Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dissecting the Short Story: "Memories of My Mother" by Ken Liu

As discussed recently, this is the first post in the reboot of my Dissecting the Short Story series. Remember that I won't be shy about including spoiler material in this analysis, so if you haven't read this story it might be worth your time to read it first before reading the bulk of this post.

"Memories of My Mother" by Ken Liu
Published in:
March 19th, Daily Science Fiction
Approximate Length:
1000 words
First Person, Chronological, Mixed Past and Present Tense
Summary [WARNING: Spoilers Included!]:
The first-person narrator, age 10, comes home from school. Her mother is there and we find out that it's the first time the narrator has seen her mother for quite some time. It's revealed that her mother has a fatal illness and with a prognosis of only two years to live she has chosen to use time dilation (by traveling on a very fast spaceship) so she can still see her daughter grow up despite her own limited lifespan.

We drop in on the main character and her mother on three future visits, at ages (for the main character) 17, 38, and 80. Her mother stays in her mid-20s all this time. As a result of the varying age gaps the characters' relationship changes significantly over time.


Stories this short are interesting to try to take apart. In one way they provide fewer handholds but they can require certain economies which have the possibility to be instructive.

One of the things that the author did to convey the main character's feelings was to use contradictions heavily:
  • At 10: "She looked exactly the way she did in the pictures hung everywhere in our house: black hair, brown eyes, smooth, pale skin. Yet she also felt like a stranger."
  • At 17: "I liked that she pushed her way in to see me and I also hated it. It was confusing."
  • At 38: "And I was angry with her for being able to smile and I was also glad that she was there with me. It was confusing."
  • At 80: "I'm sad to hear this, and yet I'm also happy. It's confusing."
As you can see from those excerpts, there's also some repetition of phrases.  (The relationship between parent and child definitely can be confusing and time dilation would certainly only make it more so...)

We watch the main character change, not just in circumstance but in personality: At 10 "I was not yet so good at lying" and at 38 "I was tired of lying." (Though she does, in the end, tell a lie to protect her mother just moments later.)

Something else that struck me now is that a pattern could be read into the relationships at the various ages:
  • At 10: MC = Child & Mother = Parent
  • At 17: Sisters
  • At 38: MC = Parent & Mother = Child (Suggested by the comments about having more lines on her face than her mother does & choosing to protect her from unpleasant facts.)
  • At 80: Sisters (This one may be a stretch, but the mother's hands are shaking -- as many 80-year-olds' hands do -- and they both presumably have only a short time to live.)
One thing which I didn't notice until I was re-reading the story was the tense change of the final section. Everything else was in past tense, the final section is in present tense. I've thought about this some and couldn't come up with a definitive idea as to why this switch was made. However, the fact that it didn't jump out and smack me in the face the first time or two I read the story would seem to suggest that it was done in a non-intrusive way. Tense changes can be very tricky. Having the change in tense come in a totally separate section probably helped it go down more easily in this story.

Did The Story Work For Me?

Basically, yes. I'm a big fan of Ken Liu's stories and I suspect his name will become very well known in spec-fic circles in the very very near future. This story was well-written and emotionally effective.

I commented on Twitter when I first read this one that I'm tired of reading time dilation stories (it seems a very specific device to show up as regularly as I've seen it in stories I've read the past six months) but that's no fault of the author.

Having now given the story a careful reading rather than the more surface read I gave it the first time through, I've got a lot of respect for the things that the author packed into such a short space.

I hope that others have read the story and will be interested in joining in the discussion. Look for a poll with three choices for the May entry in this series to be coming in about 1-2 weeks.

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