Who Goes There?
The 2010s was the decade that Chinese SFF, which had been quite active in its native country for some years, broke into the Anglosphere unequivocally and irreversibly, and while such a phenomenon is complex, necessitating the actions of many talented people, perhaps no individual marked this shift more than Ken Liu. As an author, translator, and editor, Liu has marked the point where Chinese and American SFF meet, in his own fiction and in his efforts to bring Chinese authors (most famously Cixin Liu) to the English reading public. For better or worse, he’s by far the leading ambassador for a whole generation of authors, the result being that the formidable quality of his own fiction can get overshadowed. Liu himself won back-to-back Hugos for his short stories “The Paper Menagerie” and “Mono no Aware,” both about transplanted Asian protagonists (Chinese and Japanese, respectively) who must contend with their heritage. Despite the intensity of some of his fiction, it’s never less than humane, with Liu curiously managing to combine tenderness with a confrontational focus of vision.
On top of being one of the best short story writers of the current era, Liu was, at least up until a few years ago, one of the most prolific. From 2010 to about 2015 (incidentally when his debut novel, The Way of Kings, was published) he wrote what must’ve been at least a dozen short stories and novellas a year, with some of these even getting adapted. His short story “Good Hunting” was adapted into one of the better Love, Death & Robots episodes while a connected series of short stories served as the basis for the animated series Pantheon. His most recent novel, Speaking Bones, the latest in the increasingly epic (and long) Dandelion Dynasty series, came out in 2022 from Saga Press.
“The Perfect Match” was published in the December 2012 issue of Lightspeed, and you can read it online for free here. The bad news is that this story has only been reprinted in English twice; the good news is that they’re both pretty easy to find new copies of. First we have the Liu collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, which I have proudly on my shelf and which I would say is essential for anyone wanting to catch up on one of the masters of “modern” SFF. The second is the anthology Brave New Worlds, edited by John Joseph Adams, although I have to warn you that there are two editions of this book and the first does not include “The Perfect Match,” with Liu’s story apparently being added at the last minute to the second. Given that Brave New Worlds is about dystopian SF, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what we’ll be dealing with here…
Sai is a pretty average dude who works a job he likes enough and who, while currently single, got out of an amicable relationship and is ready to get back on that horse—all too easy to do, given that his AI helper, Tilly, is able to match him with any woman whose interests most closely match his own. Tilly is like Alexa if Alexa was also a dating app that didn’t suck. Make no mistake, though, Tilly is not a character; she’s only slightly more advanced than the “AIs” we currently have, in that she’s not actually sentient, but rather an extension of a program. Like Alexa, or hell, Joy from Blade Runner 2049, her seeming femininity is meant to be a cushion, because unconsciously we want a motherly figure who cares for us and yet who does not need or want to be intimate with us.
I’m saying all this up front because both the title and the opening section of the story make it sound like it’s about romance, which it really isn’t. A shame too, because once I realized where the plot was heading I became somewhat less interested, if only because on paper you’ve seen this story literally a hundred times before if you’re a genre veteran. Anyway, Tilly recommends Sai this woman, name not important, who sounds like a great match for him, except their date doesn’t go so perfectly—not because of the woman, but because recently Sai has been having some intrusive thoughts. It has to do with Jenny, his paranoid neighbor whom he doesn’t see much and who comes off as a neo-Luddite, yet there’s something alluring about her. What’s her deal? Not that it takes too long for him to find out.
Talking to Jenny was like talking to one of his grandmother’s friends who refused to use Centillion email or get a ShareAll account because they were afraid of having “the computer” know “all their business”—except that as far as he could tell, Jenny was his age. She had grown up a digital native, but somehow had missed the ethos of sharing.
