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“The Man Who Ended History”, by Ken Liu

“The Man Who Ended History” is a 2011 science-fiction novella by Ken Liu.  It is a very emotionally difficult story.  It has been nominated for the Hugo for Best Novella of 2012.

Non-Spoiler Summary

I had heard the name Ken Liu before this year.  This year, he’s made me cry twice.  “The Paper Menagerie” was a wonder of emotion and small tempest.  This story. . .  is harder.  Much harder.  The crying here is because hundreds or thousands of real people are tortured and maimed in the events of this story.  It covers parts of the history of Unit 731, the Japanese parallel to Auschwitz, with parallels to the human experimentation that Mengele performed.  So.  Not an uncomplicated tear-jerker, like “The Paper Menagerie”, but a solid science fiction story that happens to have, at its core, incredible inhumanity.  Be prepared. Be warned.

A scientist develops a way to view the past, and attempts to use it to help people cope with the damage the events of Unit 731 did to their families.  The governments involved try to stop him from using it at all.  As a given point in the past can only be viewed once, the concerns of archaeology–where investigation is often destructive–are mixed with the attempts of governments to control and spin the observation of their past sins.

Why should you read it?

This is a sad story.  I said that about “The Paper Menagerie”, and I will say it again.  The science in this story is fascinating, and the political pressures are all too real and believable. . . and as much as I wished the events that were being viewed were sunshine and dandelions, the fact that they were war crimes and terrors makes it real.  Makes it count.  However, it also makes reading the story a bit like trying to appreciate stained glass by eating it.

The documentary style of the writing is genius, and brilliantly done.  The ideas are vast.  The story is no fun at all, so don’t go in expecting any.

Where to find “The Man Who Ended History”

Ken Liu has generously allowed us to read it online.

“Six Months, Three Days”, by Charlie Jane Anders

“Six Months, Three Days” is a 2011 science fiction short story by Charlie Jane Anders.  It has been nominated for the Hugo for Best Novelette of 2012.

Non-Spoiler Summary

The man who can see the only possible future has a relationship with the woman who can see all the myriad possible futures.

Why should you read it?

Oh, man, just the high concept should be enough to make you run for this one. . . but the writing is also extraordinary.  The characters are both bent, shaped by their powers, entirely human both despite their specialness and because of it.  They have all the problems you expect that each of them would have, and that they would have as a couple.  The writing takes into account that sometimes they both already remember having a discussion, and they’re tired of it before it even happens.  I cried when Doug was enjoying his first intimacy with Judy. . . and at the same time mourning that now, one of the limited number of really special moments in  his life was past, instead of still to come.

Strongly recommended.  I don’t see anything in the field that would keep me from this being at least my second choice for the Hugo, and I’d be happy for it to be my first choice.  I think it deserves the award.

Where to find “Six Months, Three Days”

Tor.com has generously allowed us to read it online.

“The Copenhagen Interpretation”, by Paul Cornell

“The Copenhagen Interpretation” is a 2011 science fiction short story by Paul Cornell.  It has been nominated for the Hugo for Best Short Story of 2012.

Non-Spoiler Summary

Hamilton, a spy in an alternate steampunky world, finds that a woman he loved once upon a time is back, after disappearing completely fifteen years before.

Why should you read it?

I’d really like to say that this story is flawless, but I actually have a problem with Cornell’s writing style.  For some reason, and this is likely just me, I constantly find myself going back to find what I missed in the previous paragraph, and finding that I didn’t miss anything–I just feel like I did.

However, the ideas.  Oh, the ideas.  He suggests, for example, what dark matter is made out of.  A connection I would never have made, that dropped my jaw.  Well worth the time.

This is the third story featuring Jonathan Hamilton, so if you enjoy this one, look for the other two.

Where to find “The Copenhagen Interpretation”

The story was originally published in Asimov’s in July 2011, and they have generously allowed us to read it online.

“Movement”, by Nancy Fulda

“Movement” is a 2011 science fiction short story by Nancy Fulda.  It has been nominated for the Hugo for Best Short Story of 2012.

Non-Spoiler Summary

A young girl with an interesting variant of autism has to guide her parents in choosing whether or not to try a procedure that could “fix” her, at the possible cost of who she is.

Why should you read it?

Who are you?  What makes you, you?  How much could you give up without ceasing to be you, or ceasing to be?  Is the pain in your life so great that you’d rather not be the person you are?  If the thing that makes you different from everyone else also makes you . . . different from everyone else. . . is that a bad thing?

I have pain in my life, in my past.  It’s shaped me, in very large ways.  The difference between me and Hannah, this story’s autist, is that my pain is mostly done with, or is at least something I can get around in the moment.  Hannah’s. . . is not.  It is present in every moment of her life.  And she really does have to decide whether that difference is worth preserving or not, because normalcy may have a price.

Where to find “Movement”

The author has generously allowed us to read it online, and Escape Pod has an audio version.

“The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue”, by John Scalzi

April 17, 2012 Leave a comment

“The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue” is a 2011 fantasy/humor short story by John Scalzi.  Some dragons who don’t exist are discussed by some guard and wizards, who do.  Exist, that is.  Also, leeches and science.  It has been nominated for the Hugo for Best Short Story of 2012.

Non-Spoiler Summary

Oh, god, oh, god, so funny–you have to try reading this one out loud.  The first sentence will take you ten minutes if you don’t laugh, and longer if you do, which I hope you will, because oh god funny.

