Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tying Knots

Short Story by Ken Liu
Text and Audio from Clarkesworld, read by Kate Baker.

Soe-bo is an elder in an isolated Burmese village atop a mountain. They are subsistence farmers having a difficult time surviving due to increased droughts (climate change-related). Tom is a biotech researcher visiting from Boston, he sifts through ancient cultures for medicines and ideas.

A beautifully written, complexly political bit of present-day SF. Great scenery and ideas, exploration of other culture, and a lot to think about. And he gets the science right.
4.5 knot-books out of 5.


Tom is impressed by Soe-bo's ability to see how knots will change the shape of rope, developed because of the village's knot-based written records in place of writing as we usually think of it. The fictional system here is based on a few different ancient cultures. Anyway, Tom wants Soe-bo to help him with protein folding, which is more complicated than you'd think. An early part of the story that impressed my was Liu's explanation of the problems of computer modeling and protein folding. The science is very good in this present-day Science Fiction (in the fiction-about-science sense).

The story switches between the two men's viewpoints, characterizing each of them well, so you can see everyone's motivation and rationality. Events take a couple of surprising turns and lead to an ending that some will see coming (cynicism dependent), but doesn't reduce the impact any less. Initially a heart-warming story of cooperation and problem-solving, the story ends leaving me feeling both furious and sad (in a good way). This is a much more reasonable, measured, yet scathing take on some complex political issues than most stories addressing them tend to be. And some of these issues are tragically undernoticed.

Copyright and intellectual property, cultural invasion, exploitation, this is a story that could have happened today and just hasn't been leaked yet. Not so much near-future SF as present-day. Most significantly, the story takes a reasonable view of both the positives and negatives of genetically modified crops. None of the anti-science alarmism common to certain political extremes, but neither the blind defense of corporations unable to differentiate between helping people profitably and exploiting them. Overall, a suitably complex discussion of a number of important issues, told through the stories of an "illiterate peasant" and a clueless/self-deluding asshole of a scientist.

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