“The Perfect Match” by Ken Liu: Summary of Short Story

The Perfect Match by Ken Liu Summary of Short Story
“The Perfect Match” Summary

“The Perfect Match” is a short story by Ken Liu from his 2016 collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. It’s about a society where everyone has a personal electronic assistant, Tilly, that remembers everything people need to know and always knows what’s best for them. Sai’s new neighbor’s attitudes about privacy and freedom put doubts in his mind. Here’s a summary of “The Perfect Match”.

“The Perfect Match” Summary

Sai, a paralegal, wakes up to a Vivaldi concerto, selected by his electronic assistant Tilly, and gets ready for work. Tilly knows Sai’s preferences and moods. While Sai showers, Tilly gives him a rundown on his day.

He has a date after work with a woman who’s highly compatible, and he’ll have a light breakfast because the firm is providing lunch today. He wants coffee, but Tilly suggests a new smoothie place along his route, and Sai defers because Tilly knows best.

As Sai leaves his apartment, he sees his neighbor, Jenny. It’s a warm day in California but she’s covered up. She complains, through a digitally filtered voice, about the camera Sai has installed over his door; it’s going to record people going to her place as well.

Jenny’s about Sai’s age but seems older. She doesn’t like computers knowing her business. They’ve argued before about privacy and freedom. Centillion is a private company that just wants to make things better. Jenny contends that Tilly tells Sai what to think, and he doesn’t even know what he wants anymore. This is ridiculous to Sai, and he walks past her. He expects Tilly to cheer him up, but she says nothing.

Tilly is a perfect work assistant, with the ability to remember every detail for future use.

The firm Chapman Singh hadn’t allowed employees to use Tilly in the office at first. They gave in when the partners started violating the policy. Centillion encrypts the proprietary data and only uses it to improve their recommendations.

While eating lunch, Sai feels lucky to have Tilly. Work would be much harder without her.

After work, Sai heads to the restaurant for his date. Tilly fills him in on Ellen based on her profiles, reviews from previous partners, and lots of pictures. She’s exactly his type, and he would be hers as well.

The date goes perfectly smoothly. Their interests and temperaments align. Sai notices it’s slightly boring because there’s nothing to discover. During a lull, Tilly suggests a dessert place. Remembering Jenny’s claim, Sai wonders if Tilly knew he wanted that or is telling him he wants it.

“The Perfect Match” Summary, Cont’d

He turns Tilly off, which is concerning to Ellen. She doesn’t understand why you’d give up Tilly’s help. She gets a suggestion from her Tilly for a club, but Sai asks her to turn hers off too.

Ellen has to go. Sai asks if Tilly told her to do that. He wants to see her again, but she pays half the bill and leaves.

While Sai drives home, Tilly suggests some kickboxing to get out his aggression. He just wants to go home and sleep. He turns Tilly off, despite her protests.

The light is out in the apartment stairwell. Jenny comes out of the shadows. She’s not bundled up and her voice is unfiltered. She sounds happy and Sai sees that she’s pretty, but a bit nerdy. She taped over his door camera so her friends could visit. She saw on his ShareAll account that he turned off Tilly twice during the evening. He might be ready for the truth.

Jenny’s apartment is lined with fine metal mesh. It’s lit by many large computer monitors and has make-shift furniture and real paper books. She won’t start until Sai’s phone is put in a shielding pouch.

Sai regrets coming in and thinks Jenny’s crazy. They have a debate about Centillion and Tilly. Jenny believes Centillion owns him and only cares about profits. Sai believes Centillion’s privacy policy is the best in the business and they only use the data to make people’s lives more enjoyable. She points out that he turned Tilly off tonight, and he can’t explain why.

Jenny shows him some documents about Centillion’s tracking activities that aren’t technically illegal, but are highly suspicious. Jenny claims Centillion would never let him see any of these things or show him what the world really looks like.

Jenny’s car is shielded like her apartment but she still whispers. They park in a run down neighborhood. Sai’s never been to this part of Las Aldamas. Jenny explains what happened.

Centillion noticed the tendency of some people to self-segregate by race. It started matching its real estate recommendations around this, amplifying the situation. Politicians were then able to gerrymander the districts based on race, with certain people predominantly ending up in this part of town.

Centillion wouldn’t show this information to anyone. They’re not intentionally censoring information, they’re just an algorithm that’s gotten out of hand, echoing people’s beliefs and preferences back at them. People stop questioning and just accept Tilly’s recommendations.

Sai wonders why Jenny’s telling him all this. She’s in a group that plans to kill Tilly, and Sai is going to help.

