consequences of that beginning. The colonists make—and live with—their decisions, and to borrow a cliché that is very apropos in this case (and that I hope avoids spoilers), their destination is not what they expected, and it changes them in ways both expected and unexpected. The only disappointment in this story is that it merits a novel-length treatment to do justice to the many chewy issues Liu raises.

Mono No Aware is the Japanese phrase that refers to our ability to find or create beauty despite the transience of life and all things. Here, the transience goes beyond the simpler tragedy of personal death to encompass the likely death of our whole species. A giant asteroid, “the hammer”, is detected on a collision course with Earth. There’s no way to divert it from its course, so humanity, to the best of its ability, tries to flee the planet by building a fleet of solar-sail vessels. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of logistics knows what will happen next: the builders overpromise and underdeliver, terrorists take out some of the vehicles, and there is rioting and warfare in most parts of the world—except in the Japan of Hiroko, our narrator. Like the Chinese, the Japanese tend to have a non-Western sense of how the world works: there is a greater sense of shared communal responsibility and a greater sense of patience with the world. In saying this, I risk stereotyping and clearly, with the upheavals in both countries that have occurred since westernization began in its most aggressive (not to say toxic) form in the past half-century, people and peoples change. Still, this sense of seeking peace with both the good and bad of how life works has been fundamental to my philosophy since my early teens, and I learned it from my readings in Asian culture. The central image of the story is the casting of seeds upon the wind in the hope that some will find fertile ground. This same dandelion metaphor appeared earlier in this collection, in The Waves, and seems likely to have been growing in Liu’s subconscious for some time; indeed, it’s a central metaphor in Liu’s first novel, The Grace of Kings, reviewed here. Mono No Aware lives up to its translation, but uncommonly, Liu is less rigorous with his consequences than in previous stories. The story’s central scientific problem (as opposed to the problems raised by the lives of his characters) is that the light sail develops a rip, and if the rip is left unpatched, it will doom everyone aboard the ship, since they’ll have no way to decelerate when they reach a new solar system. This is an easily predictable risk (space engineers know full well that “everything breaks, usually at a bad time”), so it’s unlikely that a light sail would be designed with a single point of failure; for example, sections would probably be isolated so that failure of one would not destroy the whole. Were that impossible for some reason, full and rapid repair capacity would have been built into the ship; it’s how engineers think. Neither option was included in the story. Having seen the recent difficulty of moving a mere 25 000 Syrian refugees to Canada, I’m less sanguine than Liu about the prospects of trying to save a significant proportion of Earth’s population; the logistics border on the impossible. But that’s not the core of the story, and it does not detract in any way from the story’s emotional punch. Still, the problem of the light sail was a fixable blemish in an otherwise fine tale of heroism and sacrifice that lives up to its title.

In All the Flavors, one of the longest stories in this book, we hear the story from Lily, a young Irish woman who serves as POV character. In the aftermath of the Idaho City fire of 1865 (a real event), Chinese laborers arrive in town, bringing the expected clash of cultures. Some townsfolk, such as Lily and her father, are pragmatic about this: theirs is a gentler racism, expressed in terms of discomfort with strangeness (ironic in people who fled the eastern cities in search of something new). Pragmatism leads to acceptance as the opportunity to earn money from their new customers lets the first settlers replace what they lost in the fire. But, of course, more active and violent racism is practiced by others. Unfortunately for them, Liu is riffing on Gaiman’s American Gods; here, the god is Lao Guan (old Guan), the deified incarnation of a famous Chinese general from about the 2nd century A.D. who has been renamed “Logan” by those who can’t pronounce his Chinese name. This is a meditation on how names may change over time as one adapts to a new life: the root of the name remains true to its origins, but something newer and sometimes stranger grows on top of it, creating an exotic hybrid. (I also suspect it’s a serendipitous and sly joke about “Old Man Logan”—Marvel’s Wolverine character—who is himself something of a minor god of war.) The Chinese are mostly peasants who were lured to North America by men little different from the African slavers, the primary difference being that they were debt slaves rather than chattel slaves, a slightly less toxic but no less evil form of slavery. If you’re at all familiar with the history of Chinese immigrants in the “wild west” (or for that matter, in “the wild western movie”), this will be familiar to you. What will be less familiar is Logan’s story of peasant rebellion: Guan was a prime mover to create something newer and fairer in China some 1700 years earlier, rebelling against a cruel and unjust system, a story that also lies at the roots of Grace of Kings. Another difference is the focus: as in The Literomancer, two cultures can come together and understand each other when they’re willing to listen to each other’s stories. The stories themselves often say much about the minds that created them, but it’s the act of listening that may be most important. Here, Logan tells the stories to Lily, and later her father, as he recounts his life before and after his apotheosis. Yet powerful interests have no interest in allowing the newcomers to live in peace with the original settlers. This unwillingness to see a perceived enemy as individuals has unfortunate echoes in modern Western society’s attitude towards Muslim immigrants. The problem worsens when, as is the case today, the Chinese immigrants begin to outcompete some of the local widowed women who are working as launderers; it improves when they offer some of their earnings to support these women and their children and when they invite everyone to their first Chinese New Year celebration. Unfortunately, this is only a brief happy period; as Liu notes in his afterword, in our real history, Chinese immigrants were eventually banned in much of the west and were forbidden from intermarrying with white women, so most of their communities died out. The story’s title and its eventual working out are possibly Liu’s most explicit metaphor in the book: the “all flavors’ are the many immigrants who have blended to create the modern United States, the bitter melon of one of the delicious Chinese recipes is the bitterness that intrudes on and sharpens our appreciation of the savory parts, and this pleasure is how life could be if only we’d let it. Sadly, we usually have pettier concerns.

