The Hidden Girl and Other Stories: A solid collection with a few standouts

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

I was a huge fan of Ken Liu’s first collection of short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, giving it a five out of five and placing on my “best of” list that year. His newest collection, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories (2020), unfortunately didn’t hit the high notes as consistently as the first, though there are still several gems in the group.

Many of the stories are set in a time leading up to or following the singularity, where humans upload their consciousness to the cloud and become disembodied. Three are a direct mini-series following the same characters in linear fashion and the others change characters and shift in time (sometimes moving way forward). While the stories themselves varied in quality, and there was some repetitiveness, I quite liked the way Liu kept coming back to the premise; all together they form something like a novella of linked stories.

Thoughts on the specific stories:

“Ghost Days:” A lovely story about colonists stranded on a planet across the galaxy and how their children (particularly the main character, a young girl named Ona), engineered to adapt to the planet, struggle with why they have to learn all the history of the human race, which they no longer belong to. As Ona says of the older colonists early in the story, “They cling to their past like rotten glue-lichen.” Thanks to events in the story, Ona finds herself in the multi-generational memories of a Chinese family. One memory is set in the late 1980s after Fred Ho’s family had immigrated to America, the other, in 1905 Hong Kong, involves Fred’s grandfather and great-grandfather. In both, Fred and his grandfather have to deal with arrogant, bigoted white men. From these two memories Ona shifts into a scene set on her home planet where she observes the planet’s long-vanished inhabitants. Her experiences give her new insight into both the older colonists and the value of history.

“Maxwell’s Demon:” A sometimes brutal story set in WWII that follows Takako, an Okinawan woman who is removed from her internment camp by the US government and forced into spying for them on a secret project the Japanese are working on. Takako ends up having to face a choice of evils, leading to a dark ending that will linger for some time in the reader’s mind.

Ken Liu

Ken Liu

“The Reborn:” Another grim tale, this one set on Earth after it has been conquered by the Tawnin, an alien species who take the idea of “compartmentalization” to extremes. As one alien explains it:

The unified individual is a fallacy of traditional human philosophy … A criminal, for example, is but one person inhabiting a shared body with many others … a good father, husband, brother, son.

The Tawnin are nearly eternal and so as not to be overwhelmed by memories, they keep some and “shed” the others, including their memory of how aggressive they were in conquering humanity. They “cast off those aggressive layers of their mind … and became the gentlest rulers imaginable.” Given that, the Tawnin view the human legal system with horror, as humans condemn an entire person for the action of a “part” of them. Instead, the Tawnin “excise” that part, removing the memories, say, of those resistance fighters they capture. The story centers on a human who is in a relationship with a Tawnin and who is also trying to track down the human perpetrators of a terrorist act of resistance. There’s a bit too much explanation at the end, but the close is a bit of chillingly beautiful writing.

“Thoughts and Prayers:” Liu uses multiple points of view to show the aftermath of a mass shooting on a single family, especially after the mother agrees to allow her slain daughter’s images/movies/life be used to try and push forward political change. What follows is a horrifying tale of trolling (Liu includes a POV from one of the trolls) and attack/counter-attack.

“Byzantine Empathy:” Two competing ways of trying to effect change through donations conflict. One is the traditional method of big not-for-profits directing their collected funds toward goals and methods they deem “worthy.” The other is an upstart program started by Tang Jianwen that decentralizes/democratizes giving via cryptocurrency and the power of VR. An interesting concept that got bogged down in the details and some speechifying.

“The Gods Will Not Be Chained:” The first of the singularity trilogy involving a young girl named Maddie and her father, uploaded consciousnesses, and the looming risk of hostile AIs. Liu plays around with the use of emoticons throughout, and the intimacy of the father-daughter relationship is a nice touch, but I can’t say there was a lot fresh here to a well-worn topic.

“Staying Behind:” Perhaps my favorite story in the collection. I loved it from its opening lines: “After the Singularity, most people chose to die. The dead pity us and call us the left behind … And so year after year, relentlessly, the dead try to steal our children.” The first-personal narrator shifts in time between his memories of his parents’ conflict about uploading and his present-day fears that his own child will choose to go down the path of disembodiment despite all his efforts. A poignant, painful, haunting story.

