Published March 8th 2016.
After finishing "The Three-Body Problem", I was curious to know more about Ken Liu, the book's translator. And I picked up this collection. I've always thought short fiction is harder to write than longer works. And what a choice it was. Not all of the stories are clear winners, but the ones that are, oh my.
When I'm driving and the sun sets over the huge fields around me and the music's just right and the warm wind in my hair and my wife next to me and conversations go quiet and the long winding road ahead and my mind goes suddenly blank and I find myself staring into the distance and then I snap out of it, everyone knowing I've had – but can't keep – that moment that just passed.
We all know them. But we never know when they pop up. They stop time for me for just a second... and then I know I must move on. That's what it felt like when I read some of stories in this collection. "Mono No Aware" is but one of those stories where this kind of feeling is best shown:
"The image seemed to me at once so fleeting and so permanent, like the way I had experienced time as a young child. It made me a little sad and glad at the same time.
'Everything passes, Hiroto,' Dad said.
'That feeling in your heart: it's called Mono No Aware. It is a sense of the transience of all things in life. The sun, the dandelion, the cicada, the Hammer, and all of us: we are all subject to the equations of James Clerk Maxwell, and we are all ephemeral patterns destined to eventually fade, whether in a second or an eon.'"
Transposing this "feeling" to myself, how could I describe it? I think it takes place when my mind sometimes decides of its own volition it needs to take a moment to stare into the distance – preferably through a glass-tainted window. When I go out the door, I feel more at ease carrying in my pockets a tiny ball made of paper. Whenever I feel that tinge of sadness for the beauty of things going by, I try to retain those images in my mind. Somehow, it feels like a dearly important thing to do, as if I want to keep those moments in me forever; in a way give them more time than they had, until I’m ready to let them go.
Liu's collection is full of examples of "Mono No Aware" stuff, and I'm not talking just about the story that goes by the same name. I can find it in stories like "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary”, "The Regular”, and "State Change". These last are all top-notch, but it was "Mono No Aware" that lingered in my mind after having finished the collection. I carried it around with me for these past couple of days, constantly coming back to it in my mind and thinking about all the different aspects it evoked for me. This is a story that really drives home my belief that the best, most vital, work being done in the short story form today is being done in SF. This is the kind of story that justifies the "invention" of the genre. Each time I walk away amazed at the talent and skill that can craft something so profound within the parameters of short fiction.
SF = Speculative Fiction