“Mono no Aware” is a short story by Ken Liu that can be read in the preview of The Future is Japanese (12% in), the anthology it first appeared in. It’s about an evacuation of Earth in the face of an impending apocalypse and the survivor’s journey to a new home. Here’s a summary of “Mono no Aware”.
“Mono no Aware” Summary
The spacefaring vessel the Hopeful is shaped like the kanji for “umbrella”, which is similar to the symbol pictured above, in the lower left. It’s powered by a solar sail that spans a thousand kilometers and is a hundred times thinner than rice paper. Beneath is a hundred kilometer long cable of carbon nanotubes, at the end of which is the habitat module, a five hundred meter long cylinder that houses all 1,021 evacuees from Earth. They’re headed for a star called 61 Virginis, which their descendants will reach in about 300 years.
Years earlier, back on Earth in Japan, Hiroto and his mom and dad go outside with their bags. Hiroto fits his Go set into his small suitcase. He loves playing it with his father. All the neighbors are out too. The asteroid is visible in the sky, as it has been for years.
The authorities order the citizens of Kurume to the bus stop where they’ll be taken to a train for Kagoshima. Hiroto’s father helps an old neighbor carry her bags.
The crowd is quiet and orderly. In other parts of the world there’s chaos. Hiroto’s father stresses the harmony of the group over the selfishness of the individual.
Back aboard the Hopeful, Hiroto Shimizu is in the school passing on some of his culture, as all the non-American technicians feel obligated to do. He himself only has vague memories of Japan. The children say a pledge to the American flag every morning.
Eight-year-old Bobby doesn’t like playing Go. The pieces all look the same and they don’t move. There are no heroes like the queen, in chess. Hiroto explains the perspective of Go is larger, but the boy doesn’t care. He doesn’t know what else to say.
Back in Japan, the crowd lives along the road to the spaceport. They form make-shift shelters with their suitcases and sheets. They can see the gleaming ships in the distance.
Government inspectors come by to check on everyone and encourage patience. The adults organize lessons for the children and come up with a plan to help older ones and those with young children to leave first.
After four days rumors start spreading that the ships aren’t ready, only a few hundred VIP’s will get a seat, and they’re hoping for assistance from the Americans. Hiroto’s father says it’s selfish and wrong to spread unsettling rumors in a crowd where people could get hurt. They must look at the bigger picture.
On the Hopeful, Hiroto is intimate with Mindy, a navigator and singer. She’s an orphan like him. Her first language is Spanish, but she remembers even less than Hiroto does of Japanese.
Hiroto is twenty-five today. He wonders how to say “I miss you” to his father, as the last surviving Japanese person. He remembers the video of the asteroid hitting Earth and destroying it.
Mindy’s sister, who read her Manga, was still there when it happened. She thought Japan was powerful because the Manga was full of giant robots.
Back on Earth, the Japanese Prime Minister publicly apologizes to the people. The rumors were true. The builders took the money but didn’t produce what they promised. The crowd is mostly silent and then they disperse. Other nations squabbled over the cost of an evacuation and fought with each other. No one is prepared to evacuate.
On the Hopeful, Mindy is surprised to hear the crowd left calmly without chaos. They must have been resigned. Hiroto is angry but tries to keep it out of his voice as he contradicts her.
Back in Japan, Hiroto’s father is on the phone with an old American college associate of him and his wife’s, Dr. Hamilton. He seems like a foreigner as he talks English. He firmly says “no” and notes Dr. Hamilton’s selfishness. He offered to take Hiroto’s wife to safety, but with him. She wouldn’t have gone anyway.
Hiroto and his dad go for a walk. They make small talk with neighbors like usual. As they walk, his dad recites some poetry and talks about the beauty of the moment and the transience of all things. Hiroto isn’t afraid even though the asteroid is right above.
“Mono no Aware” Summary, Cont’d
On the Hopeful, Hiroto watches the panel that monitors the solar sail. He knows the pattern of lights well. Something looks slightly off; he calls Mindy in navigation who confirms they’ve gone slightly off course.
On Earth, Hiroto’s mom takes him to buy a Christmas present for his dad. They go to a different section of the city than he’s expecting, where his mother makes a call in English. They go into a building with an American flag and see Dr. Hamilton.
He and Hiroto’s mom, Rinn, talk; they clearly have a history. She tells Hiroto he’ll be staying. The Americans have a secret ship in orbit and Dr. Hamilton can take one guest. Dr. Hamilton holds him as he kicks and screams.
When Rinn opens the door, Hiroto’s dad is standing there. They hug and she apologizes, but he understands. He thanks Dr. Hamilton for taking care of his son. He hugs Hiroto and tells him to remember he’s Japanese. Hiroto’s parents leave.
On the Hopeful, Dr. Hamilton informs the senior staff, along with Hiroto and Mindy, that there’s a tear in the solar sail. By the time anyone can reach it, it will be too large to patch. The ship will be adrift.
Hiroto knows the sail’s folds and struts better than anyone. He says he can get out there fast enough to repair it. Dr. Hamilton is doubtful; Mindy says Americans don’t give up. They debate and plan through the night.
It takes Hiroto twelve hours to reach the sail. He talks to Mindy through the radio link and she sings.
Traveling across the sail to the tear is slower. It’s been thirty-six hours; he and Mindy are tired. Thinking of his dad almost causes the loss of a fuel tank when he bangs his backpack into a beam. He again hears his dad talking about the transitory nature of life. Mindy’s voice startles him awake.
He has to cover the last fifty kilometers untethered, powered by the rockets. He daydreams a game of Go with his father where his forces are divided.
Hiroto reaches the tear. He patches the gash and starts sealing it with a torch, but it goes out. There isn’t enough fuel. It must have sprung a leak when he almost lost it earlier. Dr. Hamilton calls him back.
Hiroto continues seeing the situation as a Go game. His dad says he has to choose, and he imagines everyone looking at him. Mindy calls him a hero. He connects the torch to the tank on his back and finishes the patch. He informs them of his success and tells them to correct course. Mindy objects because he won’t be able to tether himself if they do that. He tells her what Dr. Hamilton already knows—he’s not coming back; there isn’t enough fuel.
He turns off the radio and pushes off into space, so they won’t make a pointless rescue attempt. He sees the stars in their full glory.
In his imagined Go game, Hiroto plays a stone that protects his main group. He loses a smaller group in the corner. He hears Bobby saying there might be heroes in Go. He thinks of Mindy calling him a hero, and realizes many people who played their parts are heroes. His dad says all the Go stones together are heroic.
He imagines walking down the street with his father and remembering every beautiful detail.
I hope this “Mono no Aware” summary was helpful.