Consider the bedtime shadow puppet show, the non-thing that depends on flesh and stone some-things to flit across the wall, the toy that vanishes in the dark but also dissolves in the light of day, the loving entertainment put on to coax a restless child into slumber so the parent can slip away. In the title story of The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, Ken Liu’s chewy new collection of speculative fiction, the performance of this liminal circus saves a man in Tang Dynasty China from his assassin. (The would-be killer is an orphan of sorts herself; she doesn’t want to create another.) Never mind, though, another killer is on her way, and this one will take advantage of a world between worlds, an interdimensional space.
That kind of layering is exactly what makes Liu’s stories so delightful: a classic tale featuring an interstitial dimension and speckled with moments of both parental devotion and separation. The turns, the jumps and skips through space and history, are sudden, but mostly they work, and the constant exploration of the parent-child dyad is one of the recurring themes that gives many of the stories their rich heart. In “Ghost Days,” Liu slips from interplanetary futurism to the US in 1989 to turn-of-the-century Hong Kong and back again. He’s not shy about signposting his themes, weaving in alien-aliens with a sketch of casual Connecticut racism with lines like “He had nothing in common with his father, who might as well be an alien.”
Pay attention to the order of the stories: A sequence of colonization explorations morphs into meditations on memory and forgetting, and then into the singularity we go, where some of the themes about parenting begin to emerge. Liu flags this breadcrumb trail for the reader in the intro when he gives a shout-out to his editor for arranging the stories into “a table of contents that told a meta-narrative I couldn’t have seen myself.” When the settings a writer chooses to inhabit range so widely—from Imperial China to modern movie theaters to fantasy planets populated by animal-people—it’s nice to have these thematic ley lines. (And, because Liu likes to play around with dimension too, some of the ley lines scoop through the book. Class assignment: Please read the second story, “Maxwell’s Demon,” and the penultimate story, “The Message,” and write a short essay on the nature of communication broadly and the role of warnings specifically in the two pieces.)
The singularity is a topic of singular fascination for Liu. Have you ever wondered what the process of getting uploaded to a computer network would actually be like? (Messy.) How would a photon-fast singularity-entity have to adjust to communicate with sluggy meatsack people? Would you still love your kids and want to protect them? (Yes.) What would it mean to reproduce up there inside the machine? (It’s a math thing.) Where would you “live”? (Duh, in a Klein bottle.) How would you hug someone? (“Our algorithms entwine together; we synchronize our clocks; and our threads ping onto the same semaphores.”) Would there be a rift between Singulatarians and Stay Humans? Would it be, ultimately, unconscionable to remain wrapped in this mortal coil, consuming consuming consuming resources? (Perhaps.) What would happen to the Earth once we’re all packed into a data center? Liu riffs on all these questions, plucking at them like superstrings laced through the collection.
Liu, who has two daughters, often separates children from their parents, stretching them away from each other through time and space. In “Seven Birthdays,” the girl character sees her mother every few weeks (because the mother is working so hard to save the world from global warming), and Liu deftly captures the girl’s conflict when she finally finds herself talking to her distant parent: