Ken Liu. Real Faces. (Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2012)

A rare story from Liu that disappoints. His stories are usually smart and subtle, whereas this feels rather clunky.

It explores the issue of affirmative action in employment, but chooses a sledgehammer approach – hi-tech masks that disguise the wearer’s face and voice, making employment interviews focus entirely on the content of the application, rather than the applicant’s race. Issues are discussed, but it feels more like a story written 50 years ago.

One thought on “Ken Liu. Real Faces. (Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2012)

  1. After rereading my 2012 F&SFs, I was especially interested in this story since my church continues to struggle with its own embarrassing history of white supremacy, which belies everything we claim to believe in. This story did make me think and argue with its premises. Generally I agree with the review. Ken Liu got it backward, evidently believing that in the near future our nation will ardently embrace affirmative action. I’m not sure how he came to that conclusion, since Michelle Alexander’s informative book, THE NEW JIM CROW, was published in 2010, two years before “Real Faces”, and stresses the reality that the police and legal attacks on black Americans occur because of systematized racism that has dogged African Americans, Native Americans, Latin Americans and Asians from the onset of this nation’s colonial European settlements. By now, it’s so embedded that most white Americans take it for granted. The fear and hatred of immigrants, even the antisemitism against Muslims and Jews, is largely based on color racism. Most whites intend to hang on to the myth of white supremacy as long as possible, those of us who are white have trouble even recognizing our own actualizations of arrogance, and the racist policies of the Trump administration should be proof enough that nearly half the whites in the US would harm their own economic well-being in order to keep “darkies” in their place–at the bottom. Many whites make up unlikely scenarios excusing their fear of the competition of affirmative action and a dangerous, violent minority toys with notions of reinstituting slavery.

    Although Ken Liu got it backward, I did agree with some of the conclusions that I read in this story, especially on pages 188-89 in F&SF (Jul-Aug 2012): “Going from thinking ugly thoughts to feeling emboldened to speak them is an enormous shift in the dynamics of power” [when applied to the haters and baiters on social media] and “The best we* can do is muddle through, looking at everyone’s real face and striving to understand, knowing that we never will.” [*However, “we” makes sense in this context if it means whites only, or for the most part. The ones who have suffered come from cultures that more often include greater understanding of the reality of racism.]

    There is one awful slip in the verisimilitude of this story, over and above the misunderstanding of US institutionalized racism, and that is the use of bland masks that hide only faces. Must everyone wear gloves? Always dress in long sleeved shirts? Never wear short skirts or shorts or sandals? Never go to the beach or swimming pool? A facial mask without further disguise is useless for hiding one’s skin color. Mr. Liu made this error in conceptualizing the story but the F&SF reader and editorial staff should have caught it–and sent the story back to the drawing board.

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