Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu’s The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary

“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” is Ken Liu’s final story in his collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and it could be considered the antithesis of his story “All The Flavors”. It’s not uplifting, but it’s quite powerful.

A husband and wife team of scientists figure out how to travel back in time and use this new concept to go back and “prove” some of the atrocities that the Japanese committed on Chinese prisoners during World War II. It’s still difficult to prove history even if time travel is available. It’s interesting that the husband of this team is Chinese and the wife is Japanese.

Also interesting is that the story is formatted like a documentary. At first, I thought this would become tiresome but ultimately it works – especially in light of how documentaries can have their own biases even when billed as “proof”.

In the story, time travel becomes a controversial topic among the current governments and eventually a moratorium is put on the practice – too much potential for war or so the governments of the world say.

In the end, the wife of the scientist team has a voice over while the camera shows the viewers (readers) a starry sky. In a powerful conclusion, she states:

Look up at the stars, and we are bombarded by light generated on the day the last victim at Pingfang died, the day the last train arrived at Auschwitz, the day the last Cherokee walked out of Georgia.

Every moment, as we walk on this earth, we are watched and judged by the eyes of the universe.

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: The Litigation Master and the Monkey King

You can’t ask for more than that, said the Monkey King. And he bowed before Tian Haoli, not the way you kowtowed to an Emperor, but the way you would bow to a great hero.

In a sense, Ken Liu’s short story “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” is a fun story. Tian Haoli is well-known in his town for his litigation skills and manages to get his clients off the hook when they are accused of wrong-doing by the government. He runs into trouble, though, as he attempts to free a client over a banned book.

In spite of the trouble Tian gets himself into, Liu manages to put humor into the story with Tian’s relationship to a demon of sorts known as the Monkey King. This demon is both irritating and loveable and encourages Tian to do the right thing in the end in spite of what that might cost Tian. The quotation above indicates that Tian earned the respect of the Monkey King and the respect of the Monkey King is better than the respect of the government.

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel

These are the links that bound two continents and three great cities together, and these are the shackles that bound men whose voices were forever silenced, whose names were forgotten. There is beauty and wonder here, and also horror and death.

In Ken Liu’s short story “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel”, a tunnel has been built underneath the floor of the Pacific Ocean. People and cargo shoot through this tunnel in order to get from California to Japan (and back) just like the tubular things that shoot under the ground at bank drive-thru’s.

Narrated by one of the workers who built the tunnel, the story is looking back at history and reworks the history we know. The tunnel is built to provide jobs during the Great Depression and it works. Japan and China’s role in the world is now different as is Germany’s. Is this world better than the one we know? It’s hard to say. There are bad things that didn’t happen, but other bad things took their place.

The story is as well-written as any of the stories in this collection as well as thought-provoking. History buffs may enjoy it especially.

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: All The Flavors

‘It’s all about the balance of flavors. The Chinese know that you cannot avoid having things be sweet, sour, bitter, hot, salty, mala, and whiskey-smooth all at the same time – well, actually the Chinese don’t know about whiskey, but you understand my point.’

At just under 100 pages, Ken Liu’s “All The Flavors” could be considered more of a novella than a short story but the length doesn’t matter because it’s such an enjoyable story – and depending on whether you are a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of reader, it could be a very uplifting story – one that as a country or even a world, we need to read, now.

A young girl, Lily, and her Irish immigrant parents move to Idaho City shortly after the American Civil War. There, she befriends some Chinese immigrants of which Logan (his Americanized name), an older man, has quite an influence on her and her parents. Logan’s initial contribution to Lily’s world is the stories he tells about the Chinese God of War and the food he grows and prepares but it ends up being so much more.

Liu doesn’t paint this world as perfect. Racism exists and prejudice against people who are different permeates Lily’s society. Lily’s father jumps right in to the Chinese’ world and customs while Lily’s mother is afraid, skeptical and sometimes just plain rude. But one of the more uplifting aspects is the way Lily’s mother eventually – slowly- comes around to acceptance of the Chinese. If the story has to be as long as it is to realistically depict this change, then I would tell Liu to take all the pages he wants. It’s one of the happier plot points I’ve read recently.

I’ve only read a few stories in which food plays such a central part but Liu’s description of Logan’s recipes and preparation and enjoyment of eating is nothing short of mouthwatering.

Then we come to the end. The whole town celebrates Chinese New Year after which Logan is required to stand trial for a crime that he didn’t commit. The story ends before we hear the verdict. What might the verdict be? That’s where the pessimism or optimism of the reader comes in to play. It really could go either way.

While not showing a world through rose-colored glasses, Lui has Logan land on the side of optimism, on the side of hope. Before knowing the verdict, he describes his knew home to Lily:

‘This is where I have finally found all the flavors of the world, all the sweetness and bitterness, all the whiskey and sorghum mead, all the excitement and agitation of a wilderness of untamed, beautiful men and women, all the peace and solitude of a barely settled land – in a word, the exhilarating lift to the spirit that is the taste of America.’

