“Mono No Aware,” by Ken Liu
Appeared in the anthology The Future Is Japanese; appeared in Lightspeed Magazine in June 2013 (read and listen here); featured in Escape Pod episode 407, August 6th, 2013 (read and listen here); won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Short Story
6,396 words, according to Lightspeed; my word processor says 6,051, plus the two kanji used as illustrations
Okay, I teared up a bit. The scene where Hiroto goes on a walk with his father, and the scene where he says goodbye to his parents, are well done and very affecting. Then I realized where the ending was going and lost some emotional attachment. The self-sacrifice is predictable and self-indulgent. This might be the worst bit: “Mindy called me a hero. But I was simply a man in the right place at the right time.”
Scientific accuracy aside, the scenario is just way too convenient, to the point of absurdity. Nobody foresaw the possibility that the sail might be torn someday? Nobody bothered to study the sail structure as closely as Hiroto did? Seriously? It’s a colossal failure of engineering and management.
One more minor annoyance: The girlfriend’s characterization is paper-thin, her attempts at appreciating Japanese culture are crude and embarrassing, and she continues to seem really dumb right up to the end. Her greatest achievement is “she kept me awake.”
Edit: Here’s another thing that bothers me. The ostensible moral of the story is that the values of Hiroto’s homeland are important: community over the individual, cooperation over heroism, interdependence over independence. But the events of the ending run counter to those values, and so does the noble self-sacrifice fantasy they represent. I don’t want to call this hypocritical, because it seems absurd to call a story hypocritical. Let’s call it dissonant.
This is part of the reason I hate the we-are-all-heroes bit towards the end. The story is struggling to make us believe that it supports its own moral, and the strain shows.