Review: Maxwell's Demon

As an American I would like to believe that the Japanese internment camps during World War II weren't meant to be punishment and might not have even been that bad for many people. As someone who understands the world I know that isn't true. Even if the intent by the leadership of the country was simply to protect citizens from their neighbors we have done studies and know that when you give people control over others there are going to be problems. When you have people who are looked down on by a portion of the population then the guards are almost certainly going to be at least partially made up of people who dislike them. That was almost certainly true in World War II and if we were stupid enough to star putting people into camps today it would likely be the same.

The story of “Maxwell's Demon,” by Ken Lui is the story of a young woman named Takako Yamashiro who is in an interment camp with her family. She is a physics student and at least in part because of that is recruited by the people who run the camp and forced to renounce her citizenship and go to Japan as a spy to protect her family. Once there she is recruited by a scientist but isn't given anything useful to do at first because they don't trust her, though she is abused by the leader of the scientists.

The story then takes a hard left turn into a fantasy. It is based on a real scientific idea, though one that is meant to be a thought experiment. The idea is that while it may seem to us that matter is uniform it isn't. Some of the atoms are moving much faster than the other. His demon is able to open a door and allow the faster moving atoms through that door while keeping the slower ones out. Eventually you'll have one side of this machine hot and the other cold. You can, potentially get energy from that. It turns out that Takako, can talk to ghosts. So they want her to use the ghosts to do this.

This is a interesting story and I'll say something that I rarely say. I think this story may have been better without the fantasy element. The idea of examining Maxwell's demon is an interesting one and even fits the theme of the story, but by the time it was introduced I was invested enough in the characters to want to see how things worked out without that particular element. On the other hand since I rarely read stories without those elements I almost certainly wouldn't have seen it.

As I alluded to in the beginning of the story this one may be related to things that are currently happening, but even without the allegorical aspect which was written before the current situation it is an interesting story with characters you care about and moves to a frustrating but inevitable conclusion.

You can read “Maxwell's Demon” by Ken Liu in the January 2012 issue of the fantasy and science fiction magazine or find Ken Liu at his website and I would suggest that you seek it out if for no other reason that it is important for us to face the truth of the internment camps the USA had during World War II.