REVIEW SUMMARY: A deeper look at a new work of short fiction by Hugo, Nebula, Locus and World Fantasy award winning author Ken Liu. This story is featured in Clarkesworld Issue 88, January 2014.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A bounty hunter who has successfully nabbed her quarry inadvertently learns more about him during their journey through hyperspace as she kills time with a text-based computer game of his creation.
PROS: Clever execution of the story-within-a-story device; unconventional story structure fuels the fires of discovery; enjoyable blend of science fiction and fantasy devices.
CONS: Readers may be left with the desire for further resolution between Alex and Ryder.
BOTTOM LINE: Ken Liu has won several awards for stories that are out-of-the-ordinary and explore complex topics and emotions. Those talents allow him to excel at telling a more straight-forward story as well, albeit one with signature Ken Liu flourishes.
She lets him go.
Ken Liu’s story “The Clockwork Soldier” (also available in audio format as read by Kate Baker) begins with the end, wherein we see Alex let her bounty, Ryder, go free. Indeed she not only lets him go but also offers him friendly advice on how to never be found again, no matter how hard his father or his enemies look. Cryptic statements regarding faith and trust are exchanged and the end…ends. At that point the reader is transported to events a few hours previous and begins experiencing a text-based adventure game written by Ryder as experienced through the eyes of Alex. What follows is a story that feels firmly grounded in a hierarchical fantasy world with enough science fictional elements to remind you that the story is taking place in a fantastical, but technologically advanced future.
From this point on this review turns to discussion and may tread in the territory of SPOILERS. The story is short and well worth your time reading or listening. Please do so and then continue.
Ken Liu’s story is very clever in the way in which the story-within-a-story element allows the telling of Ryder’s story without being a straight-forward case of two characters forced into close quarters with nothing to do but relate their tales of woe. This is particularly effective because Alex is a bounty hunter and as such she has no desire to develop a rapport with her prize. Boredom and curiosity combine to lure Alex into playing a version of an old text-based adventure that Ryder has been working on. As the adventurer in the story, Alex chooses to name her game character after herself and suddenly she is experiencing Ryder’s past through her own imagination.
The text adventure is “The Clockwork Soldier”, so named because the adventurer in the game has a companion clockwork soldier who follows her/him around the textual world, responding to orders from the player. Ryder’s story is rough around the edges and at a particular point the view changes to the two characters in their present time as Alex gives him pointers on how this could be polished. It comes at a great point in the story as it re-establishes the present, reminding the reader of the two characters he/she saw saying their goodbyes as the story began. Despite its narrative flaws, this in-game story that is simple in appearance hints at something deeper and potentially disturbing regarding artificial intelligence and the way it is treated in the world of Ryder’s game.
These hints give rise to questions the reader will have about things revealed at the start of Liu’s tale and when “The Clockwork Soldier” ends the desire to go back and re-read the beginning…er, end…will be a more than can be resisted.
The way in which I describe the story’s structure could lead to the idea that this is a cute tale that leans heavily on narrative gimmicks at the expense of worthwhile story. That would be a mistake that should be laid solely at my feet. “The Clockwork Soldier” is a satisfying story with enough meat to reward going back and re-reading it again once all the pieces fall in place. It may not be the genre defining work that we see in Ken Liu’s award-winning fiction, but it is an engaging short work that showcases the skill of the author. The idea of story, including the stories we tell about ourselves, is explored as is the importance of faith and belief in those stories. The lines uttered by Alex in the opening scene echo strongly as the story comes to a close.
There are two more works of original fiction, by authors Yoo Han Lee and Cheng Jingbo and reprints works by authors Aliette de Bodard and Robert Charles Wilson in the January 2014 issue of Clarkesworld magazine. There are also non-fiction articles and audio versions of the original fiction.
The cover artist for this issue of Clarkesworld is Waldemar Kazak.