Ken Liu is a gifted writer that has a talent for combining hard science fiction concepts with human emotions in beautiful written stories. This story from 2004 is among his best.
The story follows Elena who is a genius with robotics and language algorithms. She has created a very lifelike robotic doll that is both able to speak almost fluently and has very advanced motoring skill. The doll quickly becomes immensely popular and the company she works for has trouble keeping up with demand. She partners up with Brad, the CEO of the company, and she gets pregnant. Sadly, they lose the child during pregnancy and Elena is unable to get pregnant again. This emotionally devastates Elena and she buries herself in working on a new robotic doll, this time one that resembles a newborn. That too becomes a product sold by the company, with mostly other grieving mothers as customers.
As the story progresses, Elena becomes more and more obsessed with her creations. Working so intense with especially the speaking algorithms, she starts to view the real world in the same algorithmic terms. She knows how her own algorithms work and that everything they produce are mathematically predictable, which she increasingly believe is also true for human behaviour. Basically her worldview breaks down as she questions whether human are even conscious or any different from the artificial intelligence she has created. That everything we do is inherently deterministic. There are some direct references to the Chinese Room argument on the matter.
Liu manages to weave all these philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness into a very beautiful written short story, that has the technology used described in a plausible way while still keeping focus on the human emotions and making them engaging and believable for the reader.
Read in Twenty-First Century Science Fiction
Originally published on strangehorizons.com
This is one of the all time classic stories of science fiction in my opinion. It also has all the elements that got me reading science fiction in the first place – ancient alien civilizations and scientists doing proper deductive reasoning.
Humans have discovered ancient ruins on Mars of a now extinct advanced civilization. They find buildings, machinery and books, but no remains of the martians. The story focuses on Martha Dane who desperately tries to decipher the martian texts, but without any sort of primer or Rosetta stone she makes little progress. Her coworkers are not making it any easier by demanding that she drops her research because they deem it impossible.
This is one of those classic science fiction stories that isn’t just “good for its time” or “important for the genre”, but a genuinely great story to read today. In my opinion, scientists and their research process are too often portrayed in an either dumbed down or overly dramatized manner. This is one of the great exceptions that makes the whole process believable and engaging. That the main protagonist is a woman isn’t something you think much about today, but I would assume for its time it was a bit out of the ordinary. Just another plus point for this story. Haven’t been many great female characters in the anthology The World Turned Upside Down so far.
Read in The World Turned Upside Down
Originally published in Astounding, February 1957
Read the story at gutenberg.org
I have been reading science fiction for far too many years without reading Robert Sheckley. The first story in the collection Untouched by Human Hands sets the tone for what to expect from Sheckley. “The Monsters” is a story from 1953 that subverts the usual tropes of the genre by telling a first contact story from the aliens perspective.
A reptilian-like race observers a rocket landing on the surface and strange bipedal creatures exits the ship. The aliens refer to themselves as humans and the Earth-humans as monsters, but it is clear for the reader what is going on. Through casual conversations among the reptile aliens we get a sense of what kind of society they have, their moral values and how the interpret the actions of the visting “monsters”. Sheckley’s writing is very clear and to the point, but still conveys a lot of information.
For a modern reader the plot and the concept of challenging our moral values with an outside look might not seem that original here 70 years later, but I still think Sheckley’s writing is above many authors of the present. It is clear without being dumbed down and has a lot of satirical subtext without being pretentious. Highly recommended.
Read in Untouched by Human Hands
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1953
Read the story on archive.org
I found this story to be quite interesting. It follows a young high school boy when everything in the world slightly changes. Everyone is similar to who he knows but not quite. People are not the same, but are being replaced by other with similar looks and background. It becomes clear that everyone is somehow shifting around in parallel worlds. Everyone else is experiencing the same thing and if you look away for a few seconds everything shifts again. The boy manages to stay together with a man resembling his father – as long as they keep watching each other.
In this world breaking event society doesn’t quite break down but everyone is struggling with this new unexplained world shifting. In typical Egan style people start to work on the problem in a logical, methodical and scientific manner. Testing various things to see what makes people able stay together, how to communicate across worlds or test if the process can be stopped by video recording.
What I think Egan is going for here is to comment on whether society will descend into anarchy or solidarity in the event of a global crisis. Egan is somewhat mostly in the positive camp here, which is a nice change from all the dystopian stories.
Read in Asimov’s September/October 2022