This may sound familiar. You have the male protagonist who starts out a sleeper in a world he thinks to be swell but is actually shit, only to have the sleeper awoken by a rebellious woman; for some reason it’s always this dynamic, with a man being driven to rebellion via awakening, both having his eyes opened metaphorically to the world around him but also often being awakened sexually. If you’ve read George Orwell’s 1984 or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We then you know how this will play out generally (although for the sake of the rest of us I’ll save the later plot developments for spoilers), and even more so if you’ve read the seemingly endless supply of dystopian fiction inspired by those novels. Sai and Jenny are based on archetypes, and for all his narrative craftsmanship (the story moves along at a brisk but natural pace), Liu does little to subvert those archetypes.
Can we talk about how 1984 totally FUCKED UP the very idea of writing dystopian SF? Not that it was Orwell’s fault, he was simply reacting to what was then a rising approval of Stalinism among the Western left, seeing authoritarian socialism as no better than capitalism and possibly in some ways being even worse. The problem is that the characters, plot beats, and overall message of 1984, when not misunderstood (which they often are, most conspicuously by right-wingers), have become so diluted that the novel doesn’t even read like a novel anymore so much as a blueprint for writing baby’s first dystopian narrative. Every other male lead is an analogue for Winston, every other rebellious female love interest is an analogue for Julia, and O’Brien… well, we’ll get to O’Brien later, because he also sort of gets an analogue in “The Perfect Match.”
When Sai meets Jenny again, post-date, something has changed for Sai and by extension the two of them. As I’ve said Jenny is the rebellious woman, and detecting this change in Sai she invites him inside. How did she figure this change? Because Sai got home off-schedule, for the first time ever; he has a rigid routine and thanks to Tilly he’s constantly reminded to keep to that routine. Yet his dissatisfaction with the date has led him home off-schedule, and so Jenny wonders if maybe she can recruit him for a scheme she has in mind. The thing is that while Sai has begun questioning his life a bit, he’s still of the conviction that the corporate-run future of his world is benevolent, that Tilly has his best interests at heart, that he’s a free individual despite his lack of personality.
Jenny has some words about that.
“Look at you. You’ve agreed to have cameras observe your every move, to have every thought, word, interaction recorded in some distant data center so that algorithms could be run over them, mining them for data that marketers pay for.
“Now you’ve got nothing left that’s private, nothing that’s yours and yours alone. Centillion owns all of you. You don’t even know who you are any more. You buy what Centillion wants you to buy; you read what Centillion suggests you read; you date who Centillion thinks you should date. But are you really happy?”
Prior to the story’s beginning Sai was presumably content, but he was probably never happy and he certainly was never free. I don’t know if this Ken Liu’s actual worldview, but I suspect he’s of the opinion that conflict is necessary for happiness. Sai faced basically no conflict prior to the story and thus he was deprived of happiness, but interestingly, once conflict enters his life, his range of emotions is widened, his horizons expanded. Once he ditches the notion of perfection and living a totally peaceful (i.e., boring) life he starts to feel things, which like anything transformative can be traumatizing but also a positive force ultimately. Sai’s budding relationship with Jenny (see the aforementioned metaphorical and sexual awakening) is just a bonus, and not really a convincing one. Liu has written romance well elsewhere, but in “The Perfect Match” it’s done because other dystopian narratives have done it and also because it moves the plot along.
This may sound vaguely militaristic, but conflict builds character. The conflict doesn’t have to be violent or earth-shattering, mind you, it can be as banal as deciding whether to order an Uber or to call a friend who lives nearby. A character’s capacity to make decisions (and this applies to both fictional characters and real people) is what makes that character, which admittedly is why I feel Jenny is more of a plot device than a real person; she does everything we think she’s going to do and she doesn’t go off her own script, never mind the dystopian SF cliches she tosses at Sai. But Sai, on the other hand, contradicts himself and prevents himself from being totally consistent, which, aside from him being the POV character, makes him feel more flesh-and-blood, never more shown than in the climax.
