Ken Liu

Hugo Novellas, Part 2

When I registered for Worldcon, my goal was to read/watch/listen to ALL THE THINGS on the Hugo Ballot, and to review them as well. It was a good goal. A noble goal. A goal which, with less than a month until the July 31 voting deadline, simply ain’t gonna happen.

That said, I did get some reading done over the past few weeks, starting with the rest of the nominated novellas. (I reviewed the first three here.) Remember that both attending and supporting memberships give you voting rights and access to the Hugo Voter Packet.

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The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary, by Ken Liu, really stuck with me. Doctor Evan Wei, a Chinese-American historian, develops a form of time-travel technology that allows an individual to observe the past, but not to change or interfere. The catch is that any given moment of history can be seen only once, after which the Bohm-Kirino particles that allow you to reconstruct that moment are gone forever.

The story focuses on Unit 731, a Japanese biological and chemical research facility during World War II, in which thousands of people as many as 200,000 people, primarily Chinese and Korean prisoners, were killed in various experiments.[1. Ken emailed me to clarify that the number of prisoners killed in Unit 731 is unclear, but estimates are in the thousands. The 200,000 number is the lower estimate of people killed by biological weapons developed in Unit 731. My apologies for my mistake.] Dr. Wei’s goal – and Liu’s as well – is to bring to light the atrocities that were committed, atrocities which have been suppressed and ignored.

Liu documents his sources, citing various texts, testimonies, articles, hearings, and other accounts to support his story. And while the story of Wei’s efforts and the political and personal backlash is a good one, in the end I think it’s overpowered by the history lesson.

The science was, I felt, the weakest part of the story. Liu provided just enough detail about time travel to make me question it, and to erode my suspension of disbelief. But from a thematic perspective, particularly when it comes to the danger of erasing history, I thought it worked well. “We cannot avert our eyes or plug up our ears. We must bear witness and speak for those who cannot speak. We have only one chance to get it right.”

The Man Who Bridged the Mist, by Kij Johnson, tells the story of Kit Meinem, an engineer and architect charged with building a bridge to connect the towns of Nearside and Farside. The river of mist that separates the towns is thick and dense enough to support boats, but it’s also home to dangerous fish-like creatures, some of which are enormous enough to destroy the ferries and their passengers.

The mist is fascinating, but it’s never fully explored or explained, and that works. The story isn’t about big flashy battles or the magic of the fantastic; it’s about the magic of Meinem’s bridge, the long process of construction and the ways in which that bridge will change the world. It’s a story that shows the triumphs and the costs of progress. Some of the costs are obvious, like the deaths among Meinem’s crew.

Others are subtler. Rasali Ferry is skilled at crossing the mist. She knows the dangers, but the mist is where she feels at home and at peace. Meinem’s bridge will put an end to her way of life, a fact she struggles to accept throughout the course of the story.

I liked this one as much for what it wasn’t as for what it was. Instead of big magic and effects, Johnson gives us Meinem’s love of engineering, his passion for his work, and the lovingly detailed process of building the bridge and changing the world. (And as a writer, I can’t help thinking about the bridge as a metaphor for stories.)

The Ice Owl, by Carolyn Ives Gilman, is the most traditional story of the three. The city of Glory to God is described as a city of rust, a city of religious rule and corruption. In the opening pages, the Incorruptibles – the “army of righteousness” – enter the Waster enclave where Thorn lives and burn down a school. Thorn sets out and finds a tutor, a historian called Magister Pregaldin who turns out to be far more than just a teacher.

I liked a lot of the worldbuilding and ideas in this one. Lightbeam travel means Thorn is 145 years old, at least by sequential time, due to time spent in transit. The titular ice owl is fascinating and symbolic and tragic, the last of its kind, hibernating in Pregaldin’s freezer.

Underlying the events of the story is the Holocide, a SFnal parallel to the Holocaust. Pregaldin deals in looted and lost artwork from that time. Thorn’s mother is seeing a man named Hunter, who pursues war criminals from the Holocide. As Thorn begins to suspect her tutor of being connected to the Holocide, she sets out to learn what role he played both then and now.

For some reason, this story didn’t quite come together for me as well as the others. I liked Thorn’s character: she’s smart, impulsive, and determined. I liked her investigation into Pregaldin’s past. I liked her family conflicts, her frustration with being the responsible one for her mother. But while there were a lot of great pieces, there were times they still felt like pieces instead of all fitting into the larger story. I’ve seen some very positive reviews of this one, so it might be a matter of taste, or maybe I just didn’t read it carefully enough.

