Book Review: The Hidden Girl and Other Stories (Ken Liu, 2020)

I really struggled to get through this one.

Although I’ll admit that science-fiction is not my favorite genre, I do enjoy some books in this category from time to time. I think one thing that makes it easier to comprehend sci-fi as I read is that the story stays simple, with vocabulary that is easy to grasp and a minimal number of characters that are easy to follow. In fact, those are essential ingredients to any good story, whether it is sci-fi or any other genre.

This is a collection of short stories… I think. At least it started off that way. Yet even the first story confused me. It starts off with “3.” as if we’re starting the story in Chapter 3. I thought maybe something was wrong with my digital copy of the book, but then a few pages later, I saw “2.”, so I guessed that we were reading the story in reverse? I’m not really sure.

I think my favorite story in the collection was the second one, “Maxwell’s Demon,” as it portrays historical fiction, and the protagonist is a female Japanese-American interred in a camp in the Western United States during World War II. She is given the ultimatum to go to Japan as a spy for the Americans, even though she has never been to Japan. She was born in Seattle. She knows very little of the language and culture, having learned second-hand from her parents and grandparents. As a result, she is ultimately unable to convince her superior officer in Japan that she is loyal to the Empire. The story is moving and believable. If there had been more stories like this in the collection, I would have given a much higher rating to this book.

I also really enjoyed “Byzantine Empathy,” a story about using Virtual Reality to allow people to “travel” to war zones and better understand what refugees experience. I could see this as a very effective way to significantly increase support for those who are suffering through such devastation. This was a very emotionally-charged tale, and this collection could have used more of those creative, original stories.

From there, I got lost as a reader trying to determine whether this is a book of short stories, which are usually either independent of each other or carry a common theme, or whether this was an ongoing story with the same characters and just different chapters. In this collection, it was difficult to decide the author’s intent.

For example, another one of the early stories is a science-fiction / dystopian tale of a society in which most of the inhabitants choose to undergo a medical procedure described as scanning. This is a process in which a person allows a machine to lethally scan their brain, converting the human into an electronic presence in a computer that will presumably be immortal. The first such story was an okay read, taken as a separate story among a collection of various short stories. But the unusual thing was that after reading some other subsequent stories that stood alone, there was later a return to the same dystopian story, with the same characters. After again finishing this story, the next “chapter” was a completely different story again. This seemed to happen again a couple more times. I’m not sure, because I lost interest and the stories were harder to follow. I’ve never seen that much back and forth between connected and disconnected stories before in a book of short stories. I think this would have been better as 2 separate books: one for the individual, disconnected stories, and one for the humans-undergo-brain-scanning-to-become-immortal-beings-in-a-computer story. Both would receive higher ratings from me if separated. Instead, I gave this 2 stars out of 5.

52163147. sx318 sy475 In one of the latter stories, the language was very confusing. I had trouble concentrating and deciphering the meaning of words like Takval Aragoz, pekyu, jiri, Una, Fluxists, Zomi Kidosu, Lyucu, garinafin, empyrean, Ren, Dara-Agon, Garinafin-Thane Petan Tava, Mapidere, Gonde, Pekyu Tenryo, Pekyu-taasa Cudyu, Toof, Tana, tolyusa-fueled, Voki, and so many more. I needed a translator. I got frustrated trying to read through those repeated meaningless words, and I had no interest in what was happening.

I will say that I believe this author is very gifted in imagination, and if you are an avid reader of science-fiction, I believe you will give this a higher rating than I did and you will likely enjoy it. The content is just not for me. The author also does a great job in the method used to begin each story. It was fun to try to figure out what was happening when the story first came together (given those stories that had simpler language and a minimum number of characters).

This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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