There Be Spoilers Here
Jenny has this hacking scheme wherein Sai, who’s already a corporate worker, sneaks in a virus that will basically fry Tilly by corrupting her with false data. Not that the world would be saved all of a sudden, but it would be a good start. Sai had turned off his phone when he first met up with Jenny and from then on the two made sure there was no way for Centillion (the company behind Tilly) to spy on them. At first the hacking seems to have worked! Only for, you guessed it, Sai and Tilly to be placed under arrest and shown to Christian Rinn, the big cheese at Centillion himself. I had legitimately forgotten this dude’s name and I didn’t put it down in my notes; his name really is not important.
What’s important is that Rinn is this story’s version of O’Brien, except he had no pretense of being a rebel, just somebody who waited off-screen for Our Heroes™ to make their move. Thinking about it, Rinn first slightly more into the same category as Mustapha Mond from Brave New World (if you remember that guy), who lectures John Savage and friends in that novel’s climax about why the world as they know it works the way it does and why an authoritarian like Mond is totally in the right. Rinn’s justification for Centillion tech monopoly is basically that it was inevitable—not because of how technology is advancing or because people want to feel “safe,” but because technology serves to make people’s lives more convenient. People want as much convenience as possible and companies like Centillion are only too happy to oblige.
In fairness to Rinn, he is objectively correct. How do you undo this? How would you turn back the clock on how technology figures into our lives? It’s not like you can nuke civilization back to the dark ages, that would be comically evil and also wildly impractical. Liu seems to be making the argument that while progress as seen in-story is not exactly “good,” it is progress, and progress will not be defied. There is no feasible way, especially for two people, to take down a whole system like this. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but how did Centillion even find out about the hack? By tracking Sai’s phone. And they were not even unaware of Jenny’s doings. The hacking was never gonna work, although I just assumed that would be the case anyway. Because we can’t have happy endings with this sort of thing, right?
Well, it’s not all bad. Whereas Winston Smith and John Savage awaken to the hell they live in and get completely fucking destroyed for their troubles, Sai comes out of the deal unharmed—not just physically but also he’s about as psychologically adept as he’s ever been. While Sai and Jenny are all but blackmailed into working for Centillion at the end, the fire of rebellion has clearly not gone out in Sai’s heart, and his traumatic awakening has made him into more of an individual. You might be able to defeat the system, sure, but you as a free-thinking person can resist it…
A Step Farther Out
A little mini-rant for my final thoughts. A common misconception about SF, which has been around for decades and which persists in a lot of modern discourse (more so for people outside of fandom), is that SF works to predict the future. This is very obviously bullshit. Like SF so clearly is not predictive that it’s laughable, and true enough we often poke fun at old-timey SF wherein the “predictions” were dead wrong. No, we did not get fully functioning androids by 2019 a la Blade Runner, although Los Angeles certainly became more of a smog-covered shithole by that point. No, we did not get immense overpopulation and death of the oceans by 2022 like in Soylent Green. Whenever an SF writer puts out a future date it’s basically a placeholder, to let us know that the action is happening in the future and not in our present; it’s not supposed to be the author’s actual prediction of what things will be like by a given year.
Liu wisely refrains from putting a date on “The Perfect Match,” which after all is a future society that basically doesn’t seem all that futuristic. There isn’t anything totally out there in terms of technology being showcased here; everything we read about in-story is feasible, indeed (Liu would argue) it’s likely to be realized. When an SF story is called “prescient” or “ahead of its time,” this is just a little bit insulting to the author, even if it feels true to us. Don’t worry, I’ve done it many times myself. So if someone were to remark about this story, “Wow, Ken Liu was being prescient with this one,” they’re making the incorrect assumption that Liu in 2012 was predicting what have by now become the clear dangers of technocracy, as opposed to extrapolating on what he sensed was a growing trend at the time. “Extrapolation” is maybe the biggest key word to understanding SF.
“The Perfect Match” is somewhat derivative, but it certainly feels modern in its concerns, which sounds lame considering 2012 was not that long ago, but for all of us a great deal has changed since that time. Hell, I was in high school in 2012, a portion of my life that now feels totally alien to me. And while the ending isn’t a happy one, it leaves room for hope on the micro scale, if not the macro one, which for a dystopian narrative is good enough.
See you next time.