The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

October 4, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

paperThe Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

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I generally avoid short-story collections, but I’ve heard enough about Ken Liu that when this came up on an ebook sale, I went ahead and purchased it. I started it thinking I would read a story here and there as I had time, but stalled out after the third story. By the time I finally got back to the book and read “Good Hunting”, I realized I needed to plow through and finish the book as soon as I could. Yeah, it’s that good.

“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” reminds me a little of Einstein’s Dreams, in that it’s not a story so much as it is a thought experiment into what constitutes a book. Liu looks at alien races and how they communicate, and books are just our way of preserving those communications. It’s a brilliant examination of language, communication, and memory. I only wish Liu had given more examples, because they’re fascinating.

“State Change” is a look at souls and personalities. Liu links them together using totems that are people’s souls; the main character, Rina, has a soul that is an ice cube. Her life revolves around protecting it at all costs, worrying over its size. She once had a roommate whose soul was a pack of cigarettes, and who smoked them, piecing them out over time. Life, after all, is an experiment, and one that doesn’t start until you take a few chances.

“The Perfect Match” examines privacy and technology from both sides of the issue, without providing a solution. It’s a think piece more than a story, since the characterization is flat, and it moves so quickly. It’s thought-provoking, at the very least, but it highlights Liu’s penchant for merging technology and reality in his stories.

“Good Hunting” is a curious story about how technology replaces magic. Seeing that Liu writes fantasy and science fiction, it’s sensible that he shows this transition literally. It’s also a tale of growing up, so the parallels between the literal and allegorical are obvious in the story.

“Literomancer” shows how well Liu writes his characters, and how well he captures his own culture. It’s a story of a young girl whose family moves to China during the Cold War, when Communism was a perceived threat. The young girl makes friends with a local man and his grandson, and Liu uses that to show us the brutality of those threats. “Literomancer” is a powerful story that teaches us a history lesson.

“Simulacrum” is an examination of memory, parenthood, and childhood. Liu writes in an economical style, but doesn’t sacrifice character or theme while doing so. He does it remarkably well, capturing genuinely human moments in this brief story. It’s another powerful story, and like most of the other stories in the book, it also makes you think.

“The Regular” is a more traditional story, this time a police procedural. Liu merges futuristic technology with reality again, but as he did in “The Perfect Match” and “Simulacrum”, the technology serves the story. This is a lengthier piece with vivid tension, but it does come to a sudden, abrupt end. It’s entertaining, but doesn’t feel as significant as the other stories.

“The Paper Menagerie” is another story of childhood, Chinese culture, and growing up, and there’s a reason this is the title story of the collection. At the end of the story, I had to stop, take a breath, and dry my eyes. Liu writes with real emotion, real characters, and real power here and in his other stories.

“An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” is a spiritual sequel to “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”, due to its interspersing alien cultures’ methods of memory alongside a story of love and space travel. The memory bits are intriguing, but the real star is the story. It doesn’t pack the emotional punch of “Literomancer” or “The Paper Menagerie”, but that doesn’t mean you won’t feel it.

“The Waves” is another story interspersed with interludes, this time about origin myths from around the world. It’s set in space, on an ark bound for a world far outside the solar system, so the origin stories play a lot into the story itself, for once they land on the new planet, they will create a new origin story. The way Liu builds his story around the idea of those myths is brilliant.

“Mono No Aware” is a story of honor, courage, family, and the persistence of humanity. It’s a story that covers the life of a man from boyhood, compressed into its most relevant details. It’s set in space, but begins on Earth, and has that emotional punch that readers will have become familiar with by this point. My God, Liu can write.

“All the Flavors” is about Chinese immigration in the Old West, portrayed through a friendship between a group of workers who move to Idaho in the 19th Century and a young girl who lives across the street from them. The story is more about sharing stories of China and its culture, and to highlight the prejudice against the Chinese at that time in US history. It’s heartbreaking as a history lesson, but not as powerful as a story. This is Liu’s second story where he uses a friendship between a Chinese man and a young girl to tell a history lesson.

“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is another technology-meets-history story, this time looking at a theoretical undersea and underground tunnel connecting the US with China, built in response to the Recession of the 1920s. It’s a fascinating look at the logistics of such a thing, not just in how it was built, but how it affected future history. As a story, it’s not as impressive as some other pieces in the book, but as a thought experiment, it’s provoking.

“The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” is another history lesson, fictionalized. The story highlights the corruption of the Qianlong Emperor, and the class struggle in China during that time. Oddly, it’s not fantasy, unless you count the Monkey King’s appearance in the story as such, instead of being a product of a vivid imagination. It’s engaging and horrifying, though, moreso because it’s based on real events.

“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” concludes the collection by asking several questions. What is history? What is the better proof: the documentation or the eyewitness? Why is the individual eyewitness considered less credible? Given the chance to go back and view history as it happened, how would that affect the present day? We’re shaped by our past, so when our understanding of that past changes, how does that change us? How do we cope with it?

Liu’s grasp of science, technology, story, and humanity combine into something special in these stories. It’s true that the stories near the end of the collection aren’t as good as the ones at the beginning, but the good stories are so good that it makes the whole point moot. Liu is a tremendous talent, so much so that I look forward to reading The Grace of Kings. If he’s this good with short stories, I can’t wait to see what he can do with a full novel.

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1 Comment

  1. 2016: A Review | Veni Vidi Verkisto said,

    […] Paper Menagerie and Other Stories […]

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