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Tag: china

Novel: When We Were Orphans

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Published in 2000 by Faber and Faber; shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize

313 pages, saith Wikipedia

I was deeply invested in this book when I started reading. A riff on old-fashioned detective stories, plus Ishiguro-style meditations on memory and self-deception, seemed like about as much fun as I could ask for. Then I got to the transition point—I think it’s when Banks first returns to Shanghai—and realized I was in for a long stretch of Unconsoled-style dream-life. I waited impatiently for the original story to be resolved, but you can’t resolve semi-realistic tension with dream logic. And Banks, who had been likable and easy to relate to, became basically like Ryder in The Unconsoled: a knot of neuroses and literary themes, untrustworthy, unrecognizable. Eventually the dreamlike section ended and the plot stuff got resolved, and there were genuinely moving moments as well. But the fun never came back. The dreamlikeness never got explained either.

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Edited to add that I think Ishiguro is trying to find a way to combine the dreamlike mode of The Unconsoled with the semi-realistic mode of his first three novels. It seems like a reasonable thing to attempt, and it makes sense to nest the dream stuff in the center of the more realistic storyline, but it just doesn’t work for me. I think the problem is that, while I can accept a dreamlike story on its own terms, I can’t accept it in such a realistic context. The dream stuff lowers the stakes, brings the “real” story to a halt, nullifies any stable sense of worldbuilding and thereby kills suspense, et cetera.

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Short story: “Ghost Days”

“Ghost Days,” by Ken Liu

Appeared here in the October 2013 issue of Lightspeed Magazine

9,332 words, according to Lightspeed

There’s a lot of good stuff here, and I think the use of parallel (yet also linked) stories is very effective. But the ending is too pat. It ties things up too neatly for the main character. The story hasn’t spent enough time with her to make me believe she’s matured so much emotionally.

I’m also not a fan of the occasional flowery, poetical passages. The stars and stripes image seems especially strained to me.

I didn’t recognize the nested structure until I read Liu’s interview. Nicely done, and the transitions are very clear.

Short story: “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere”

“The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere,” by John Chu

Appeared here on Tor.com on February 20th, 2013 (“This short story was acquired for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer”); edit: won the 2014 Hugo for Best Short Story!; recorded here for Escape Pod episode 459, August 21st, 2014

6,508 words

The supernatural device in this story is just as unexplained and arguably as unnecessary as the one in “The Paper Menagerie,” but it feels perfectly natural to me. It probably helps that the water is important to the plot. But really, the whole story feels natural, like something written spontaneously in one sitting.

Short story: “The Paper Menagerie”

“The Paper Menagerie,” by Ken Liu

Originally appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Suvudu PDF link here); read on the July 12, 2011 episode of Podcastle (listen here) and the May 17, 2012 episode of Escape Pod (listen and read online here); nominated for a Nebula Award in 2011 and a Hugo Award in 2012

4,924 words

Okay, yes, I got choked up too.

Things that bother me:

  • What was the point of the speculative/fantasy/magic realism element? If it’s a metaphor for how much the main character took his mom and her heritage for granted, it’s kind of gilding the lily. I kind of wish the story had just stuck with origami.
  • Why don’t literary publications publish this kind of thing? And by “this kind of thing” I mean frankly emotional stories—heartstring-tuggers. The likely answer is that literary fiction is supposed to do something more than just make you feel sad (or romantic, or scared, or swashbuckling); it’s supposed to make you think, or make you feel something more complex than heartstring-tuggings, or make you appreciate some subtle form of beauty you might otherwise have missed. Or it’s not supposed to make you do anything, since making readers do things is genre fiction territory. It’s supposed to be inspiring yet unmanipulative, lovely yet nonobvious—a hard balancing act to pull off. Sometimes I think literary-type editors lean too far towards the subtle end of things, publishing fiction that is intelligent, polished, subtle, and without heart.
  • Which isn’t to say the author of this piece added the magic in order to make it publishable as fantasy fiction, but I can’t help wondering who would have published it otherwise. Surely there’s a market for it. Maybe I’m reading the wrong literary journals.