Today I have reviews of “The Wretched and the Beautiful” by E. Lily Yu and J.Y. Yang’s “Auspicium Melioris Aevi”.
“The Wretched and the Beautiful” by E. Lily Yu (Terraform, February 2017)
E. Lily Yu’s “The Wretched and the Beautiful” deals, quite explicitly, with refugees. In this particular story, the refugees are aliens who have crashed in the midst of humans on holiday. The humans react with fear and suspicion even after it is clear that none of the aliens are healthy and that they were fleeing what they refer to as a “cleansing operation” in their home system, one in which their planet was rendered uninhabitable.
The collective voice of the narrator is dispassionate and disinterested in the aliens—they only wish to get back to their holidays and their lives. They don’t wish to give anything up to help these aliens—these aliens who have too many limbs, who move too oddly, who have special dietary and atmospheric needs. The aliens are someone else’s problem, not theirs.
The politicians get together and decide that the aliens will be split up and resettled in the poorest countries—not taking the wishes or needs of the aliens or the poorest countries into account. Stories about the aliens’ inherent badness only grow over time—while their technology is taken and exploited for human gain.
And then: a small group of aliens who speak the humans’ languages, who look like humans except more beautiful than any humans are arrive and offer to take the refugee aliens away—for they are war criminals and even the children can be thought of as nothing more than vermin. The people agree, and are relieved when the wretched are taken away by the beautiful.
This is a pretty obvious allegory, but that doesn’t diminish its effectiveness: by shifting our projection of what sorts of people refugees are one aliens, it casts a sharp light on exactly what protests against refugees truly are. They’re expressions of prejudice and fear and not based on facts. I also found the refusal to listen to the aliens’ wishes and the decision to put more of them in communities that are already at an economic disadvantage all too relevant, as well.
I also think that the distance that Yu keeps between her collective narrator and the refugees is also effective: no one speaks to the aliens directly, instead their voices are filtered through authority figures: the media, the police, politicians. They’re not allowed to speak for themselves and the one person who speaks up in their defense is shouted down.
At the beginning of the story, the collective narrator says, “Gone where the days when acting on conviction could change the world, when good came of good and evil to evil.”
In the end, this is a story about complicity and about the smallness of human beings.
“Auspicium Melioris Aevi” by J.Y. Yang (Uncanny #15)
“Auspicium melioris aevi” means “hope of a better age” and that is, in many ways, what this story is about. The point of view character is the fiftieth copy of Harry Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore—a detail which isn’t made explicit, but which is important to understanding the popularity of this particular—I don’t want to say model, but that’s basically the setting here: it’s a clone factory, making copies of influential or effective people to order and (apparently) discarding those who don’t make the cut.
This batch of Harry Lees is reaching completion and they’re at the quality assurance phase of manufacture: they’re being put through AI-administered tests and their decisions are compared to those of the historical Harry Lee. The fiftieth Harry Lee starts to wonder if he can change the outcome and makes different decisions, with disastrous effect on his scores.
I really don’t want to spoil the ending of the story, but it went in a somewhat unexpected direction that makes total sense when looking at the overall shape of the story and the character of the fiftieth Harry Lee. I loved the care with which each Harry Lee was drawn, even those who appeared only briefly—even though they are copies, they’re also individuals.
I really found this story quite enjoyable—Yang has a crisp, clear writing style that conveys precisely the information needed. Despite the seriousness of what’s going on in the story, there are still flashes of humor and grace, both of which are often lacking in stories that tackle issues like freedom, self-determination, and the weight of history. This is the first story of Yang’s I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last.