This particular story, as well as “Altogether Everywhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer,” are sort of structural analogs to a stark, short sketch called “Memories of My Mother,” in which a mother cheats death and time by electing to see her child only in slices, like a two-dimensional person might experience a three-dimenional person, once every seven years through a time-dilatory trick that swells the heart and ultimately reverses their roles.
Absent and illusory though Liu’s parents often are, their love remains fiercely real. (When the mother and daughter in “Seven Birthdays” are reunited after aeons, at the center of the galaxy, “the world brightens with the light of a million billion suns.”) That kind of tension between being together and being apart, between reality and non-reality, between corporality and etheriality, suffuses many of the stories. In “The Hidden Girl,” the narrator relishes the physicality of this mortal coil: “I like to stay in this world, to remain surrounded by the night breeze and the distant hoots of the owl.”
These stretchy dichotomies are particularly apparent when it comes to Singularity Stuff. What if humans uploaded into the Matrix become gods who long to fall back to earth? From “The Gods Have Not Died in Vain”: “It turned out that deep down, all the gods had similar vulnerabilities, a kind of regret or nostalgia for life in the flesh that seemed reflected at every level of organization. It was a blind spot, a vulnerability, that could be exploited in the war against the gods.”
Or is what we think of as our existence really something set in motion by some kind of superintelligence? Is a living planet just a “computing machine powered by a sun”? From “Seven Birthdays”: “Even if we’ve always suspected that we also live in a grand simulation, we prefer the truth to be otherwise.”
Woah man, that’s deep. Yes, let the marble that is your (non-uploaded) brain roll around in that cosmic Klein bottle as you make your way through the book. Some of the stories, though, are less delicious to inhabit. Liu, who is also a Harvard-trained lawyer, says in his intro that “a good story cannot function like a legal brief, which attempts to persuade and lead the reader down a narrow path suspended above the abyss of unreason.” He’s right, and in a few places, like “Byzantine Empathy,” his characters start speechifying to each other and those tales are less delightful, less emotional (in a story about empathy, no less). In those (rare) moments, he loses the audience. But even in that story, he’s navigating the space between what’s real and what’s not, tumbling and faceting that notion just as he does elsewhere, examining the people and aliens in this hot-fleshed chaotic world and how they might interact with spirits and memory, say, or even how they might express their love for the cool post-singularity mathematical souls that live inside the machine.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
Again with the parenting themes in the titular story! And Liu’s first collection is just as varied and full of thought experiments as The Hidden Girl, from an ice cube soul (“State Change”) to the moment one soul engenders another in a kind of spiraling creation myth (“The Waves”) to an explication of horrific, real war crimes (“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary.”).
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
This 2004 novel makes some of the same back-and-forth-through-time moves that Liu explores, with the requisite voice shifts, and the V-structure reminds me of “Ghost Days.”
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
Ken Liu famously translated (and reorganized) this wild and brilliant epic that starts during the Cultural Revolution and leaps to another solar system. Barack Obama liked, it; Zuckerberg liked it; you will almost certainly like it too.
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