Ken Liu · 450 pages
Rating: (9.2K votes)
“Who can say if the thoughts you have in your mind as you read these words are the same thoughts I had in my mind as I typed them? We are different, you and I, and the qualia of our consciousnesses are as divergent as two stars at the ends of the universe.
And yet, whatever has been lost in translation in the long journey of my thoughts through the maze of civilization to your mind, I think you do understand me, and you think you do understand me. Our minds managed to touch, if but briefly and imperfectly.
Does that thought not make the universe seem just a bit kinder, a bit brighter, a bit warmer and more human?
We live for such miracles.”
“Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.”
“We are defined by the places we hold in the web of others’ lives.”
“We spend our entire lives trying to tell stories about ourselves—they’re the essence of memory. It is how we make living in this unfeeling, accidental universe tolerable.”
“There are many ways to say I love you in this cold, dark, silent universe, as many as the twinkling stars.”
“At this moment, in this place, the shifting action potential in my neurons cascade into certain arrangements, patterns, thoughts; they flow down my spine, branch into my arms, my fingers, until muscles twitch and thought is translated into motion; mechanical levers are pressed; electrons are rearranged; marks are made on paper.
At another time, in another place, light strikes the marks, reflects into a pair of high-precision optical instruments sculpted by nature after billions of years of random mutations; upside-down images are formed against two screens made up of millions of light-sensitive cells, which translate light into electrical pulses that go up the optic nerves, cross the chiasm, down the optic tracts, and into the visual cortex, where the pulses are reassembled into letters, punctuation marks, words, sentences, vehicles, tenors, thoughts.
The entire system seems fragile, preposterous, science fictional.”
“I don't pay much attention to the distinction between fantasy and science fiction–or between “genre” and “mainstream” for that matter. For me, all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors-which is the logic of narratives in general–over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless.
We spend our entire lives trying to tell stories about ourselves–they’re the essence of memory. It is how we make living in this unfeeling accidental universe tolerable. That we call such a tendency “the narrative fallacy” doesn’t mean it doesn’t also touch upon some aspect of the truth.
Some stories simply literalize their metaphors a bit more explicitly.”
“But being the mirrors for each other's souls has a cost: by the time they part from each other, the individuals in the mating pair have become indistinguishable. Before their merger, they each yearned for the other; as they part, they part from the self. The very quality that attracted them to each other is also, inevitably, destroyed in their union.”
“Time's arrow is the loss of fidelity in compression. A sketch, not a photograph. A memory is a re-creation, precious because it is both more and less than the original.”
“The universe is full of echoes and shadows, the afterimages and last words of dead civilizations that have lost the struggle against entropy. Fading ripples in the cosmic background radiation, it is doubtful if most, or any, of these messages will ever be deciphered. Likewise, most of our thoughts and memories are destined to fade, to disappear, to be consumed by the very act of choosing and living. That is not a cause for sorrow, sweetheart. It is the fate of every species to disappear into the void that is the heat death of the universe. But long before then, the thoughts of any intelligent species worthy of the name will become as grand as the universe itself.”
“There is no definitive census of all the intelligent species in the universe. Not only are there perennial arguments about what qualifies as intelligence, but each moment and everywhere, civilizations rise and fall, much as the stars are born and die. Time devours all. Yet every species has its unique way of passing on its wisdom through the ages, its way of making thoughts visible, tangible, frozen for a moment like a bulwark against the irresistible tide of time. Everyone makes books.”
“The animals will stop moving when I stop breathing. But if I write to you with all my heart, I’ll leave a little of myself behind on this paper, in these words. Then, if you think of me on Qingming, when the spirits of the departed are allowed to visit their families, you’ll make the parts of myself I leave behind come alive too. The creatures I made for you will again leap and run and pounce, and maybe you’ll get to see these words then.”
“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.”
“Pockets of sentience glow in the cold, deep void of the universe like bubbles in a vast, dark sea.”
“fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors—which is the logic of narratives in general—over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless.”
“The character for ‘mob’ is formed from the character for ‘nobility’ on one side and the character for ‘sheep’ on the other. So that’s what a mob is, a herd of sheep that turns into a pack of wolves because they believe themselves to be serving a noble cause.”
“There are no heroes, Tian Haoli. Grand Secretary Shi was both courageous and cowardly, capable and foolish. Wang Xiuchu was both an opportunistic survivor and a man of greatness of spirit. I’m mostly selfish and vain, but sometimes even I surprise myself. We’re all just ordinary men—well, I’m an ordinary demon—faced with extraordinary choices. In those moments, sometimes heroic ideals demand that we become their avatars.”
“But the real attraction of such technology has never been about capturing reality. Photography, videography, holography... the progression of such “reality-capturing” technology has been a proliferation of ways to lie about reality, to shape and distort it, to manipulate and fantasize. People shape and stage the experiences of their lives for the camera, go on vacations with one eye glued to the video camera. The desire to freeze reality is about avoiding reality.”
“The Allatians believe that they have a writing system superior to all others. Unlike books written in alphabets, syllabaries, or logograms, an Allatian book captures not only words, but also the writer’s tone, voice, inflection, emphasis, intonation, rhythm. It is simultaneously a score and a recording. A speech sounds like a speech, a lament a lament, and a story re-creates perfectly the teller’s breathless excitement. For the Allatians, reading is literally hearing the voice of the past.
But there is a cost to the beauty of the Allatian book. Because the act of reading requires physical contact with the soft, malleable surface, each time a text is read, it is also damaged and some aspects of the original irretrievably lost. Copies made of more durable materials inevitably fail to capture all the subtleties of the writer’s voice, and are thus shunned.
