Friday, December 07, 2012

The Postman & Always Here, by Ken Liu - IGMS

“The Postman” & “Always Here”
 Ken Liu

I used to only write very long stories. I didn’t know how to tell a story in under 5,000 words, much less 1,000. Someone told me that I had to learn to write shorter stories because they were easier to sell. So I resolved to learn the art of flash.

The advice turned out to be very useful, though not for the reason stated above. For a long time, I had much more trouble selling my shorter stories than longer ones because they were so much worse. Terrible really. But somehow practicing the very short form made my longer pieces better. (The way my writing mind works is often still a mystery to me.)

Eventually, I did get flash as a form (I’m thankful that my early attempts will never see the light of day). Both of my stories in Issue 31 began life as entries in the Shock Totem bi-monthly flash fiction contest. Entrants have a week to write a story based on a prompt (a photograph, a news article, etc.). Since the contests are geared towards dark fantasy and horror, my entries, which tend to be science fiction, don’t tend to do well. But as my purpose in entering these contests is to learn how to write flash fiction better, I’m very happy with the results.


“The Postman”: This was inspired by Karl Bunker’s “Overtaken” in the Sep/Oct 2011 issue of F&SF. I enjoy participating in literary dialogs where authors write stories to respond to each other – that’s what a literary tradition is: authors talking to each other through stories in a common enterprise, much as scientists converse through papers in their common enterprise. (I consulted Karl ahead of time to be sure that he had no objections with me publishing this story, which picks up on his story’s theme and offers a variation.)

There’s a long history of anxiety that our creations (robots, AIs, post-humans, etc.) may surpass us someday, leaving us at their mercy as wards or little more than pets. There’s also a long tradition of science fiction about explorers on ancient space vessels obsoleted by those on faster, newer vessels before reaching their destinations. The two worries are related to each other as well as to the deep parental anxiety about being surpassed by their children without their children’s understanding or appreciation for their sacrifices.

“The Postman” doesn’t resolve this anxiety – most anxieties that have literary interest are unresolvable – but it offers a hopeful view of how parents will be seen by their children. Hope is separated only thinly from wishful thinking, but I always prefer to err on the side of hope.


“Always Here”: I’ve been experimenting lately with writing stories that adopt the conventions of science fiction for fantasy and vice versa. This is one example.

I think of fantasy as literature that literalizes a metaphor. “Always Here” is a fantasy story told in the language of science fiction. As we grow older, many (most?) of us lose our sense of wonder, our openness to possibilities, our willingness to hear voices that are unexpected. This story makes that ossification of the mind literally true.

Yet the metaphor is not just a metaphor. There is some biological basis for the common belief that aging reduces our novelty-seeking behavior, makes us less open-minded, causes us to dwell on the past. Our free wills are only as free as their biological foundation.

After writing this, I often imagined what Anna would look like after emerging from the probe. And the truth is that every time I came up with a different answer. Somehow, that makes me happy.


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