Thanks to an e-book ARC from NetGalley, we’re reading The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu a little earlier than expected this year. In the preface to this latest collection of short stories, Liu frames short fiction as an entrance to a world where readers for just a little bit. Beautiful metaphor as that makes, Liu’s worlds often look frightening like the one we live in now, filled with rising global temperatures, emojis, and complicated relationships between science and people. Sometimes interconnected, sometimes not, each story builds a world where the imagination squirms, pinpointed by the omnipresent, what if, leading down enchanting new trails.
Part of the beauty of science fiction is the extrapolation of, well, science, which includes social science as well the Hard Stuff – physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering. In particular, politics and science fiction have mingled since the beginning of what we now recognize the genre, namely Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, from which the sub-genre, dystopian derives. The politics of technology come to the brutal forefront of “Byzantine Empathy” where a virtual reality website starts bidding war between philanthropic lobbyists and earnest activists over the plight of refugees from ethnic cleansing. That’s but one of the bleak futures of many of these stories.
Frequently, religions and philosophies grapple with the concept of life as a computer program after the singularity. Many of these stories feature “the gods” of this cloud society, fighting petty duels that result in either command the entire world economy or security for the sanctity of human choice, whether to ascend to the aether or not. Once humans stop living in human bodies, they leave behind scavengers, bent on fighting the old battles between generations. Generational conflict echoes across migration patterns all over these worlds, from one family’s generational journey from China to the US in “Ghost Days” to a little girl’s birthday celebration as she ages into a mother and grandmother and enters the Singularity in “Seven Birthdays.” Liu time and time again proves to be a fan of the right word, rather a gang of flashy words. This bleak style just enough of an opening to grasp characters jaded from worlds that really really suck. Liu’s simple, elegant prose frames the entire collection, presenting a scientific conflict that amplifies the real emotional struggle behind the minds that create it.
However, to counter the science-heavy side of this collection, a few outright fantasy stories stand out, often as the brightest spots. “Maxwell’s Demon” about a Japanese-American spy in 1945, hated by both countries, and that can speak to ghosts, giving us the rare World War II story that examines American prejudice as well as Axis. Other fantasies collected here tend to take on mythic properties, while still employing downright rad character arcs. My favorite story of the collection, “The Hidden Girl,” stretches all the way back to Tang dynasty China where a young girl gets kidnapped, trained as an assassin, and finally rebels against her kidnappers. Finally, fans of Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty book series will be treated to look at the upcoming third novel, The Veiled Throne. “A Chase Beyond the Storms” presents not only the titular chase scene between otherworldly aircraft but insights into the dueling Dara and Agon empires as they attempt to forge onward in a world of gods and monsters.
Certainly not the lightest upcoming book, Liu’s short stories continue instead to resonate like stones dropped into the well of thought. This latest collection presents a master perfecting his craft. Overall, an exciting rumination on what not only, but the past, might hold.
The Hidden Girls and Other Stories is available for pre-order from Amazon!
Four stars out of five
Favorite quote: “I had once thought the Singularity would solve all our problems. Turns out it’s just a simple hack for a complicated problem. We do not share the same histories; we do not all want the same things.”