“The Science of Flight” by Yiyun Li is a story driven by a concept: lies. The concept story is nothing new. Someone gets a cool idea in their head, and they go with it. The problem with the concept story is that sometimes other elements are left out which make the narrative alive.
The main character, Zichen, is ashamed of herself. She lies and creates a false persona as a protection. From what does she need protecting? It seems that she’s just too afraid to be herself. Her lies lead her to be accepted. Li could have pressed this farther and made Zichen tell extravagant lies. That’s normally what we expect. Instead, she’s pushed it the other way and Zichen’s lies are trivial, meant more to gloss over her ostracized upbringing and her failed marriage.
As a concept, it’s interesting. However, the two supporting characters are flimsy portrayals of people. They seem more like binary personalities. There’s Ted, who is critical and mean. There’s Henry, who is kind and non-judgmental. Ted and Henry’s predictability become a liability. There are a few other characters sprinkled throughout using flashbacks, but all of these interactions are built to develop the concept: Zichen is ashamed of herself and must lie so people will have a positive view of her. Concepts are great ways to experiment with fiction, or to use as a jumping off point. Take the movie, Memento, for example. Besides being a cool idea, Leonard Shelby is an intriguing, captivating character, and the film is gritty and suspenseful. While, “The Science of Flight” comes together as a traditional short story, it fails to deliver much beyond being an interesting idea.