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Author Topic: PC290: Maxwell's Demon  (Read 2255 times)
Talia
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« on: December 12, 2013, 09:35:00 AM »

PodCastle 290: Maxwell’s Demon

by Ken Liu.

Read by Aki Gibbons, of the website Okinawa Blue.

Originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

February 1943

Application for Leave Clearance, Tule Lake War Relocation Center

Name: Takako Yamashiro

Question 27: Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?

    I do not know how to answer this question. I am a woman, ineligible for combat.

Question 28: Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any and all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor or any other foreign government, power, or organization?

    I do not know how to answer this question. I was born in Seattle, Washington. I have never had any form of allegiance to the Japanese Emperor, so there’s nothing to forswear. I will swear unqualified allegiance to my country when my country frees me and my family.



Rated R for violent content, specifically war atrocities.


Listen to this week’s PodCastle!
« Last Edit: January 03, 2014, 11:35:40 AM by Talia » Logged
HueItzcoatl
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« Reply #1 on: December 13, 2013, 11:52:19 AM »

I just finished listening to this episode. ((Technically not yet done, still have the comments to listen to)) I haven't made a story comment in a rather long time, but this story has made me leave the shadows to make a post. I cried, I cried like a little girl as I listened to this story. I shouldn't be surprised Ken did the same thing to me when I've listened to his other works, he really does know how to pluck those heart strings.

The narration was beautiful done and the story was well constructed, I'm not completely sure about the historical accuracy when it comes to the main character's experience but it's believable enough where I didn't feel the need to question it. I did like the way that "Maxwell's Demon" was used as an integral part of the story, being a self identified physicist I love when all things science make there way into a story.

Being of Mexican decent, the story really spoke to me. Because my parents were born in Mexico I find myself stuck in the middle of two worlds. I am expected to be a better American than other Americans, but also a better Mexican than those born in Mexico. Many people think that my I have some unspoken loyalty to the birthplace of my parents and need to prove my patriotism.

While I can never relate to having your family placed into a camp I can understand completely the sentiment of having to prove how good of an American you are.
« Last Edit: December 13, 2013, 11:56:43 AM by HueItzcoatl » Logged

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evrgrn_monster
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« Reply #2 on: December 13, 2013, 11:42:46 PM »

I have mixed feelings about this story. On one hand, I thought it was beautifully written. I liked the intro in particular, with the questions and the way Takako chose to answer them. I found it clever and a great way to set up the character. The ending, which I initially thought was cheesy, was actually, upon further contemplation, really perfect. The American government and military had used and failed her in every way, and yet, in her last act, she embraces America as her only home and the place to where she wishes to return, despite her having so many reasons to despise it.

However, I honestly felt no sadness for Takako, for one reason alone; she created the bomb, and knowing what it was, decided to unleash it. She didn't have to give the spirits over to America for that purpose, yet she did, knowing the death she would be responsible for. I felt pity for her position up until this decision. I realize that she rationalized it, and I am not trying to start an argument about whether or not the bomb dropping was a good military decision or not, but I felt, with that one action, she deserved her fate.

I felt a lot of similarities between this story and the recent one Escape Pod ran, The Boy in Zaquitos. Anyone else feel that way?

The narration was great though. I would love to hear Aki read again!
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danooli
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« Reply #3 on: December 14, 2013, 07:37:14 AM »

However, I honestly felt no sadness for Takako, for one reason alone; she created the bomb, and knowing what it was, decided to unleash it.

That is a very understandable reaction. I don't agree with it, but I do understand it.  I, personally, felt complete sadness for Takako.  She was just a woman trying to make her way in the world when she was swept up and put into an impossible situation.  She had her families safety hanging over her; if she didn't comply, she had no way of helping to ensure her mother, father and brother survive the war.  I have to believe she did it for them.

Ken Lui is an incredible storyteller.  I can almost hate him for his perfection (he's an incredible writer, a lawyer, programmer & translator?  Plus he has time to have a family?  I bet he's also super nice too.  There has to be something he's not awesome at right?) but I just can't.  I love his stories too much.  I do know, however, to always have a whole box of tissues ready when his words flow.  He sure does make me cry.

