Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Byzantine Empathy, by Ken Liu

★★★★☆ Thoughtful, Detailed, Shocking

(Near-Future SF) Two women compete to use virtual reality and cryptocurrencies to redirect the money that supports refugees and change the world. But will empathy or reason win? (12,449 words; Time: 41m)

"Byzantine Empathy," by (edited by Wade Roush), appeared in (RSR review), published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Review: 2018.628 (A Word for Authors)

Pro: The heart of the story is the conflict between reason and empathy (or “sense and sensibility”). The steady back and forth between Jianwen and Sophia provides most of the energy of the story. Jianwen creates Empathium. Sophia figures out how to use it to gain huge leverage for Refugees Without Borders. Jianwen introduces selected VR pieces to sway the public so much that the resources of charities like RWB end up going to the groups she cares about. Sophia shows up with her own equipment to fight back by making her own empathy pieces. It’s a fun ride.

Ultimately, I think Sophia has the better argument, though. This paragraph puts it quite well:
But there’s a greater truth she doesn’t see. Just because something happened doesn’t make it a decisive fact; just because there’s suffering doesn’t mean there is always a better choice; just because people die doesn’t mean we must abandon greater principles. The world isn’t always black and white.
The conclusion suggests Sophia will win in the end as ordinary people get bored with the super-graphic VR clips.

Speaking of which, the opening scene is incredibly effective. The moment when a soldier accidentally stepped on the baby and killed her left me upset for the duration of the story. While one can say that the logic of the story favors reason, the emotional content of the story favors empathy.

As a side note, the technical details are very good. I don’t think current technology could support the volume of transactions in this story, but otherwise it all seems to be within reason.

Con: If you’re not really interested in how block chains work, the story has lots of info dumps in it.
Some of the narration is a bit heavy-handed.

The Kindle version of the anthology does a terrible job with formatting, eliminating the distinction between paragraph breaks and scene breaks. This makes it really hard to keep track of who is speaking at any given point.

Other Reviews: Search Web, GoodReads.com
Ken Liu Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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2 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. Available online:


  2. Reprinted online at Lightspeed 125 (Oct 2020): https://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/byzantine-empathy/