Book Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Anthologies, Science Fiction, Fantasy
Publisher: Saga Press (March 8, 2016)
Length: 450 pages
One of my favorite books last year was The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, but before he published his debut novel he was already an accomplished writer of many award-winning short stories. While in general I am not a big reader of short fiction, I’d happily make the exception for some authors’ anthologies and you can definitely bet Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is one of them.
Like many collections, there are stories in here that I liked more than others, but overall I feel confident saying this is one of the best anthologies I have ever read. The book contains fifteen tales, showcasing a stunningly wide spread of themes and subjects. Readers of speculative fiction will enjoy stories featuring everything from artificial intelligence and virtual reality to space exploration and time travel. Many of the stories also combine these elements with influences from with cultural and historical sources, with a strong focus on Asian philosophy, mythology, and identity. Together, they come to create this profoundly heartfelt collection filled with beauty and emotion. For a more in-depth look at my thoughts on each story, please see below.
“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” is the first story, kicking off the anthology with a series of imaginative and somewhat quirky reference-style descriptions of several alien approaches to reading, writing, and communication. It is a quick, experimental “tale” that teases Liu’s unique brand of creativity and promises more to come in the rest of this collection, while also providing a lighthearted opener for readers before delving into the more emotional and sorrowful stories.
“State Change” is a story about a young woman named Rina who lives in a world where everyone’s soul manifests in a physical object from the moment you are born, from Cicero’s stone to T.S. Eliot’s coffee can. Rina’s soul is an ice cube, required to be kept close to her and frozen everywhere she goes, which understandably puts a damper on her social life. Liu uses this concept as a clever allegory to speculate how one might live with such a limitation, treating Rina’s personal journey with empathy but also some light humor.
“The Perfect Match” was one of the better stories in this collection, imagining what a world would look like if, say, Apple and Amazon and Google all got together and decided to take over all our lives. The scary thing is that if this ever happened, we’d probably not even realize it. The story’s main character Sai shares every detail of his life with his phone so that the AI named Tilly can plan his day using his personal data to cater to his every needs, making suggestions that range from what he should have for dinner (she has a coupon!) to whom he should date. But what is a life without predictability and its surprises? As Sai grows closer to his paranoid and conspiracy theorist neighbor Jenny, he begins to question this himself.
“Good Hunting” is a story about a father-son demon hunting team. Liang and his father are on tail of a hulijing, a kind of mischievous fox spirit in Chinese legend said take the form of beautiful women to lure unsuspecting young men. However, Liang ends up befriending a hulijing girl named Yan and discovers that magic is seeping from the world as history ushers in the age of steam and steel. As Yan loses her shapeshifting powers and Liang runs out of demons to hunt, the two reflect upon bygone times and what their futures may hold. This story hit me especially hard because I can’t help seeing it a metaphor for my own gradual abandonment of cultural traditions. My mother still observes the ritual of burning “spirit money” for the Ghost Festival like the characters do in this story, but it’s unlikely that I will continue it; I still remember the slight hint of resignation in her eyes when I told her, which strikes the same kind of melancholic tone set by this tale about cultural change.
“The Literomancer” was probably even harder to read emotionally, because it is a sad story that ends with a punch in the gut. Lilly Dyer is a young American girl living with her expatriate parents in Taiwan in the early 1960s during the height of communist rule in China. Having not made many friends at school, Lilly immediately grows closer to a local boy named Teddy and his grandfather Mr. Kan who is literomancer, someone who reads fortunes based on written words. Mr. Kan tells Lilly stories, which she innocently repeats to her parents not understanding the unfortunate consequences that could lead to.
“Simulacrum” explores the effects of virtual technology in this tale about Paul Larimore, the inventor of a machine capable of capturing a person’s essence and projecting it into 3D, and his relationship with his daughter, Anna Larimore. Anna is estranged from her father, and this story explains why. Interesting concept, but the ending was a little too abrupt.
“The Regular” was my favorite story in this book, an easy 5 stars if I am rating it on its own. A perfect blend of sci-fi tech and crime noir, this is a compact tale starring Ruth, a private investigator on the trail of “The Watcher”, a serial killer who targets prostitutes—except what he’s after is not sex but something far stranger. It’s your standard murder mystery, but with its cybernetic sci-fi twist and fantastic protagonist, this one had me riveted from beginning to end, which isn’t something all mystery/thriller writers can achieve, even with full length novels.