The reading by Aki Gibbons was wonderful and so tender.  I can't wait to hear her again!
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jdarksun
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« Reply #4 on: December 14, 2013, 09:10:26 PM »

I am going to spoiler this because it's negative feedback.  I don't like posting negative feedback, especially to a good story.  But I felt the timing of when this story was run was poorly considered, and felt the need to address that.
Spoiler (click to show/hide)
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Devoted135
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« Reply #5 on: December 14, 2013, 10:46:28 PM »

The thing that I appreciate about Ken Liu is that while he usually writes heart-felt, poignant stories, he's no Mike Resnick. It never feels like he is engineering scenarios to push the max number of "buttons." He just writes really great stories full of empathetic characters. I think this is my favorite of his since the Paper Menagerie, and I really loved Takako as a main character. She's smart and self-possessed, and has dignity even when her circumstances are undignified. Also, the reader did a great job. Smiley


She didn't have to give the spirits over to America for that purpose, yet she did, knowing the death she would be responsible for.

Hm, I may have missed something. Perhaps I should go listen to that section again.
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« Reply #6 on: December 16, 2013, 10:06:24 AM »

I liked this.  As ever, Ken Liu is great at what he does.

I was worried as the story started that it was going to be a lecture about how crappy American society treated those of Japanese heritage during the war.  But I felt that it balanced that well with showing us how crappy the Japanese society acted as well.  The protagonist was ill-treated by both who both considered her "foreign" in a time when foreignness was considered a crime.  At first I didn't like the ending, even though it was foreshadowed and completely fitting with the situation because in the end she was backed into an impossible situation and had no choice.  But thinking on it further, the fact that she would choose to imbue herself into the very symbol of the country that sent her there says a lot about her, and that is a choice and a real showing of character.

I like stories that plausibly combine magic and science.  Because if magic is real, science would not deny it, science would work to study it and document it and make use of it.  Although along that line I did think the explanation of the theoretical Maxwell's Demon machine had a flaw--it claimed that by the demon opening/shutting the door at certain times there would be potential energy added to the system without energy being spent.  But the opening of the door has to cost some energy--in the case of the ghosts it's a source of energy that was previously undiscovered and untapped, so it seems to come from nowhere, but it had existed before.  I didn't get any sense that conservation of energy was being violated here, it's just that the spirit energy, ectoplasmic energy, whatever, was being harnessed.

Ken Lui is an incredible storyteller.  I can almost hate him for his perfection (he's an incredible writer, a lawyer, programmer & translator?  Plus he has time to have a family?  I bet he's also super nice too.

He is indeed very nice.  Smiley
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« Reply #7 on: December 16, 2013, 12:49:50 PM »

This blew me away. Hard to drive through tears. Dammit.
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Moritz
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« Reply #8 on: December 19, 2013, 07:11:53 AM »

I am also a bit conflicted about what to say about the story, mainly because here's a horrible part of human history, and why then mix a fantastical element into it? This story could have worked without the spirits, too, I guess. I was rather touched emotionally and felt a bit weird that there was this supernatural element to it. On the other hand, of course it was well written. I liked the details about Japanese and Japanese-American history, some of which I wasn't that familiar with.

@ jdarksun: Being an American born and raised in Europe, I didn't have any connection to the timing of the story.
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Max e^{i pi}
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« Reply #9 on: December 19, 2013, 08:44:38 AM »

Well, I was disappointed. When I saw the title I was immediately reminded of my first exposure to Maxwell's Demon, so many years ago. It was via Mr. Tompkins. My friend lent me his father's copy back when we were in middle school.  (And I'm pretty sure that his father bought it when he was in his twenties many years after the publication date, I'm not  that old.)
So I thought that this would be about a Discworldian demon. But no. It was about war and death and selfish manipulations and sacrifice.
It was beautifully written and excellently narrated, but not the story I was expecting.
« Last Edit: December 19, 2013, 08:47:51 AM by Max e^{i pi} » Logged

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albionmoonlight
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« Reply #10 on: December 20, 2013, 04:09:56 PM »

This reminded me a lot of Cloud Atlas (book; I have yet to see the movie).  A world where large forces of evil and selfishness pervade.  But you follow individual people who are trying to find and do good in that world.  A battle between good and evil where your sense of who "won" really requires you to think about what you mean by victory.

