The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu
Head of Zeus, hb, £18,99
Reviewed by Ian Hunter
The Hidden Girl and Other Stories is the Liu’s second collection of short stories bringing together sixteen of his recent science fiction and fantasy tales, plus an unpublished novella. The reader is also treated to an excerpt from the forthcoming third book in The Dandelion Dynasty series. Unusually this doesn’t appear right at the end of the books where extracts tend to appear. This is because they are arranged in what Liu calls a “meta-narrative” which repeats themes and reintroduces characters from earlier stories in the collection.
Reading a collection of short stories can be a bumpy ride for the reader, although you don’t win as many awards as Liu has by not being able to spin a good yarn, and there are recurring themes about a dying earth and uploaded consciousness which asks that old question: what is it to be a human? And is living forever inside a machine, enough?
Standout stories include “Thoughts and Prayers” which looks at the aftermath of a mass shooting and how a family’s grief and good intentions can get twisted. “Maxwell’s Demon” involves Japanese internment during the Second World War and a Japanese woman with psychic powers sent back to Japan on a spying mission. No spoilers here, but suffice to say that America didn’t deserve her.
Three stories with almost the same title – “The Gods Will Not Be Chained”, “The Gods Will Not Be Slain” and “The Gods Have Not Died in Vain” follows the adventures of Maddie and her virtual family through a Singularity event to emerge in a much-changed society.
In “The Reborn” earth has been conquered by alien invaders who cannot remember conquering the planet, and for one policeman who is reborn, it would be better to forget, except he can’t as flashes of past memories rise to the surface.
The title story is the most supernatural of the offerings with shades of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as a young girl is taken away to be trained as a female assassin with the power to cross dimensions until she reaches a crossroads in her life, and a decision has to be made.
There are other memorable stories set in the past and the future, on other planets, or in future ruined earths, but I have to praise the poet in Liu. His very last story, “Cutting”, takes his own very short story concerning the Monks of the Temple of Xu who cut words out of the accounts that people who encountered the gods have written to get to the true, undiluted meaning undistorted by the act of remembering. Liu turns his story into a “found poem” to get to the essence of his tale, to forget and remember the truth. It’s a fine ending to a fine collection