The Literomancer • 2010 • Magic realism short story by Ken Liu



Young Lilly from U.S. lives with her parents in Taiwan in the 60s. Her father works for counterintelligence. She doesn’t find friends at school but with the a local Chinese boy Kenny who dreams of playing baseball for the Red Sox and his grandpa Mr. Ken, who is the eponymous Literomancer. The story goes dark when her dad starts thinking that Mr. Ken has communistic ideas.

“Wildflowers can bloom anywhere.”


This was my first contact to Chinese literomancy – i.e. telling the future from written words – with very nicely depicted Chinese letters. You never know if the story is meant to be really magical or if its only the (really existing) superstition or the girl’s childish dreamings. I liked the development of her friendship.

Slowly, the background of Mr. Ken is revealed and the story gets politically, leading to an instance of the American-Taiwan covert operations against the Public Republic of China during the Cold War. You have to stomach those explicit descriptions of torture.

An introductory account of the history of joint American-ROC covert operations against the PRC during the Cold War may be found in John W. Garver’s The Sino-American Alliance: Nationalist China and American Cold War Strategy in Asia.

I loved the mentioned food like Three-Cup Chicken, Kong-uan pork balls or a mikfish stew!

Meta: isfdb. This SF short story was published September 2010 in The Magazine of SF&F. I read it as part of The Paper Menagerie. It is also available for free.



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