“The Story of Kao Yu,” by Peter Beagle

The Story of Kao Yu (ebook cover)

“The Story of Kao Yu,” by Peter Beagle.
Short story. Published in Tor.com, December 2016.

Rocket Stack Rank gives this one five stars, calling the story “Beautiful, moving, and thought-provoking”.

Ron Andrea is less impressed: “Well-written and interesting, but there’s no payoff”.

I’d expected to find a little more discussion of a new Peter Beagle story — but then, that’s what we’re here for 🙂

What did you think of it? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!


7 thoughts on ““The Story of Kao Yu,” by Peter Beagle”

  1. So here’s a question: is this story a critique of the judge, Kao Yu?

    There’s no question that he’s fallen from what he once was; he’s no longer a paragon of justice.

    But is this a “all of of are merely human,” saying Kao Yu was previously adhering to an inhumanly perfect ideal?
    Is there a “justice vs. compassion” element, implying Kao Yu is less just but more compassionate now?
    Or is this a straight-up tragedy?

    1. Because I guess what’s really bothering me about the story is: Kao Yu’s behavior here is depicted as fairly obssessive, and certainly unhealthy. This is less a moment of weakness; much more a dangerous warping of his character.

      I should qualify this. You might interpret that as outside his control, or something all humans can fall prey to. And it’s not as though the story looks kindly on Kao Yu’s behavior, and his active misdemeanors are limited.

      But… I’m having trouble seeing obsessing over a criminal you’ve never met as falling under “There, there, nobody’s perfect.” Or aligning it with “Well, he’s learned compassion.”

      It’s more like, “Kao Yu was a paragon of unbiased justice. Until one day he was smitten by forces beyond his control, and he was not able to ov
      ercome this.” Which, to me, seems an explicitly tragic arc.

      1. This is a problem I had with the story, too. I just…didn’t like the implications on purity and justice. Unicorns here, for all that they aren’t the typical Western variety, are still concerned with purity. They can’t stand lies. Their justice is absolute. And Kao Yu is depicted as being fallen when he believes the lies of someone who has no interest or intention of reforming. Essentially, he believes that this one person deserves another chance and something bad happens because of it. But does that make the original compassion or urge toward compassion wrong? Kao Yu says that it’s a good thing the unicorn doesn’t appear too often, because it would make him a bad judge. And in following this string of events, according to that, he should be an even better judge. Compassionate and less likely to implement capital punishment. And yet he takes himself out of the system and then passes on. There is, to me, a feeling that the tragedy stems from his being “tainted” rather than from the system that promotes absolute justice. What is is that Picard said in that one episode where Wesley crushed some flowers on orgy-world? “There can be no justice where laws are absolute.” Well, either this story doesn’t agree (arguing essentially that the problem is that Kao Yu sinned and was lost) or is a really bleak tale (arguing that Kao Yu learned something vital but believed too much in absolute justice to let himself grow and become a better judge). It’s an interesting story, for sure…just not one that I enjoyed.

        1. Come to think of it, a lot of Beagle’s writing touches on purity. That’s an interesting insight.

          The funny thing here, though, is that I don’t feel like purity is quite the issue. Kao Yu doesn’t come across as being a harsh or uncompassionate judge — quite the opposite; his respect for others and his own humility are key.

          What he has, with the unicorn — well, for some of the description, it feels like what he has is freedom from doubt. That the unicorn appears when he is most vexed, most confounded – “it appeared when it chose, most often when his puzzlement over a case was at its height, and his need of wisdom greatest“. Once Kao Yu has already done his utmost, the unicorn takes it from there.

          That’s not purity. That’s… grace, almost.

          But that’s not all of it. Because other bits of the text give a very different description: “when a problem came down to a matter of good versus evil—in a murder case, most often, or arson, or rape (which Kao Yu particularly despised), he would often submit that problem to the judgment of a unicorn“. And the same bit that bothered me before — if he asks the unicorn when he’s truly stumped, why does the unicorn’s verdict always seem to be death?

          The story seems a little at odds with itself, doesn’t it?

        2. (I wouldn’t treat Kao Yu’s attitude towards Lanying as compassion – the story makes it fairly clear that he is judging, not mercifully, but foolishly. And, again, it makes note of his compassion in general. This wasn’t just Kao Yu being lenient; this was Kao Yu knowing he was judging unfairly because of a personal, and entirely inappropriate, interest. You wouldn’t use “compassionate” to describe a real judge who gave a light sentence and then invited the defendant to their private chambers.)

  2. The depiction of “few — tragically few” who could face the justice of the chi-lin is more than a little discomfiting. (By the end of that paragraph, they’ve moved from “tragically few” to “always,” every time, hearing the chi-lin kill the accused).

    So Justice is being presented here as being quite brutal, even if it’s fair, even-handed, or based on sincerity.

    It’s interesting, then, that Mercy isn’t really the counterpoint here. It could have been – you could have a person the judge couldn’t bear to bring cold justice to – but that’s not the story here. The judge is smitten with Lanying, attracted and lustful towards her. He is many things – aghast at her audacity; feeling responsible for not curbing her earlier. But mercy doesn’t really seem to play into it. Instead, Kao Yu’s refusal to see Lanying harmed is a unique quality, personal to Lanying.

    Which makes this, really, about Kao Yu’s failure to keep himself fair and just, rather than any difficulty inherent to the idea of Justice.

  3. I felt the end was somewhat anticlimactic. A more interesting ending could be refusing the judgment of the unicorn and giving a sentence himself. Once the criminal fled the story lost a chance to actually say something more then ‘great people can fall from grace because of love/desire’.
    Beautifully written, though.

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