A great story that will stay in my head for a long time. 
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Varda
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« Reply #11 on: December 22, 2013, 10:23:08 AM »

I have to confess that some aspects of this story rubbed me the wrong way, specifically the handling of the sexual exploitation of the main character. My problem is the setup: Takako is your average American woman with a physics degree before she is coerced into this crazy spy-mission because the government holds the safety and well-being of her family over her head. While it's true that she loves her country, she's only on this mission because they've given her no other option - not because she's had spy training or really wants to be doing this. So while I get why she's put into a position where she has to rely on her sexuality to get in the good graces of the Sergeant, I couldn't relate to her feelings on the situation. It's not like your average woman wakes up one day suddenly okay with being told she must have sex with certain men as dictated by her government without at least some feelings on the issue. It's almost as if the author expects me to believe that the whole setup is somehow more consensual than it really is, when the reality's that the US Government has forcibly sent a regular citizen into sexual exploitation.

I mean, I get that this is WWII we're talking about, and that historically such things happened and are probably happening even now, but I'm bothered by the lack of empathy with the way the whole thing was handled, as if the sexual exploitation is just a thing that will naturally happen to women and therefore bears no more mentioning.

Anyway, other than that, I enjoyed the story. I agree that Liu is a highly gifted storyteller, and that the reader was a fantastic pick.
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Anyanwu
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« Reply #12 on: December 24, 2013, 12:19:11 PM »

Despite the sad, awful, terrible situation of the character, the story failed to get an emotional reaction from me. This is odd for me. Takako is a well educated, ethnic minority US citizen who is treated unfairly by her country. She is coerced in to being a spy in the country of her ancestors and is mistreated there, also. She is descended from a cultural minority in Japan, Okinawa. This aspect of her ancestry and talents are manipulated and exploited. We won't even touch on the sexual abuse she suffers. All of this in the setting of war, concentration camps, and village massacres.  I should have been bawling my eyes out. I should have been angry, upset or even annoyed. Have I become so jaded that war crimes and injustices suffered by Takako no longer effect me? No, I don't think so. The story was told with an element of detachment and passivity that I felt like a distant observer. Takako did not even seemed angered by her experiences. It felt cold to me. At least in my experience, the telling of the story failed to cross cultural lines and make the emotional connection that should make us all indignant about the atrocities of war.
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« Reply #13 on: December 26, 2013, 10:39:35 AM »

I have to confess that some aspects of this story rubbed me the wrong way, specifically the handling of the sexual exploitation of the main character. My problem is the setup: Takako is your average American woman with a physics degree before she is coerced into this crazy spy-mission because the government holds the safety and well-being of her family over her head. While it's true that she loves her country, she's only on this mission because they've given her no other option - not because she's had spy training or really wants to be doing this. So while I get why she's put into a position where she has to rely on her sexuality to get in the good graces of the Sergeant, I couldn't relate to her feelings on the situation. It's not like your average woman wakes up one day suddenly okay with being told she must have sex with certain men as dictated by her government without at least some feelings on the issue. It's almost as if the author expects me to believe that the whole setup is somehow more consensual than it really is, when the reality's that the US Government has forcibly sent a regular citizen into sexual exploitation.

That's a good point, that had bothered me some but not enough to put a finger on it.  I don't know if they told her to expect that or if she made the decision on her own, but it did seem that she took that one more nonchalantly than someone with her background credibly would have, without any apparent hesitation.  I think I remember other spy stories (Alias, maybe?) where a female spy does not have sex in pursuit of her spying because she does not want to be prostituted by her government--in retrospect I would've expected a thought process like that to at least be mentioned even if she ultimately chose to go ahead with it anyway.  And the fact that she was there under duress and not out of any soul-firing patriotism to preserve America at all costs makes it seem less likely that she would just go ahead with it. 
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Procyon
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« Reply #14 on: December 26, 2013, 08:17:07 PM »

Despite the sad, awful, terrible situation of the character, the story failed to get an emotional reaction from me. This is odd for me.

I have to say that this is essentially how I felt too.  Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood?  I don't have much else to add.
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