In order to preserve their literary heritage, the Allatians have to lock away their most precious manuscripts in forbidding libraries where few are granted access. Ironically, the most important and beautiful works of Allatian writers are rarely read, but are known only through interpretations made by scribes who attempt to reconstruct the original in new books after hearing the source read at special ceremonies.”
“Miss Lilly.” Mr. Kan stood up and solemnly shook her hand. “When there is such a large gap of years between two friends, we Chinese call it wang nien chih chiao, a friendship that forgets the years. It’s destiny that brings us together. I hope you will always think of me and Teddy as your friends.”
“History is a narrative enterprise, and the telling of stories that are true, that affirm and explain our existence, is the fundamental task of the historian. But truth is delicate, and it has many enemies. Perhaps that is why, although we academics are supposedly in the business of pursuing the truth, the word “truth” is rarely uttered without hedges, adornments, and qualifications.
Every time we tell a story about a great atrocity, like the Holocaust or Pingfang, the forces of denial are always ready to pounce, to erase, to silence, to forget. History has always been difficult because of the delicacy of the truth, and denialists have always been able to resort to labeling the truth as fiction.
One has to be careful, whenever one tells a story about a great injustice. We are a species that loves narrative, but we have also been taught not to trust an individual speaker.
Yes, it is true that no nation, and no historian, can tell a story that completely encompasses every aspect of the truth. But it is not true that just because all narratives are constructed, that they are equally far from the truth. The Earth is neither a perfect sphere nor a flat disk, but the model of the sphere is much closer to the truth. Similarly, there are some narratives that are closer to the truth than others, and we must always try to tell a story that comes as close to the truth as is humanly possible.
The fact that we can never have complete, perfect knowledge does not absolve us of the moral duty to judge and to take a stand against evil.”
“For a moment, as I listened to her, I felt as if I could step through the distance between us and hear an echo of the world through her ears, see the stars through her eyes: an austere clarity that made my heart leap.”
“You know what the Chinese think is the saddest feeling in the world? It's for a child to finally grow the desire to take care of his parents, only to realize that they were long gone.”
“Ever since I became an American, people have told me that America is about leaving your past behind. I’ve never understood that. You can no more leave behind your past than you can leave behind your skin.
The compulsion to delve into the past, to speak for the dead, to recover their stories: that’s part of who Evan was, and why I loved him. Just the same, my grandfather is part of who I am, and what he did, he did in the name of my mother and me and my children. I am responsible for his sins, in the same way that I take pride in inheriting the tradition of a great people, a people who, in my grandfather’s time, committed great evil.
In an extraordinary time, he faced extraordinary choices, and maybe some would say this means that we cannot judge him. But how can we really judge anyone except in the most extraordinary of circumstances? It’s easy to be civilized and display a patina of orderliness in calm times, but your true character only emerges in darkness and under great pressure: is it a diamond or merely a lump of the blackest coal?
Yet, my grandfather was not a monster. He was simply a man of ordinary moral courage whose capacity for great evil was revealed to his and my lasting shame. Labeling someone a monster implies that he is from another world, one which has nothing to do with us. It cuts off the bonds of affection and fear, assures us of our own superiority, but there’s nothing learned, nothing gained. It’s simple, but it’s cowardly. I know now that only by empathizing with a man like my grandfather can we understand the depth of the suffering he caused. There are no monsters. The monster is us.”
“The universe is full of echoes and shadows, the afterimages and last words of dead civilizations that have lost the struggle against entropy. Fading ripples in the cosmic background radiation, it is doubtful if most, or any, of these messages will ever be deciphered.”
“...reading is literally hearing the voice of the past.”
“My darling, my child, my connoisseur of sesquipedalian words and convoluted ideas and meandering sentences and baroque images, while the sun is asleep and the moon somnambulant, while the stars bathe us in their glow from eons ago and light-years away, while you are comfortably nestled in your blankets and I am hunched over in my chair by your bed, while we are warm and safe and still for the moment in this bubble of incandescent light cast by the pearl held up by the mermaid lamp, you and I, on this planet spinning and hurtling through the frigid darkness of space at dozens of miles per second, let’s read.”
“...while the sun is asleep and the moon somnambulant, while the stars bathe us in their glow from eons ago and light-years away, while you are comfortably nestled in your blankets and I am hunched over in my chair by your bed, while we are warm and safe and still for the moment in this bubble of incandescent light cast by the pearl held up by the mermaid lamp, you and I, on this planet spinning and hurtling through the frigid darkness of space at dozens of miles per second, let's read.”
“The truth is not delicate and it does not suffer from denial—the truth only dies when true stories are untold. This”
“We have children because we can’t remember our own first taste of ambrosia.” I can’t”
“productividad es el acto de acercar a la empresa a su meta. Las acciones que acercan a una compañía a su meta son productivas. Las acciones que no acercan a la compañía a su meta no son productivas.”
“Bad stories can create good people, and I wanted to protect them from those bad stories so they could live with the good person they'd created without ever worrying about what I had to go through to become that person. I kept those secrets because I needed to . . . and sometimes it's OK to make those kinds of decisions for the sake of your own happiness.”
“I was afraid to fall asleep, but staying awake also brought back painful memories. Memories I sometimes wish I could wash away, even though I am aware that they are an important part of what my life is; who I am now. I stayed up all night, anxiously waiting for daylight, so that I could fully return to my new life, to rediscover happiness I had known as a child, the joy that had stayed alive inside me even through times when being alive itself became a burden. These days I live in three worlds: my dreams, and the experiences of my new life, which trigger memories from the past.”
“dream with your heart and the universe will bend at your will.”
“My grandfather came back, and his death bought the house at no. 6; half a century later it was turned into yet another journey to America. And that was fitting, because the history of a family begins when a person leaves home.”
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