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Short Fiction Friday: “The Clockwork Soldier” by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld, January 2014)

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.

10 Comments on Short Fiction Friday: “The Clockwork Soldier” by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld, January 2014)

  1. I really enjoyed this story, particularly with the text adventure interwoven within the narrative. My only criticism is that the reveal was sort of obvious.

    • I thought so too, Peter, although it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the story. As it was kind of a light story, which I don’t mean by way of criticism, I liked seeing how Ryder used that text adventure as a way to hook Alex in to discovering who he was. It was a clever way to effect his release.

  2. Jeff A. smith // January 19, 2014 at 10:13 am //

    Thanks for the review. I just read that Mr. Liu has a short story collection and a fantasy novel both coming out from Simon and Schuster in 2015. I know I will be adding both to my TBR pile as soon as there out as I really enjoy this authors voice.

    Thank you Carl for introducing me to Ken Liu through your reviews over the last two years.

    • You are welcome. I had heard about the novel but not the short story collection. That is exciting news. Wish the novel was coming out sooner. The publishing industry does take time, doesn’t it?

      • Jeff A. smith // January 19, 2014 at 2:16 pm //

        Yes indeed. I think that’s why we’re seeing more authors publish with multiple publishers and/or self publish some of their work in addition to publishing at traditional publishing houses at the same time.

        • Yes, the hybrid approach is all the rage and I can see why, especially for prolific authors. Traditional publishing is a great thing, in my opinion, as there is a quality that much self publishing doesn’t have. But more and more I’m reading about authors who are spending the money to buy the things a publishing house gives them (editing, good cover art) to do some self publishing along with their traditional book deals.

          • Jeff A. smith // January 19, 2014 at 2:51 pm //

            I understand what you’re saying BUT I think the gap of quality between traditional publishing houses and self publishing is narrowing year by year…

            • I only think that is true for those willing to spend the money to make it so. The people who do everything themselves are not going to be putting out the same quality of work of publishing houses.

              I do think self publishing does put some pressure on publishing houses to do a better job. Which is why I go absolutely bonkers when I see spelling errors in books published by big publishing houses. They don’t have any excuse to miss stuff like that.

            • Jeff A. smith // January 19, 2014 at 3:47 pm //

              Well that’s true now as far as spending the money. As traditional publishing houses continue to consolidate and in house staff get smaller then you’re only going to see more people self publish. The internet has allowed so many more authors to see behind the velvet curtain as far as the publishing process. More authors will spend the money on editors, etc themselves in order to not give up all that profit margin that they were forced to in the past. They will see the benefit of spending that money themselves instead of giving so much much margin to the big houses instead of just paying for services themselves. Self publishing can also help protect more of their rights themselves instead of handing them over to publishing houses just to get published in the traditional way.

              I don’t see traditional publishing houses going away any time soon but do see them shrinking and eventually creating their own self publishing imprints. A few have already.

              Once we see Barnes and Noble go out of business in the next few years we will all see a real change in the publishing industry as Amazon is the only national dominant book seller left in the USA.

            • Yes, Barnes and Noble closing brick and mortar stores, especially if they cannot maintain any kind of competitive ebook market (and I don’t think they will) is going to not only be sad but will have a big effect on things.

              What I’m reading from so many published authors is that they do see that benefit from spending the money on their own to make sure they are putting out self published work that rivals the quality of the services they get from a publishing house. As that happens I’ll be curious what effect it has, if any, on those who are trying to break in through self publishing that don’t have that money to spend.

              It will be interesting to see if the big houses can find a way to succeed with self publishing arms. Also wonder what impact it would have had if they had started this earlier.

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