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Book Review: The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, by Ken Liu

You’ve probably read an article (or twenty) about whether and how you should use ChatGPT. But Ken Liu’s The Hidden Girl and Other Stories might prompt you to extend your thinking and ponder a more existential question: what if you were ChatGPT?

Cover of The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, by Ken Liu.

To be clear, he doesn’t ask this explicitly. The short stories in Liu’s second anthology were originally published before ChatGPT burst onto the scene in late 2022; none of them reference “generative AI” or “large language models.” But one of the collection’s dominant themes is the nature of consciousness, a topic Liu explores most directly by considering the ramifications of the Singularity, i.e., “digital immortality, the fusion of man and machine.”


Some of the stories illustrate intermediate steps on the path to this potential union. “Real Artists” projects what might happen to creatives when AI becomes better at crafting movies than humans—and how humans might be called upon to support AI (rather than the other way around). A trio of interconnected stories about “post-human, pre-Singularity … artificial sentiences” chronicles the conflicts that arise after corporations seeking to retain the skills of essential employees convert their minds into algorithms.


But most of the stories dealing with this subject reflect on the end state: what happens when people choose to upload their consciousness into the digital ether? Liu suggests the possibilities are both boundless and unfulfilling.


“Staying Behind” proposes that the initial decision might be whether to leave your body behind via a “destructive scanning procedure” that renders your “brain a bloody, pulpy mess.” But subsequent stories suggest that “uploaded” men and women will quickly learn how to reproduce, creating digital children who’ve never experienced the real world but can manipulate their virtual reality in any way they wish—“live in multiple dimensions, invent impossible foods, possess worlds that are as infinite as the sands of the Ganges.” In other words, our ultimate evolution in this scenario is to become billions of self-aware ChatGPTs, generating intelligently and endlessly.


For some, though, this will be a state of being without substance. “Something has been lost to humanity since we gained this immortal command over an imagined existence,” a woman says in “Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer.” She goes on to argue that, “We have turned inward and become complacent.” More succinctly, a young girl in “The Gods Have Not Died in Vain” asserts that, “Life is about embodiment.” The implication is that some measure of our vitality comes from our vitals—that the flesh encapsulating the human mind influences how it perceives in ways that can’t be simulated.


Additional pieces in the collection complicate that narrative. And like The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Liu’s first anthology, the related themes of identity and memory provide further touchpoints. Pieces such as “Ghost Days” contemplate how what we remember—willingly or otherwise—grounds our definition of self. “You humans think you are what you’ve done,” a (decidedly non-human) character argues. “But you’re really what you remember.”


So which is it? What counts as consciousness and real, meaningful experience? Liu never clarifies his views in a way that feels definitive, so I won’t try to speak for him. But I enjoyed following along as he investigated various answers, even if they often tilted dark. (The long-term consequences of climate change are another theme. For Liu, they include a flooded Earth, floating refugee collectives, and “the sunken metropolis of Boston,” as detailed in “Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit—Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts.”)


I particularly liked some of the stories that don’t deal with the Singularity. “Thoughts and Prayers,” “Memories of my Mother,” and “The Message” are all examples of why sometimes Liu is at his best when he goes lighter on the science and uses it primarily as a tee-up for unpacking emotional resonances. I love his fantasy, too; the titular “The Hidden Girl,” which features an “anti-assassin,” is just plain fun.


Other stories worked less well for me. “Byzantine Empathy” comes off as a lecture on how blockchain technology could transform charitable giving, and “Grey Rabbit, Crimson Mare, Coal Leopard” feels less focused than most of Liu’s other pieces (even though it begins with post-apocalyptic dumpster diving in “midden mines,” which is a spectacular bit of worldbuilding).


But I don’t start an anthology expecting to love every entry. And hit or miss, each tale in this collection made me think. I didn’t come to any profound conclusions about what it means to be human or whether I might want to participate in the Singularity if that possibility became available to me. Reading The Hidden Girl and Other Stories did, however, remind me that Liu is a singular author, one whose skill generative AI can’t match.


Yet. But in another act of prescience, “Real Artists” works in a reference to folk hero John Henry: “He was a laborer on the railroads in the nineteenth century,” one character summarizes. “When the owners brought in steam-powered hammers to take jobs away from the driving crews, John challenged a steam hammer to a race to see who could work faster.” “Did he win?” another character asks. “Yes. But as soon as the race was over, he died of exhaustion. He was the last man to challenge the steam hammers because the machines got faster every year.”


The Henry anecdote is probably apocryphal. But its use in “Real Artists” is unsettling and insightful. And I expect nothing less from a Ken Liu story, whether it’s foreshadowing ChatGPT or some other near-(or far-)future development.

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Cover of the historical fantasy novel Witch in the White City, by Nick Wisseman.

Millions of visitors. Thousands of exhibits. One fiendish killer.

Neva’s goals at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago are simple. Enjoy the spectacle—perhaps the greatest the United States has ever put on. (The world’s fair to end all world’s fairs!) Perform in the exposition’s Algerian Theatre to the best of her abilities. And don’t be found out as a witch.

Easy enough … until the morning she looks up in the Theatre and sees strangely marked insects swarming a severed hand in the rafters.

"... a wild ride sure to please lovers of supernatural historical mysteries." – Publishers Weekly

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