“Real Artists:” A slight, old style sort of near-future story centered on the depressing impact of AI (or near-AI) on the creative arts. This one was a bit too much “telling” for me and felt more than a little predicable.

“The Gods Will Not Be Slain:” Continues on with the Maddie/AI storyline. A solid enough story but didn’t do much for me.

“Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer:” Set after the Singularity, it’s told by a first-person narrator whose mother is “An Ancient, from before the Singularity … [who] lived in the flesh for twenty-six years before uploading.” The two try to bridge the gap between them, with the child trying to understand her mother’s attachment to the tangible world as well as her desire to travel to a nearby star to explore — a one-way trip. There are some beautiful descriptive passages in this story and a rewarding close.

“The Gods Have Not Died in Vain:” The third AI story, after the AI wars that killed millions. Somewhat similarly to the prior story, this one deals with the gulf of understanding between an embodied (Maddie of the earlier stories) and a disembodied (her “sister” Mist, created in the cloud by their father). In its exploration of how the first uploaded consciousnesses had trouble due to nostalgia for “the real world,” while their “children” lack that weakness, it also hearkens back to the first story where one generation hopes the ensuing one will do better via adaptation to a different world/way of life. I found this the strongest of the three “Gods” stories thanks to the description of Earth, the changing relationship between Maddie and Mist, and the thoughtful exploration of AI linked to intimate characterization.

“Memories of My Mother:” A brief vignette-series story about a mother whose diagnosis of a terminal disease sees her using relativity to slow her experienced time and allow herself to visit her daughter at ages ten, seventeen, thirty-eight, and eighty. A neat premise, but the brevity of the story and its tone/formatting left it surprisingly emotionally distant.

“Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit — Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts:” A “drowned world” story post climate change whose plot and characterization were wanting, but still provided some beautiful descriptive passages.

“Grey Rabbit, Crimson Mare, Coal Leopard:” A mix of cute and grim, this tale is set in a world where some people can change shape into drakes, leopards, or, much to her shame for the main character, a small grey rabbit. It turns out, though, that a rabbit can have heart and be both brave and fierce. It’s an interesting story that was a bit blunt in its points and went on longer than I thought it needed to.

“A Chase Beyond the Storms:” Not really a story but an excerpt from Liu’s upcoming DANDELION DYNATSY novel, The Veiled Throne. I’m not sure it works in a collection.

“The Hidden Girl:” The title story follows a young girl plucked from her life and trained to be a supernatural assassin whose first assignment goes in an unexpected direction. The story moves along smoothly enough but the plotting was pretty basic and the storyline predicable.

“Seven Birthdays:” A mix of themes from prior stories: climate change, parent-child relationships, and uploaded consciousness. The future paths humanity takes in Liu’s vision is fascinating and filled with the poetry of science.

“The Message:” A daughter whose mother just died is taken in by her archaeologist father who has been absent from her entire life (her mother had never told him about her pregnancy) and is forced to tag along as he explores the ruins of a dead planet. It was hard to buy into the relationship between the two (more precisely, the change in the relationship) and so lacked the emotional punch the story seemed to be straining to achieve.

“Cutting:” A brief story-poem that nicely closes out the collection in evocative fashion

If I’m honest, I have to say this collection was disappointing, but that’s mostly due to how much I loved Liu’s first anthology of stories. A few of these felt slight or flat, or felt to be making their points a bit too overtly, but most were certainly solid enough. The standouts in The Hidden Girl and Other Stories for me were “Ghost Days” and “Staying Behind” thanks to their aching levels of poignancy/emotionality.

Published in February 2020. From award-winning author Ken Liu comes his much anticipated second volume of short stories. Ken Liu is one of the most lauded short story writers of our time. This collection includes a selection of his science fiction and fantasy stories from the last five years—sixteen of his best—plus a new novelette. In addition to these seventeen selections, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories also features an excerpt from book three in the Dandelion Dynasty series, The Veiled Throne.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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