Jenny’s apartment feels even more confining after the car ride. She explains what they’re going to do.

They’re working on a virus that will infiltrate the Centillion data center, and gradually alter existing profiles and create new fake ones, until Tilly’s suggestions are useless. By the time it’s discovered, the backups will also be corrupted. Centillion’s advertising revenue will crash overnight.

Sai thinks about the digital version of himself in Centillion’s system; that’s not really him. He wants to help.

“The Perfect Match” Summary, Cont’d

The next morning, Tilly wakes Sai with an appropriate song. Centillion has a fail-safe to override the turn off so he wouldn’t miss his wake up call. It can’t really be turned off completely. Tilly wants to be filled in for the twelve hour gap last night. Sai says he just came home and went to sleep.

Tilly knows about the vandalism of his security camera, and that Ellen wasn’t a great match for him. She knows something that will improve his mood.

For the next few weeks, Sai pretends to trust Tilly. He worries she can tell from his voice.

His firm is defending Centillion in a patent dispute with ShareAll, and will be visited by John Rushgore, Assistant General Counsel of Centillion. Jenny gives Sai a thumb drive that needs to be plugged into a laptop of someone from Centillion.

Sai tells Tilly he’s going jogging and will leave her home. She objects but he explains she could get stolen if he’s mugged. He turns her off, makes sure the security camera is still covered, and gently knocks on Jenny’s door.

Getting to know Jenny has been odd and exhilarating because he’s been on his own. She grew up in China where the government openly monitored everything. You had to be cautious what you revealed. Sai grew up thinking he was free, which she says is worse.

It’s hard living off the grid, so there aren’t many like Jenny. She sometimes wonders if not being a part of other people’s lives is doing the right thing. Sai takes her hand; she smiles and pulls him closer.

The day finally comes when Rushgore convenes with the firm’s lawyers in a conference room. At his cubicle, Sai wonders how he could plug in the drive, but nothing sounds workable.

An unexpected stroke of luck occurs when an associate comes looking for a charging cable for Rushgore’s phone. Sai adds the thumb drive to the cable, which only looks slightly odd, and brings it in. He realizes Tilly saw him through the webcam. He’s stressed but she doesn’t ask him about it. Rushgore plugs his phone in without even looking at the cable.

Sai wakes to “We Are the Champions”. The previous night, he was drinking and hanging out with Jenny and her friends. When he came home, he told Tilly they had won, but didn’t give any details.

Turning on his side, Sai sees four burly men standing in his room. Tilly can’t call the police; the men are here to help and she knows what’s best.

Sai and Jenny sit at a table with Christian Rinn, Founder and Executive Chairman of Centillion. They came very close to succeeding. On the first night they visited, Sai’s phone picked up the vibrations from the keyboard, allowing Centillion to reconstruct what Jenny was bringing up.

After that, surveillance was focused on them. A laser trained on Jenny’s window allowed them to recreate their conversations from the vibrations.

“The Perfect Match” Summary, Cont’d

Jenny says to let Sai go. Rinn tells Sai all the paralegals at his firm got new neighbors the week after they were hired to represent Centillion. Jenny used him and influenced him the same way they accuse Centillion of doing.  Jenny admits it started that way.

Rinn explains they’ve also done lots of good—catching criminals and toppling dictators. Yes, they profit in those countries after, but that’s better than the way it was.

Sai says Centillion doesn’t need to manipulate, they could just neutrally give information. Rinn explains there’s no such thing. Presenting information is subjective; what’s true and important to one isn’t to another. Destroying Centillion won’t free people. He asks Sai some basic questions that he’s unable to answer. Without Tilly, he doesn’t know these things. Their electronic copies are actually them. If Centillion is destroyed, another entity will only take its place.

Rinn wants them to work for Centillion. They need people who can see Tilly’s flaws and help improve her interactions. Jenny asks why they would help a machine run people’s lives. Rinne explains that if they fail, another company will take over the job—perhaps a Chinese company.

Jenny says they could refuse and expose Centillion. Rinn knows no one would believe them, and Centillion would keep the information buried. He invites them to adapt, to help make things better.

Sai enters his apartment, with his door camera following him. Tilly asks if Jenny’s coming over to plan tonight. She encourages Sai to get Jenny to start sharing.

Realizing Sai is tired, Tilly offers to order a hot drink for him before bed. That sounds perfect, but Sai says he’ll just read a while. She offers to suggest a book, but Sai says she can shut down for the night. He wants to wake up to “My Way” by Sinatra.

The camera follows him to bed and shuts down. A red light continues to blink in the darkness.

I hope this “The Perfect Match” Ken Liu summary was helpful.