Sunday, February 26, 2012

Nebula Nominated Short Fiction by Ken Liu

This year's Nebula nominees were announced last week and as usual, I've read almost nothing of the entire list. In fact, the only piece I've read until this weekend was Jo Walton's magnificent novel Among Others. I very much doubt I'll get around to reading any of the other nominated novels any time soon but the short fiction is another matter. As usual, most of the nominated shorter works appeared online for free shortly after the announcement (if they weren't already) and I took the opportunity to expand my library some. One of the nominees that attracted my attention was Ken Liu, partly because he's the only author to be nominated twice and partly because I've never read anything by him before.

Liu is a Chinese American short fiction writer, poet and translator. I understand he is working on a novel with his wife Lisa Tang Liu, of which I know very little beyond that the first draft is almost done. Quite a few of his stories are available online in various places on the net, some of which I will probably end up reading at a later date. Right now I am focusing on his nominated works, the short story The Paper Menagerie and the novella The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary.

The Paper Menagerie - available here (PDF)

The Paper Menagerie was published in March/April 2011 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is a heartbreaking story about a young man's memories of his mother. She came to the US as a Chinese mail order bride. Illiterate and speaking just a few words of English she has serious trouble adapting to her new life. Her son is the joy of his life and he loves the magical folded paper animals she makes him. Until the boy begins to understand his appearance and toys mark him as an outsider. When he starts pushing his Chinese heritage away his mother desperately tries to keep communicating with him.

Children are cruel, apparently as much to their parents as to each other. The moment when the boy starts to see his shabby little paper tiger though the eyes of his friend and compares it with the Star Wars toys all the cool kids are playing with, is a deeply emotional scene. You can feel something change, a connection break beyond repair. To have something like that happen must be the nightmare of any parent. Liu makes the consequences of the event painfully clear. It is definitely one of those stories that will end up making you cry if you are in the right mood. The relationship between mother and son is the focus of the story but between the lines it is made clear the main character doesn't understand his father's motivations either. It would have been too much to tackle in a short story but I wonder what Liu would have made of that.

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary - available here (PDF)

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary first appeared in Panverse 3 and is quite a different creature. Liu got the idea from Ted Chiang's story Liking What You See: A Documentary, which can be found in the collection Stories of Your Life and Others. This collection is obligatory reading material for any fan of science fiction. Liu uses more or less the same format and writes out a documentary. It includes transcriptions of testimonies and interviews, descriptions of the images being shown and of course the occasional voice over. It's a format that takes some getting used to. Perhaps fifty-five pages of it is a bit too much. That being said, I thought it was a very impressive bit of writing.

Liu chooses a difficult subject for his documentary. The history of the Unit 731, Japanese research unit during the second Sino-Japanese War, that did large scale horrific experiments on humans to test biological and chemical weapons, as well as a whole range of medical experiments that rival anything that went on in Nazi Germany's concentration camps. Japan has always been very reluctant to discuss it's world war II history, let alone admit and apologize for any wrongdoing. It is a discussion that flares up once in a while in the Netherlands as well. Especially in regard to the 'Troostmeisjes' (comfort women), Dutch women forced into prostitution alongside tens of thousands (or more, depending on which source you care to believe) women from all over south-east Asia.

The story is centred around historian Evan Wei and physicist Akemi Kirino, who discover a technique to witness the past using an exotic offshoot of quantum mechanics. The method is destructive, each moment in the past can only be visited once. When Wei tries to use this technique to shed some light on the history of Unit 731, he quickly meets with resistance of people who would rather let the past be forgotten. An attitude that is directly opposed to Wei's own convictions.

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary is a pretty depressing story. Liu obviously put in a lot of research and in the testimonies the documentary contains, many gruesome descriptions of war crimes are discussed. Although the people testifying are, as far as I can tell, all fictional, many of the events are not. It is without a doubt one of the black pages in the history of China and Japan. What makes this story so strong is the way in which Liu manages to convincingly add so many visions on the same set of events. From the historian who questions Wei's methods on academic grounds, to the politician who reminds everybody of the importance of good relations with Japan and from the woman whose aunt ended up being used in the experiments to the Japanese doctor who feels the research done by Unit 731 was valuable. Liu conveys the full complexity of the issue as well as the enormous implications of having a technique that would allow us to revisit historical events. As the story unfolds, it is quite obvious that Wei didn't foresee many of the issues that would arise.

Our relationship to the past is complex, coloured by current political realities and muddied by cultural differences and Liu captures this all in his story. It is a lot to take in for the reader, a very intensive read, but when I finished it I was deeply impressed by the picture Liu constructs of the stories of these different people. I can't really do justice to all the elements this story contains in a few hundred words but I guess I was most impressed by the way Liu shows the influence of cultural background on the various views on history presented. I guess that is one thing it has in common with The Paper Menagerie, where the differences between Chinese and American ways of thinking are also driving the story.

Not having read any of the other stories nominated, I don't really want to speculate on Liu's chances of winning either category but I can say he is an author whom I will be keeping an eye on. I recently read The Fat Years by Chinese author Chan Koonchung and after finishing it I felt I didn't really know enough about Chinese culture to really appreciate it (despite a long preface and translator notes by people who obviously were very knowledgeable on the subject). These two stories were much more a synthesis of Chinese and American culture and as such less impenetrable for someone with a western (but not American) cultural background. These two stories make me very curious about how he will handle a full novel.

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