I first came across the sci-fi author Ken Liu via his translation of the first book of the Chinese epic series Remembrance of Earth’s Past, i.e., The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. I thought he did a great job, taking on a story written for another culture and writing an English version for a western audience with added context for unfamiliar ideas, idioms and even linguistic constructs. Of course, Liu is a prolific author in his own right, and writes both fantasy and sci-fi stories to boot. I picked up one of his collections a while back, and finally got around to reading a short story collection, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories.
Sci-fi short story collections are, for me anyway, a palate cleanser between other, usually more dense genres of literature. The format is a ton of fun because the stories are pretty quick to consume, but science fiction in particular has this added advantage of leaning into rules defined by science to help both construct the world of the story1, and to let the reader ponder their ramifications beyond its last paragraphs based on those rules. It’s the literary equivalent of a 3-minute “Imagine a world, where…” trailer.
With The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, the collection of stories here are indeed thought-provoking and present many “what if?” scenarios. Most of the stories are centered around the near future, featuring a number of explorations of artificial intelligence, but I appreciated that there were also a couple of stories that take place in the past, the type where the meaning behind historical events is radically changed by retrofitting a bit of advanced technology. As the author is Asian American, I also liked that he incorporated cultures, languages, and even religious themes from eastern cultures, as most other sci-fi is distinctively western and don’t go nearly as deep when exploring eastern themes2.
On the technical front, the stories themselves are generally very well-written and a joy to read. There were bits and pieces of computer science—Liu was a programmer as well—as little bonuses sown through some of his work. The topics generally aren’t as timeless and grandiose as, say, what Ted Chiang usually writes about in his short stories, but specifics like current companies and emojis also make the stories feel contemporary and of these times.
On the flip side, I found that a lot of the stories in this collection were real downers. I like to generally be optimistic on technology and science because I feel like it’s hard work today for better tomorrows, and extrapolating that to fictional worlds implies more utopia than dystopia—ideally, more Star Trek than Blade Runner. I’m not entirely sure whether this is just Liu’s style or that this specific set of stories happens to be especially tragic, but many of his stories here end either messily or depressingly or both. The tone set is one where technology will ultimately be used as a tool of oppression; I guess the meta-question may be whether to build any of it at all if it’s going to make the world a worse place.
E.g., Liu uses the meanings and shapes of specific Chinese characters, and their evolution over time, as a thematic device.↩