This is literally an April Fool’s joke that Scalzi and Tor.com played on us.  It’s put forth as the prologue to the first volume of a trilogy of fantasy novels, but it actually is just a standalone lark of a work.  But darn it, if he could keep this up for even one book, I’d surely be there.

Why should you read it?

Did I mention the funny?  Good, because if you’re looking for deep ideas or brilliant insight into the human condition, you won’t find it here–this one is about the funny.  And leeches.

Where to find “The Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue”

The story was originally published at Tor.com, where it is still available.

“The Paper Menagerie”, by Ken Liu

April 16, 2012 3 comments

“The Paper Menagerie” is a 2011 fantasy short story by Ken Liu.  A young boy, son of an American and a Chinese mail-order bride, experiences alienation and the love of his animated origami pets.  And also his mother.  It has been nominated for the Hugo for Best Short Story of 2012.

Non-Spoiler Summary

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be making about award-nominated stories.  John Scalzi was kind enough to link to the 2012 Hugo short story nominees, which got me started on this project again.

A young boy experiences the pain of being different, in this case because his mother was a mail order bride who doesn’t speak English well.  She gives him gifts of animated origami animals, which he comes to appreciate over time.

Why should you read it?

This is a sad story.  It’s the story of one human being trying to understand another, and it’s very well done.  It’s the smallest possible conflict: one’s struggle to understand the other, but the emotions are very real and worth experiencing.

Oddly enough, this turns out to be the story recommended by Christopher Kastensmidt in the discussion thread for the previous post. . . .

Where to find “The Paper Menagerie”

The story was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which has generously allowed us to read it online.

“Dragon Dreams on Cardboard Wings And Tiny Scraps of Yellow”, by Christopher Kastensmidt

February 9, 2012 3 comments

“Dragon Dreams on Cardboard Wings And Tiny Scraps of Yellow” is a 2011 slipstream/fantasy short story by Christopher Kastensmidt. A tech wage-slave discovers that her cubicle prison isn’t the trap she thought it was.

Non-Spoiler Summary

“Dragon Dreams” is another one of those stories that short enough that I’m really unable to summarize it without spoiling it. Susan, a dispirited computer programmer, has a momentary revelation that shows her a way out of her dreary existence.

Why should you read it?

It’s short. It’s lovely. It brightened my day, and had a real poetic quality.

Where to find “Dragon Dreams on Cardboard Wings And Tiny Scraps of Yellow”

The story was originally published in Daily Science Fiction, where you can still read it online.

“Always”, by Karen Joy Fowler

February 2, 2012 Leave a comment

“Always” is a 2007 science fiction short story by Karen Joy Fowler.  A woman details her time with a group of supposed immortals, following a charismatic leader.  It won the Nebula for Best Short Story in 2007.

Non-Spoiler Summary

Our viewpoint character, a young woman, moves to the city of Always with her boyfriend.  In Always, run by Brother Porter, everyone is immortal.  Supposedly.  The issue is left open, although there’s evidence that she is being deceived.  However, the effect of the city (cult) on people is very real.

Why should you read it?

“Always” handles the question of whether or not the immortality of the people of Always is real quite gently, and leads you to believe . . . that even if she’s not immortal, she’s been positively changed by the experience of living in Always.  The story follows her progression from basically infatuated with her boyfriend through an almost ethereal translation.

Where to find “Always”

The story was originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, where you can still read it online.  There is also audio.

“Perfect Lies”, by Gwendolyn Clare

January 25, 2012 Leave a comment

“Perfect Lies” is a 2011 science fiction short story by Gwendolyn Clare.  A woman who naturally expresses no visible emotion is the human trade representative to the Mask People, for whom every thought is expressed on the face.

Non-Spoiler Summary

Nora is a very special trade representative in negotiations with the Mask People.  You see, they have a culture of “teeming emotions”, feelings expressed through enormous faces covered in fine appendages that they use to communicate.  They are very sensitive to visible, uncontrolled emotion.  Nora is special, in that she doesn’t natively express her emotions–for her, they’re a learned skill.  In some ways, this is a story about negotiations between three sides: Humanity, the Mask People, and Nora herself.

Why should you read it?

“Perfect Lies” is an example of two of my favorite kinds of science fiction stories. The first is the outsider-on-behalf-of-humanity–stories ranging from Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze to Ender’s Game have portrayed the one exceptional person working on behalf of the mass of our race.  The other is one-change story.  The bulk of this story isn’t about high technology or large changes in how humans live–it’s about Nora’s one difference from us, and how that makes her relationship to the Mask People different from everyone else’s.

Where to find “Perfect Lies”

The story was originally published in Clarkesworld Magazine, where you can still read it online.  There is also audio.

“Apology”, by Sam Ferree

January 1, 2012 Leave a comment

“Apology” is a 2011 science fiction short story by Sam Ferree.  A man finds a time traveller in his apartment, who’s there to kill him.

Non-Spoiler Summary

The Bad Day Company has found someone who doesn’t matter at all to history, and has arranged the law so they can send people back in time to kill him, repeatedly.  For profit.  “Apology” is the story of one of these murders.  Except that the putative killer talks to him, first.

Why should you read it?

The writing in “Apology” really makes the emotional case for our victim trying to talk his way out of being killed, and the reactions that his… assassin has also ring true.  The story isn’t long, but it’s moving.

Where to find “Apology”

The story was originally published at Daily Science Fiction, where you can still read it online.