“The Paper Menagerie” is the titular story, and for good reason; it was the one that won Ken Liu the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards. Jack is the son of an American father and a Chinese mother who immigrated to be with her husband after he purchased her from a bride catalogue. Growing up, Jack’s mom folded elaborate origami animals that would come to life around him, but eventually he grew ashamed of these paper toys and of his Chinese heritage, preferring to play American action figures, eat American food, and speak American English in order to fit in. Again, I find it difficult sometimes to view stories like this because many of its themes hit too close to home. Suffice to say, it’s a very emotional story about cultural identity, acceptance, and growing up. Embrace those close to you and tell them how you feel; you never know when it’ll be too late.
“An Advance Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” follows in much the same vein as “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”, this time describing the different approaches to thought and communication. However, even though it contains a narrative about a woman and her child, this story didn’t quite speak to me the same way the first one did, probably because most of the descriptions of physics and technology went over my head.
“The Waves” features Captain Maggie Chao of the generation ship Sea Foam leading her passengers on a long journey to colonize a new planet many lightyears away. To pass the time, Maggie tells stories of creation to her children. When a new discovery comes to light, the crew will have to make a decision that might affect the course of their mission and alter the future of their people. Sad to say, this is another story that didn’t make much of an impression, and was probably one of the least memorable for me in this collection.
“Mono No Aware” is another generation ship story, featuring a group of survivors aboard the Hopeful after a massive asteroid makes impact with earth. It’s also powerful story about sacrifice and survival, but probably not as hard-hitting for me as some of the other offerings in this anthology.
“All the Flavors (A Tale of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, in America)” is a cool little historical tale (though it is probably one of the longer stories in this collection) about Lily Seaver, a girl living on the frontier settlements of Idaho during the gold rush of the 1860s. Her town is happy to welcome a group of Chinese miners after a great fire wipes out most of its business and homes, for their money if not for their actual presence. Lily befriends Lao Guan, who tells her stories about Guan Yu, a deified military general worshipped by the Chinese. “All the Flavors” is different from the rest of the collection in that it veers away from sci-fi territory, focusing more on mythology and history so that this story reads more like a historical fantasy.
“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is an alternate historical about a joint venture between Asia and the Americas to build a giant tunnel connecting the two regions. Charlie was a former foreman on the project, reliving gut-wrenching memories of his time in the construction site overseeing the work of Chinese prisoners. The completed tunnel is a work of technological wonder, but at what cost? This story proposes that great accomplishments often belie the amount of suffering and blood spilled in their achievement. It’s an interesting one, but not one of my favorites.
“The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” was probably one of the more disappointing stories, given my high hopes for it. Few Chinese children grow up without hearing about the legend of Sun Wukong the Monkey King, and when I saw the title I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this. Tian is a litigator who communes with the Monkey King. He’s also a clever and soft soul who likes to represent people from the poorer villages, and one day a woman comes to him begging for help. Instead of a cheerful take on the popular myth, this one actually takes a turn for the brutally depressing. I liked its noble themes, but it was still pretty gloomy, as it is with most of the stories in this collection.
“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” closes out this anthology with a devastating look back at the atrocities committed in World War II by Unit 731, a Japanese facility that tortured and conducted human experiments on Chinese prisoners. Following the end of the war, the scientists received immunity in exchange for handling over their research. Evan Wei is a historian who is determined to use a new technology to expose these crimes against humanity to the world, calling for history to condemn the actions of Unit 731 and recognize its victims. However, this new technology has a major flaw, namely that only one person can return to the past to view a certain event, but he or she will then prevent anyone else from doing so. For a short story, this one actually contains a lot of very complex themes and philosophical dilemmas. First of foremost, the description of the kind of “time traveling” technology described here poses the question: To whom, if anyone, does history belong? A thoughtful but rather dispiriting story told in the form of a documentary transcript, “The Man Who Ended History” is a powerful conclusion that reiterates and brings together many of the themes presented in the previous fourteen tales in this collection.
In sum, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is an amazing anthology, even if it is somewhat front-loaded with the more memorable stories at the beginning. Some stories worked better for me than others, that is true—but most of the tales in here are captivating in very profound ways and at times carried a personal meaning for this reviewer. I don’t often recommend short story collections, but I will for this one, and with much enthusiasm. Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a beautiful work of art, guaranteed to touch hearts and engage minds.