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by Ken Liu

Dear Reader, if you’re already familiar with Alex’s work, then we should pause and congratulate each other on our shared superior taste. If you aren’t, then I’m envious of you, as you are about to discover one of the funniest and most moving voices in speculative fiction today.

Now, if you know anything about Alex’s reputation, you’ll be grinning in anticipation as you hold this collection. After all, that august authority, Wikipedia, describes Alex as an “American science fiction and fantasy writer and editor known primarily for humorous short stories.”

Alex’s stories are indeed funny. Humor is a difficult—perhaps the most difficult—trick to pull off in fiction, but Alex does it with style. His stories feature tightly constructed, intricate, puzzle-like plots with clever banter and plenty of fresh, twisted pop culture references. Reading this book, I promise you’ll smile, chuckle, chortle, snort, and laugh out loud many times.

As you flip through the pages, you’ll discover tiny fairies with correspondingly scaled superpowers, a kabbalist hacker debating theology with an atheist, a magical pawn shop where timeworn knights bargain for the soul of an ancient god with a tough grandmother, our history re-rendered as a game of alien simulation, far-flung star empires with sarcastic alien diplomats…

If you want to laugh right away, I definitely recommend you start with the “magic pawn shop stories,” which include the title story for the collection as well as “High-Tech Fairies and the Pandora Perplexity.”

If stylish, smart humor were all these stories managed to accomplish, the collection would already deserve to be on every bookshelf, but Alex has also managed much more. The humor for which he is deservedly celebrated is but one tool in his toolbox. Just as important, Alex is also a writer of moving tales that explore the meaning and boundaries of what it means to be human.

In these pages, you’ll also discover when and how we lie to preserve love, the only truth that matters; what we lose and gain when we decide to uproot ourselves to give our children a new life; how history is a grand series of stark developments in which our only consolation is the freedom of choice; the power of the narrative in making sense of a world that is essentially accidental, unfeeling, lacking in design.

In this vein, my favorites from Alex are “Icarus Falls” and “Things We Leave Behind.”

It is easy to write stories in which these abstractions are discussed, but far harder to make the reader experience the associated emotions. And when the stories are flavored with the right amount of humor, the brightest act of defiance against the darkness of easy despair, the result is sublime.

Alex’s stories are sublime.

Though I don’t much care about identifying stories with their author, I do think it’s important for me to tell you a little bit about Alex.

I’m perhaps one of Alex’s oldest and most loyal fans, as I’ve been reading his stories practically since the time he started writing for publication. We’ve been critiquing partners for much of our fiction writing careers, and I’ve read many of these stories in both draft and final form. Reading them again in preparation for writing this introduction is a nice reminder of our shared journey as writers.

As a critique partner, Alex is unfailingly careful, strict, and incisive. As a friend, Alex is warm, generous, cheerful, and always supportive. Time and again, he picks apart my plot and helps me reassemble the pieces into something coherent. He finds the awkward phrases and brings out his polishing kit. His suggestions are clever, insightful, and to the point. Despite his incredibly busy schedule, he has always somehow found a way to come to my aid when I’m under deadline pressure.

But did you also know that Alex has lived a life as amazing as one of his characters? Yes, that’s right, Alex has circumnavigated the globe many times as one of the world’s most successful Magic: the Gathering players. (He has lived my dream!) I’m pretty convinced that some of Alex’s skills at intricate plotting come from practice at assembling fast, deadly decks and devising lethal card combinations from the interplay of legalistic rules.

Either that, or he actually is a wizard with a magical shop (yes, he owns and runs a gaming store). If you visit, keep an eye out for Cthulhu.

I feel very lucky to have had the chance to witness Alex’s development as a writer and to call him a friend. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I have.

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