If you were to try and name a master of modern short fiction in science fiction and fantasy, Ken Liu would have to be among those contending for the title. Winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, in addition to a plethora of translation work of Chinese science fiction and fantasy, a previous short fiction collection, as well as multiple novels and other work across different media, Liu is prolific writer, and an insightful and incisive one.
Having already published The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Liu is back with The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, a short fiction collection featuring a never before seen novelette, an excerpt from his next novel The Veiled Throne, as well as a whole host of recent stories. And while The Paper Menagerie focused more on family, history, love, and the fantastical, The Hidden Girl is more laser-focused on issues of science fiction—the future, climate change, artificial intelligence, and more.
That’s not to say The Hidden Girl eschews topics of family, and history, and legacy; many of the stories find their beating heart in the points of views of family members scattered across time, or fighting a future that they cannot keep up with, or trying to survive conditions that are not meant for humanity. But where many of the stories in The Paper Menagerie found characters butting up against each other, to success or failure, many of these stories usually have protagonists that are railing against a system, authority or authority figure, struggling to find worth, or struggling against changes to a world they thought they knew.
While these characters are still human, many of the stories in this collection push and prod and question that humanity in conjunction with the larger world around them, and less against others. A huge way this is explored is across multiple, inter-linking stories that are presented out of order on a grand, cosmic timeline: what starts as literal ghosts in the machine, humans whose uploaded minds make up quasi-artificial intelligences, eventually turns into an earth centuries after where nearly everyone is born uploaded, and digital consciousness is a way of life in a terraformed earth. Bouncing up and down this timeline across many stories in the collection, Liu explores with painstaking clarity, the reality of giving up one’s body, leaving a world behind, the mystery and thrill of a digital frontier and mindscape, and the heartache of leaving your known world behind.
Stand outs from this collection include “The Reborn,” (the very first Ken Liu story I think I ever read way back in the day!), about an earth conquered by alien invaders, whose continuous brain growth means they shed memories as they become useless; in their minds, they do not remember being those conquerers, so they are not them. Our protagonist, Josh, is a detective who has been “reborn,” by the Tawnin, so that he cannot remember what he did to become so. Even married to one of the Tawnin, Josh is told he is a new person over and over, but some memories just won’t go away. Even years later, re-reading this story gave me chills from beginning to end. A brutal combination of plot, character, and world building, all leading to a mystery unsettling in its nature, but worse when it makes the reader ask if it’s worth forgetting the horrible things you did, or if remembering is the punishment for the crime.
“Thoughts and Prayers,” is a stark and horrifying look at the weaponization of grief, the crushing tide of trolling, and how something good can be twisted by those with terrible intentions in our technological age. “Byzantine Empathy,” takes a heady concept, and brings it down to the human level, as two charity workers try to find the best way to use AI to help people, regardless of corporate interests. “Staying Behind,” is a haunting look at a world slowly being left by humanity, as more and more people upload, leaving behind an emptying world with people in it still committed to their lives, even as the world dies around them. “Dispatches From The Cradle,” finds us in a waterlogged future, as an accomplished scientist takes her sailing vessel and wanders the drowned world, taking in the plight of refugees, a sunken Boston, and records all we’ve lost. And the titular, “The Hidden Girl,” about an assassin who can slink through dimensions must decide if she’ll follow her heart, or her teacher, when her morality finally catches up to her.
This collection has something for everyone: science fiction, some fantasy, flashes of historical fiction, interlinking stories, a novel excerpt, and more. Liu truly is a writer with no limits, whose ability to craft a story that folds interesting characters with high-minded concepts with effortless worldbuilding, while commenting on the modern world around us at the same time is nothing short of magical. Like I said, there’s a reason he’d be on a list of authors that are masters of the form. Whether it’s one thousand words or ten thousand words, Ken Liu is a master at crafting short stories that pack a punch, and linger in your mind long after they’re over. In The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, he has collected some of his sharpest work once more, giving us over four hundred pages of effortlessly beautiful, haunting fiction, that will have you coming back for more. If you’re looking for an introduction to his work, or just need more Ken Liu in your life, then go get this collection as soon as possible.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.