Aliens on a distant planet learn about human civilization. A young scientist tries to implement the ideas behind Maxwell’s Demon to build a devastating weapon. An engineer has his consciousness uploaded to a computer program and can only communicate with emojis.
These ideas and more make up Ken Liu’s short story collection “The Hidden Girl and Other Stories.” The stories are standalones, and most of them have already been published in speculative fiction magazines, but there are overarching themes in the collection: issues of identity when caught between two worlds, what it means to remember and to forget, the relationship between parents and children.
At first glance, the genre of science fiction almost forbids the short story. The colossal task of building worlds and inventing technologies calls for epics of door-stopping proportions. And yet, the short story has a long and venerable tradition in science fiction. From classics penned by H.G. Wells to the New Wave fiction of Philip K. Dick, or anthology TV shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “Black Mirror,” writers have always taken the daunting task of creating alien and frightening worlds and condensing them into a short form.
It’s because of its brevity that the science fiction short story is usually tragic and pessimistic, since a problem usually requires less exposition than a solution. “The Hidden Girl” is no exception to this rule. One such example is “The Reborn,” story in this collection. Aliens invade and conquer Earth. Their brains are organically and naturally replaced every few years, much like a snake losing its skin. The outcome is that the aliens don’t remember what they have done to the humans, since they have new brains and new memories. The humans remember though, and the aliens make them somewhat like themselves, transferring the good memories onto clones and wiping out any negative feelings toward the aliens. The effect is that both human and alien, victim and victimizer, live in blissful ignorance of past wrongs.
“The Reborn” and other stories in this collection challenge us to examine the weight and purpose of memories, the stories we choose to tell ourselves, and how they make up our identities and our place in the wider world. Perhaps science-fiction settings are too fantastical for some readers, but in “The Hidden Girl,” Liu creates a terrifying future to shine light on our bewildering present.