Ken Liu is one of my top five favorite short story writers working today. And he is really the only one of the bunch being prolific.
I believe he has published over 80 stories in most reputable speculative fiction magazines over the past 10 years. He attained the remarkable feat of gaining popularity in the supersaturated medium of speculative fiction magazines. The reason he was able to rise above the rest, I believe, was his storytelling ability, which often combines traditional Chinese storytelling tropes with razor-edged scientific knowledge. Along with Ted Chiang, I think it is safe to assume that Liu’s intelligence is much higher than the average purveyor of science fiction these days. Borderline, if not certified, genius.
The Paper Managerie and Other Stories, Ken Liu’s rock-solid debut collection, was a masterpiece. The finest collection of short stories to come out of the speculative genre in recent decades. It can hold its own against The Martian Chronicles, Endangered Species, and other must-reads in my opinion. It is not likely to be equaled or surpassed anytime soon. It is very likely to be reread, by me, and very soon. It is an emotionally charged, politically relevant, and breathtaking summation of his career thus far. His silk-punk novel series is still unknown to me. I know I will have to set aside a significant amount of time to read it. I have dabbled in the first volume, but I know I will come back to it when I’m ready. I cannot help but think that that project will be overshadowed by Liu’s short story collections to come. It may be wishful thinking, but he was born to write short stories imho. Maybe he will be regarded as another Bradbury one day.
This second collection, despite the glowing accolades it has already garnered, is not as perfect as his previous effort. It could still be called a masterpiece, perhaps, but I had several gripes with it. Several stories were a slight chore to get through, it pains me to say. Luckily, the collection is well-rounded and the best stories toward the end of the collection, leaving me with a satiated aftertaste.
Taken together the stories become less than the sum of their parts in one distinct way, by virtue of repetition – first of the distracting inclusions of dozens of emojis and the reused character tropes exploring father-daughter and daughter-mother relationships. The family ties in all of Ken Liu’s short fiction are critical to the functioning of plot. Here, they are bittersweet and forced. The patterns grated on me, almost as if he recast the same characters in the same roles with slightly differing world building constraints.
Taken separately the stories are all pretty strong and engaging. Many themes stand out in this volume including: post human scenarios, virtual reality, AI, mega corporate corruption, environmental activism, post apocalyptic landscapes, uninhabitable earths, atemporal existence, multi dimensional family dynamics, ethics, the troubles of old age, infirmity, and fear of death, war and slavery, extra-terrestrial archaeology, and much more. That sentence right there should give you enough reason to read the collection.
“The Hidden Girl” was a nice, representative story, an impressive piece of storytelling, combining his trademark Chinese cultural references with his trademark brilliant s-f ideas.
Ken Liu remains an incredible writer. His talent is undeniable. He should also be commended for bringing us several volumes of Chinese science fiction in translation. It is hard to know which contribution is more valuable. We are sitting on a veritable treasure trove of untranslated literature, and heroes like Ken Liu are brave enough, and generous enough, to set aside their fame and risk exposing new talent to the masses. I appreciate what you do, Sir.