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So there you have it, the rest of the novellas. For those of you who’ve read them, what did you think?

Hugo Short Stories

First off, happy book day to my friend Lisa Shearin, whose book All Spell Breaks Loose [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] is out today. And last week marked the release of Mira Grant’s Blackout [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy].

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This year will be my first Worldcon, and the first time I’ve voted in the Hugos. I’ve been diligently downloading and devouring the Hugo Voters Packet, starting with the short stories, because … well, they’re short!

Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue, by John Scalzi. I wonder how I’d feel if a story I wrote for an April Fool’s Day joke made the Hugo ballot. On one hand, it’s delightfully random and unexpected. At the same time, I think I’d have this nagging sense of, “Wait, what about all the stuff I wrote that wasn’t a joke?”

As a joke, this was marvelous. Tor and Scalzi went all out, including cover art, and the story was an amusing read. It’s nice to see humor on the ballot. And there’s an actual story here amidst the jokes and the over-the-top fantasy tropes. I can honestly say that when I finished reading, I wanted to know what happened next.

You could tell Scalzi was having a good old time with this one. That said, some of the humor felt a little forced. While it’s a fun read and you should check it out, I don’t see this one taking home a rocketship.

Movement by Nancy Fulda. This is a first-person SF story set in the near future about a girl named Hannah with temporal autism. Hannah’s parents are trying to decide whether to pursue a new technology which could help her integrate into society, but becoming more “normal” isn’t always a good thing. This made me think of Elizabeth Moon’s award-winning novel The Speed of Dark, which I reviewed here. Like Moon, Fulda does a very good job of capturing her protagonist’s voice, showing us the world through Hannah’s eyes. As the father of an autistic child, it’s hard for me to be entirely objective about this story, but I really appreciated it, and I thought the ending worked well.

Also, even though Hannah doesn’t think it’s terribly effective, I totally want to invest in shoulder-mounted mosquito-killing laser technology!

The Homecoming by Mike Resnick. Resnick is one of the most prolific writers in our field, and “The Homecoming” has a lot going for it. It’s an emotional story of an estranged son (Philip) coming home to visit the father who wants nothing to do with him. His mother has Alzheimer’s, and has only a few lucid minutes each day. Philip left Earth years ago, after radically redesigning his body into an alien form, in order to explore another world. His father took it as a rejection of family and humanity.

To me, it felt like a metaphor for a father unable to accept his son’s sexuality. I could be reading into it, but this is how the story resonated for me — the father mourning his lost grandchildren, hating the life his son has chosen, while the mother takes on the role of peacemaker, bringing them together despite her infirmity.

While the SFnal elements were wonderful, the ending felt too quick and easy, and didn’t really work for me. It didn’t feel true.

The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu. This is, in my mind, a good example of that sense of truth I’m talking about. Jack’s mother was a mail-order bride from China. When he’s young, she makes origami animals and infuses them with life: a paper tiger purrs and prances, the tinfoil shark swims, and so on. It’s amazing and beautiful. But as Jack grows older, he rejects his Chinese heritage, wanting to fit in with his “American” peers. In doing so, he rejects his mother as well. Only after she’s gone does he learn the rest of her story.

There is no neat ending here, but there is … understanding. Movement. Regret and loss, but with a thread of connection through the story’s magical element.

One of the things I admire about this one is that it’s not overstated. Jack has little understanding or compassion for a mother who sold herself in a catalog, but there’s a line later on where he’s prepping resumes and says, “I schemed about how to lie to the corporate recruiters most effectively so that they’d offer to buy me.” It’s just one line, and Jack doesn’t see the connection, but the reader does. One line is all it takes.

This story has already won the Nebula award, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it take the Hugo as well. Yeah, it’s really good.

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu. Let me put it this way: this is a story that made wasp nests beautiful and magical in a mere two paragraphs. It’s a story of clashing civilizations, in which the wasps colonize the less powerful bees, a situation with many real-world parallels. The wasps take tribute from the bees, but offer them “the honor of watching us elevate [you] to moral and technological heights you could never imagine.”

This kind of story could become preachy, but it never does. It is what it is, unapologetic and disturbing. Yu takes advantage of the shorter insect lifespan to show the evolution of a new line of bees: anarchists who set out to create a new future.

Like Liu’s story, the ending isn’t neat or happy, but it feels right. There’s a sense of movement that feels circular even as it moves forward. There’s a lot going on in this one, and I may have to reread it to catch things I missed my first time through.

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Discussion is welcome, and since the stories are all online, you don’t even have to be registered for Worldcon to read them.

Jim C. Hines