A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel is set in an alternate history in which China sued for peace with Japan rather than vainly resisting the invasion that led to decades of atrocities in China as the Japanese empire extended its reach through Asia. As a result, the pre-World War II Japanese created a powerful version of the East Asian co-prosperity sphere instead of attacking Pearl Harbor. Though this initially seems to be a marked improvement over what happened in our reality, the Japanese of this alternate timeline remain xenophobic and martial, so their form of colonialism is not any better than the more familiar Western style—it mostly differs in the details. Nonetheless, their emperor of the time publicly claims that he prefers to expand his empire through peaceful means, and starts down that road by creating the eponymous tunnel—kind of a slower steampunk version of Elon Musk’s “hyperloop”, though the story is not explicitly steampunk. This begins around the time of the Great Depression, so the U.S. eagerly joins with Japan in this project to provide employment and jumpstart the economy. As in All Flavors, desperately poor peasants are the source of cheap labor because they can easily be lured from their homes with promises of a better life. Indeed, this story is drawn directly from our history of often horrific working conditions for the Chinese migrant workers who came to North America to work on the great western railroad projects and in the mines. Our protagonist and narrator is “Charley”, a Formosan native who is one of the last living men who labored to create the tunnel, and he has a dark secret: around the time that the Depression began to recede, better employment opportunities become available, and it became hard to find even peasants who were willing to do the brutal work of building the tunnel. But the Japanese have a ready source of slave labor in the prisoners harvested from China’s nascent Communist revolution. Work conditions are even worse for the slaves (though perhaps no worse than Mao’s post-revolution work camps), and I won’t spoil the story by revealing Charley’s secret. Charley, on the cusp of starting a new life with a widowed American woman he’s come to like, reveals his dark secret to her and works with her in a courageous act of rebellion against the code of silence that has grown up around a particularly nasty incident in the project.

In The Litigation Master and the Monkey King, Liu reprises a familiar theme, namely that of the clever peasant who out-clevers his “betters” among the aristocracy. Tian Haoli, the eponymous litigation master, lives in a tumbledown hut at the edge of town, where he serves as a kind of freelance public defender for citizens wronged by the laws of the Qing Dynasty. (In Qing China, as in any other large legal system, even the best and most nobly written laws are often abused by local officials, who work far from supervision and primarily for personal or political gain.) He works for food, or for the pleasure of taking down the high and mighty a few pegs. And Tian either has the Chinese Monkey King (a trickster-ish god, though perhaps more troublemaker than Coyote) living in his head, or imagines that he does; in the end, the difference has little import. Although Tian does a good job dealing with local matters, he’s drawn into a matter of greater import: the assistant of a disgraced scholar comes to ask that he help conceal a book that contains an eyewitness account of a Manchu massacre during the military campaign that led to establishment of the Qing Dynasty. Tian is smart enough to know that the imperial secret police will kill him if there’s any suspicion that he helped, and he is at first reluctant. But the Monkey King reminds him that the book contains a great truth that must someday be told, and Tian helps the scholar escape so the book will someday be returned and the truth revealed. For Tian, this is a heroic decision, since he correctly infers that it will end badly for him. And so it does, yet in that ending, Liu asks us to reconsider the “ordinary” heroism of the Assanges and Snowdens of the world, who also risk their lives to ensure that the truth is heard.

