“Mono No Aware” by Ken Liu (2012, originally published in The Future is Japanese anthology, reprinted 2013 and free online at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2013 Hugo award (short story)
Hiroto Shimizu is a twenty-five year old man living on a generation spaceship that left Earth when Hiroto was eight years old, just before an asteroid destroyed our planet and the rest of humanity. The ship is traveling to a star called 61 Virginis (an actual star about 27.5 lightyears away from our Earth, with a composition nearly identical to our sun). The trip that is expected to take about three hundred years, with the ship using a vast solar sail for propulsion.
The story alternates between Hiroto’s current life on board the starship ― teaching children about Japanese culture, pursuing a relationship with another survivor of the disaster, and monitoring the grid of indicator lights that show any problems with the solar sail ― and his experiences as a young boy in Japan, during the last months before our world was destroyed, revealing both the best and worst of humanity. Most of all, Hiroto remembers his father: his faith in the Japanese people, and the way they are defined by their relationships and their concern for the group above their own individual needs. When it becomes clear that disaster is inevitable, his father teaches Hiroto about finding joy even in the impermanence of all things:
“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.”
Ken Liu explores an impressively wide array of ideas in this short story, including concern for others, pride in a culture, the definition of being a hero. Viewed in one way, this is a simple story, but the exploration of these themes and multiple sublime details, including the initial comparison of the solar sail-powered ship to the kanji for “umbrella,” some lovely haiku and the reflection of the themes in the Asian game Go, make this an extraordinary story. Liu’s interview with Lightspeed, in which he discusses these ideas and themes further, shouldn’t be missed. ~Tadiana Jones
“Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson (1990, originally published in Asimov’s; reprinted 2014 and free online in Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue). 1990 Nebula and 1991 Hugo awards (short story)
I was delighted to find that “Bears Discover Fire,” a much-anthologized short story by Terry Bisson, was republished in 2014 by Lightspeed. The narrator, referred to by his nephew Wallace Jr. as “Uncle Bobby,” is a sixty-one year old, down-to-earth man, deliberately removed from the fast pace of modern life. While driving his old ’56 Caddy to visit his aged mother with his brother Wallace and Wallace Jr., they pull into the median to fix a flat tire. In a moment that encapsulates their characters and values, Uncle Bobby teaches Wallace Jr. how to fix a flat while Wallace chides him for not using new puncture-resistant radial tires that can be instantly repaired with a spray of FlatFIx. And then the bears show up, holding torches aloft while Bobby finishes fixing the tire as fast as humanly possible. “Looks like bears have discovered fire,” Wallace comments as they drive away.
Bobby is doing his best to help his dying mother, who is ready to be done with life, as well as his nephew, who seems to be short-changed by his busy parents, too preoccupied with selling real estate under the “Revolving Equity Success Plan” to pay much attention to raising their son. The fact that Wallace is a minister who “makes two-thirds of his living in real estate” is one of many ironies in the tale. Another is the gradual loss of honor, values and decency among humans, while the bears are developing a nascent civilization and exhibit decency and sharing, despite their inability to speak. It’s a memorable and moving story told with dry humor that, perhaps unsurprisingly, reveals more about humanity than it does about the bears. ~Tadiana Jones
“For Want of a Nail” by Mary Robinette Kowal (2010, originally published in Asimov’s, free online on author’s website). 2011 Hugo award (short story)
In another story set on board a generation ship, Rava attempts to replug a transmitter cable in the chassis of Cordelia, her family’s AI that keeps all the records and history of her family, while her insolent brother Ludoviko watches and offers snide commentary about Rava’s negligence in letting Cordelia be damaged at a party. The AI is able to connect with every member of the family at all times through their VR glasses, and they rely on her memory for all of their history and information.
When Rava finally succeeds in getting the cable plugged in, Cordelia’s long-term memory is still faulty. They determine that a socket needs to be replaced, and Rava realizes that they will have to ask Uncle Georgo, Cordelia’s “wrangler” or caretaker prior to Rava, where spare parts for Cordelia can be found. Rava dreads having Uncle Georgo find out about her mistake with Cordelia, but as she, Ludoviko and Cordelia contact Georgo and visit him in his rooms, it becomes apparent that Cordelia’s problem has cracked open a far greater difficulty, one that affects the entire family.
In “For Want of a Nail,” Mary Robinette Kowal has created a realistic vision of life in a generation ship, where reproduction is strictly controlled and conservation of resources requires that any person aboard the ship who has become non-productive be promptly “recycled.” The concerns about different characters’ worth and value, and how that can change due to aging or other factors, are echoed in the debate about what to do with Cordelia the AI, who is virtually human in her thoughts and actions. ~Tadiana Jones
“A Walk in the Sun” by Geoffrey Landis (1991, free at Baen [sample story from The New Hugo Winners-Volume IV anthology], $4.95 on Audible). 1992 Hugo award (short story)
Patricia Mulligan, the pilot of a three-person spaceship on a mission orbiting the moon, unexpectedly has to crash land the ship on the moon. Trish is the only survivor; the ship is irreparable. She contacts mission control on Earth and ― just before her radio irretrievably breaks down ― is told that the soonest a rescue mission can arrive is in thirty days. Trish has enough food and her spacesuit can recycle water and air, but the suit depends on a fragile solar panel attachment for power to do these functions. There are no power storage cells, and no apparent way to survive the fourteen-day lunar night that will arrive at Patricia’s location in three days. So Trish starts walking, following the sun to try to stay alive until she can be rescued.
This is a fairly straightforward science fiction tale about an astronaut stranded on another world and the extraordinary actions she needs to take to try to survive until rescue can arrive. If that sounds rather familiar, I do think that Andy Weir’s The Martian owes something to this Hugo award-winning short story that was written twenty years earlier. The story is given some additional weight and resonance by Trish’s increasing mental disorientation during her ordeal and her revealing discussions with her dead sister Karen, whom Trish hallucinates as company during her trek. ~Tadiana Jones
If you get a chance, Tadiana, I recommend that you read The Paper Menagerie, Liu’s short story collection. The whole thing is gold, top to bottom.
That Liu collection is definitely on my to-read list!