Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

This is my first work of fiction by Ken Liu, so I had no idea what to expect going in. THE HIDDEN GIRL is a collection of short stories, most of which are science-fiction, that dwell on themes of artificial intelligence, the transmittance of culture over time (memes), global warming and climate change, and at its most fundamental level, what it means to be human.

Reading these stories made me think of the TV show Love, Death + Robots. Not only does it share many of the same themes, it also shares the ability to really bum you the heck out. Even though I'm a fast reader, I couldn't really make it through more than three or four of these stories in a sitting, as they were almost all depressing and many of them had truly tragic or even wretched endings. Do not read this book if you are easily upset and are looking for something uplifting, as I left THE HIDDEN GIRL feeling pretty bummed and in need of a hug.

Depressing content aside, most of these stories are excellent. I'm definitely interested in reading more of Liu's work, and liked the focus that he put on having strong and intelligent women in these stories, many of them being of Asian (and more specifically, Chinese) descent. It's hard to rate a short story collection as a whole, which is why I tend to break them down story by story, but this is a pretty solid effort, and I was, on the whole, impressed with what I read, bar a few exceptions that were mediocre/confusing at worst.

Mild spoilers ahead!

Ghost Days: ☆☆☆½

This is a poignant story about an alien colonist who ends up taking solace in the multi-generational saga of a Chinese family's dealings with xenophobic white people as well as their struggle with dual cultural identities. The title is a play on the Chinese term (often offensive, so I won't write here) for white foreigners, which also refers, additionally, to spirits. Both meanings play a role in this story.

Maxwell's Demon: ☆☆☆☆

This is a story set during WWII about a woman of Okinawan descent who is taken from an internment camp and forced to renounce her citizenship so she can be deported back to Japan as a spy for the Americans. Working in a physics lab, she ends up being the assistant and lover to a scientist developing a weapon that runs on a type of magic, forcing Takako to make a choice about what it easy versus what is right, and which country she should choose to be loyal to when both are wrong.

The Reborn: ☆☆☆☆

This is a chilling story that occurs in the aftermath of first contact. After a brutal colonization, the invading aliens feel remorse and have turned the other cheek to instill compassion and peace in the very society they destroyed. But their compassion has a dark edge, and the body modifications required of the humans they interact with have a sinister purpose.

Thoughts and Prayers: ☆☆☆☆

This is a multi-POV story exploring how a mass shooting affects the members of the victim's family, including the POV of a troll who is determined to see that the family suffers.

Byzantine Empathy: ☆☆½

Confusing story about cryptocurrency, virtual reality, and the dispassion with which we view global conflict when looking through the removed and sanitized lens of social media.

The Gods Will Not Be Chained: ☆☆☆☆☆

This is honestly my favorite story in the collection. It's heartbreaking, but ends on a note of hope. A girl being bullied ends up gaining the mysterious protection of someone who only speaks in emoji, but, through further attempts at contact, starts to seem kind of familiar...

Staying Behind: ☆☆☆☆

This is a haunting story about what happens when we get the ability to upload consciousness without a physical body to anchor it. What kind of temptation would a digital existence pose to a venal one, and what would this mean for those who choose to remain behind? This one reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode, or maybe a kinder retelling of The Matrix.

Real Artists: ☆☆☆☆☆

Another stand-out story in the collection, Real Artists is a rather disillusioning look behind the curtain at the sterile future of creativity, in this case, via the medium of film. I liked it.

The Gods Will Not Be Slain: ☆☆☆☆½

I loved the opening to this one, and had it continued in that vein, this probably would have been a solid five-- but no, it had to be depressing. This is a sequel to The Gods Will Not Be Chained, and explores the dangers of AI and the painful sacrifices we must make to do good.

Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer: ☆☆

Meh. Another story about AI and the evanescent nature of all things. This one wasn't really a favorite, I think because it was too similar in topic to several stronger stories that came right before it.

The Gods Have Not Died in Vain: ☆☆☆☆

The conclusion to the three-part miniseries revolving around AI. I really loved this little miniseries, even though it broke my heart. AI is like the Promethean fire, with advancement meaning tragedy for both the creator and the receivers. It definitely feels like a cautionary tale, like Icarus flying too high.

Memories of My Mother: ☆☆½

A sad story about a woman dying of terminal disease who decides to cheat time by going into stasis and visiting her daughter once every seven years to cheat her 2 year prognosis. Interesting concept and heart-tugging idea, but the story was too short to pack much of an emotional wallop.

Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit-- Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts: ☆☆☆☆

Really more of a three and a half, but I rounded up for the beautiful writing and interesting premise. In this story, earth has flooded in the wake of massive climate change, and humans have moved on to colonize other planets. Here, two are deep-sea diving in the remains of Massachusetts, looking at coral and pondering the end.

Grey Rabbit, Crimson Mare, Coal Leopard:

Really confusing. I didn't understand what was happening in this one at all.

A Chase Beyond the Storms: NO RATING

This is an excerpt from the upcoming third book in one of the author's series. I don't really like this, as it kind of feels like an advertisement masquerading as content.Ads belong in the back.

The Hidden Girl: ☆☆☆½

The titular story. I always have high hopes for the titular story; I feel like if you're going to name your collection after a story, it should be your strongest work or the most representative of the themes. Neither is the case for The Hidden Girl, which is more fantasy than science-fiction and also very strange. It's about a girl who becomes apprentice to a Buddhist nun with powers, but ends up leaving her order after being asked to kill a man, despite this meaning cutting all ties to the people she considers family.

Seven Birthdays: ☆☆½

Another really strange story. I didn't get this one either, even though it was nicely written.

The Message: ☆☆☆½

This is a very sad story about an ancient civilization hiding a secret, the meaning of lost symbols, and a father and daughter who have bonded too late. Easily one of the most depressing stories in the collection, and what makes this even more infuriating is that it feels like it was handled carelessly.

Cutting: ☆☆☆

A poem, and don't worry-- cutting, here, refers to cuttings of paper and not the more upsetting kind. I know, I had the same concern, given the content in this book. After a series of major downers, it was nice to end on a somewhat lighter note.

So there you have it, THE HIDDEN GIRL with all its ups and downs (mostly downs). It's a great work of science-fiction and I do recommend it for fans of Love, Death + Robots, but don't read it when you're having a bad day, as it will likely make you feel worse.

And now, to read something happy! :)

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!       

3.5 out of 5 stars

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