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary is a curious choice with which to end the collection, since it dwells on a particularly nasty incident in the past without the kind of silver-lining optimism we’ve come to expect from Liu: bad shit happens, yet humans survive and move on in an effort to build something better. Here, the story is that of Unit 731, a unit of the World War II Japanese army that performed hideous experiments on Chinese, Korean, and Mongolian prisoners—as many as 250 000 of them—in Pingfang district of the captured city of Harbin. It’s no exaggeration to call the members of this unit Japan’s Mengele corps and to call Pingfang Japan’s Auschwitz. Here, the SFnal hook is the concept of Bohm-Kirino particles, fictional quantum-entangled particles associated with photons in such a way that one of the pair travels along with a photon while its partner remains behind at the site and time where the photon was created. If such particles existed, you could observe the particles that stayed behind and reconstruct the photons they represent so as to look into the past; the unfortunate consequence is that once observed, the particles disappear, thereby “ending” the possibility to visit that particular slice of history. (Though this proposed “science” violates a few inconvenient facts of relativity that prevent such faster-than-light communication, it’s still a fun idea to play with.) In Documentary, that look will be provided by a Chinese researcher who wants to visually prove the ugly reality of Pingfang so that relatives of the survivors can achieve some kind of closure. One of the interesting side notes is the legal argument between Japan and China about which nation owns these relics of the past; only one voice of reason notes that perhaps these relics should be considered the joint property of humanity and held under the aegis of the United Nations. As the story works towards its resolution, Liu deals with the nature of monsters, the nature of history (including a nod to the irony of historians who distrust first-person narratives in favor of documentary evidence that is—you guessed it—built from first-person narratives), and the consequences of memory. It’s clear that we need to excavate the horrors of the past, “lest we forget” the victims, but not everyone wants to remember and here, as there is in real life, there is collateral damage for doing the right thing. The story starts awkwardly as a long almost-lecture on the subject, for which the “documentary” structure alluded to in the title is appropriate but insufficient. Although the text does gradually become more of a story, with characters and changes in their worldview, it never fully escapes the sense of a lecture. In that sense, it’s perhaps the weakest story in the collection, even if it has all the emotional punch and thought-provoking nature of the best histories.

Is there anything to dislike about this collection? Liu is keenly aware of the evils of racism and colonialism, and makes no attempt to (ahem) whitewash them in any way, so some of the stories have a nasty bite to them. Though it’s a good thing when a story can evoke a strong emotional response, it means you might not want to read many of these stories if you’re feeling emotionally vulnerable. These are all tales of survival, whether of one’s self or one’s legacy, and survival often means passing through unpleasant events that leave scars. One thing that’s harder to excuse is that the book’s amateurish typography; the type is tiny and overly widely spaced, and although readable, it detracts significantly from the book’s otherwise high production quality. The lack of different running headings for the stories is annoying, but tolerable. Although I received the EPUB version for review, I bought a personal copy of the hardcover edition. The EPUB is protected by DRM despite growing evidence that this only slightly inconveniences the pirates and causes the most problems for legitimate readers. That being said, it may be a better choice if you’re as typographically snobbish as I am, or have aging eyes.

Most of these tales convey, at least to some extent, the importance and power of words, the stories they let us create, and their consequences. As Liu notes in the Preface: “We spend our entire lives trying to tell stories about ourselves—they’re the essence of memory. It is how we make living in this unfeeling, accidental universe tolerable.” But they also help us survive the horrors that are a too-common part of far too many lives. Liu reminds us of what I’ve often said about my profession (editing): “Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.” And such miracles, Liu reminds us, are what can make even the harshest life worth living.

So what’s my favorite story? That’s like asking which beer in a master brewer’s sampler is best: each one has its own distinctive taste, and is perfectly suited for a different mood and palate. If you’ve tried any of the recent crop of craft beers aged in old whiskey, rum, wine, or other barrels, that’s a good analogy for what to expect: the typical Liu story outwardly seems like nothing fancier than beer based on the shape of its container, but once you have a sip, you discover a far subtler and richer brew that is made for sipping rather than quaffing, and therefore intoxicating in a very different way from traditional beer. (And if you haven’t tried such beer, stop reading and go out and get one. You won’t be sorry.) This also means that many of the stories, such as The Paper Menagerie, aren’t suitable for those times when all you want is a Sam Adams. Nothing against Sam Adams (one of my standard go-to mass-market brands), but it seems somehow very ordinary after spending time with something richer. Liu’s stories are rarely comfort food, and they’re not a good choice when you’re brain-fuzzed and just looking for simple entertainment. The writing is lucid and often elegant, but there’s so much going on beneath the surface that you’ll miss too much if your brain isn’t fully engaged.

It’s hard to imagine Liu steadily improving his skills in coming decades, but if we’re lucky, this will only be the first of many collections.


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