Engaging with something or someone new and different doesn’t have to be scary. This is just a plain old good story. Maybe its because of all the food, but it has a Thanksgiving feel. Since it’s Thanksgiving here in the US, I’ll say “Happy Thanksgiving” to you wherever you might be!

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: Mono No Aware

And we walk together down the street, so that we can remember every passing blade of grass, every dewdrop, every fading ray of the dying sun, infinitely beautiful.

Ken Liu’s story “Mono No Aware” finds a beauty in life’s transcience, in life’s shortness, in it’s finite aspects. Liu seems to find as much beauty in these concepts as he does in eternity and immortality in the story “The Waves” that I posted about yesterday.

In fact, one could ask the question, which does Liu consider more beautiful? I don’t think a concrete answer would be forthcoming. That could be why he wrote two very similar stories that grapple with concepts that at least seem to be different.

There’s more family love here, too. This time, instead of the ever present, never ending kind of love in “The Waves”, it’s the kind of love that is willing to end or willing to be sacrificed for another.

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: The Waves

There was no more line between the ghost and the machine.

Bits of sea foam floated up and rode the wind to parts unknown.

Ken Liu’s story “The Waves” uses a trip through space to illustrate the concepts of beginnings and endings and immortality and eternity. Maybe concepts that are inherent in every story we tell whether they are hidden or, as in this story, obvious.

The characters make decisions regarding when to begin and when to end. They tell stories about origins from many different cultures and times. In spite of changes over what could be eons, a mother’s love for her husband and children doesn’t end.

Many of Liu’s stories in this collection deal with familial love or in some cases the lack thereof. The love in this story is quite powerful.

The next story in this collection, “Mono No Aware”, is similar in content, could be considered the opposite in ideas, but family love? Yes, it’s still there. Look for a post about this one, tomorrow.

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition

While the title story of Ken Liu’s collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is still my favorite of the ones I’ve read so far, “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” could be a close second and depending what mood I’m in, the two might be tied.

As formal as the title of this story sounds, I don’t think I’ve read a science fiction story that is this wrought with emotion. A sense of loss and a sense of love permeate this story as a mother pursues a dream. Lui brilliantly lets the reader sympathize with the entire family:

Before their merger, they each yearned for the other; as they part, they part from the self. The very quality that attracted them to each other is also, inevitably, destroyed in their union.

Whether this is a blessing or a curse is much debated.

There are many ways to say I love you in this cold, dark, silent universe, as many as the twinkling stars.

The possibility of tears exist here.

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: The Regular

I found Ken Lui’s “The Regular” interesting in that I had to keep going back to the title page of the story to make sure I was reading the title correctly. In the story, there is a machine called a Regulator that law enforcement use to keep their emotions at bay. It’s a sort of anti-depressant machine. There is also a mention of the term “regular” in referring to the customers of prostitutes. And finally, this statement:

It has always been the regular state of things. There is no clarity, no relief. At the end of all rationality, there is simply the need to decide and the faith to live through, to endure.

As rough as this story might sound, and it is a rough one, it’s also the most entertaining one that I’ve read from this collection so far. It’s a futuristic Law and Order or CSI. And when I say futuristic it doesn’t seem that far into the future. The technology involved only seems a decade or so away – if that long.

A bionic (for lack of a better term) investigator takes on the case of a murdered prostitute who has her own “super” technology in the form of a camera. In spite of all the societal changes, government officials and international dignitaries still don’t want it public knowledge that they utilize the services of prostitutes.

Looking for a great suspenseful crime drama? Check out this story.

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: Simulacrum

It’s not uncommon for science fiction stories to present the potential evils of technology – especially as it might occur for society and culture as a whole. Ken Liu’s story “Simulacrum” does just that but it also has a more intimate and familial impact. It’s one of the scarier stories I’ve read.

A father’s relationship with his daughter is damaged when he invents a simulacrum – a kind of hologram camera device combined with Artificial Intelligence. It can be used for all kinds of things, like pornography and an attempt to keep one’s daughter the way she was as a little girl after she grows up and realizes the sins of her father and his invention:

But my mother did not look into my father’s eyes the way I did when I walked in on him. It was more than a fantasy. It was a continuing betrayal that could not be forgiven.

Posted in Short Stories

Ken Liu: The Literomancer

Ken Liu’s short story “The Literomancer” gets the award for best use of a live water buffalo. Lilly Dyer, a young American girl living outside a military base in Taiwan in 1961 is having a rough time adjusting to her new home. She jumps on a water buffalo and rides it into a nearby village and befriends not only the water buffalo but a boy her age and his grandfather.

Liu presents this part of the story with such charm and innocence. The relationship between Lilly and her new friends involves learning Chinese, eating new food and talking about American baseball. And Lilly continues to ride the water buffalo.

Not surprising, the super powers-that-be in the world destroy (and that’s the right word) this innocence and Lui masterfully moves from chldhood fun to horrific tragedy. In a biting bit of irony, Lilly’s father explains why the water buffalo has to find a new home:

“He won’t be happy. He won’t have a river to bathe in and rice paddies to wallow in. He won’t be free.”

On a side note, the title story of this collection gets the award for best use of an origami water buffalo.