The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
by Ken Liu
Review by Sam Lubell
Saga Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781481442541
Date: 08 March 2016 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
The Paper Menagerie is a substantial (450 pages) collection of some of Ken Liu's best stories. This makes it a collection of some of the best short stories of the current decade. The title story won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and Liu has seven other Nebula nominations and two other Hugos (counting his translation of The Three-Body Problem) plus another Hugo nomination, all since 2010.
The stories are hard to categorize as some have no real genre content (or very little) while others have no plot. Generally, what makes a Liu story is the vivid imagery--the soul locked in an ice cube, the chrome fox, the child simulacrum of an estranged daughter, the tunnel connecting Asia and America, and of course the living origami animals. I did notice that many stories deal with a conflict between children and parents.
Many of his stories are set in Asia. "Good Hunting" is an intriguing mix of science fiction and fantasy set in China where the railroad and machines are replacing the traditional magic and is about the different ways a demon hunter and fox shapechanging demon cope with this change. On one level, "The Literomancer" is the story of an American girl in the strange land of Taiwan who meets an old man who shows her the magic of letters. On the other level it is a cold war story of betrayal. "A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel" describes an ambitious effort to connect Shanghai, Tokyo, and Seattle that also serves as commentary on the differences between the Japanese and Americans. "The Litigation Master and the Monkey King" is another story where the fantasy element is minimal or even imaginary. Tian Haoli helps defend the poor in legal matters, while the Chinese hero the Monkey King comments inside Tianís head.
Other stories are about the immigrant experience. "The Regular" reads like the pilot for a television show about a future P.I. as the half-Chinese Ruth Law tries to catch a killer preying on Chinatown prostitutes while abusing her regulator, which suppresses emotions, to cope with her guilt over her daughter's death. The title story, the Hugo and Nebula winning "The Paper Menagerie" is about a half-Chinese boy's determination to become fully American at the cost of rejecting his Chinese mother. The story won the Hugo and Nebula even though the story would have worked just as well without the fantasy element. "Mono No Aware" is about a Japanese man who is able to escape a doomed Earth on an American spaceship and his effort to save the ship when the solar sail is punctured. "All the Flavors" is about a group of Chinese miners who move to Idaho City and the American girl who befriends them and listens to their stories. While there is no genre content in the main story, Logan tells the girl tales of the Chinese God of War that have a similar feel to the narrative in Liu's novel The Grace of Kings. "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" uses the idea of time viewing to investigate WWII war crimes committed by the Japanese in China. Because Japan is a cold war ally while China is communist, the American government tries to suppress this technique.
Liu also plays with the traditional story structure. "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" has no plot but describes how several different alien species make books. This is fiction in nonfiction form and could easily be an article from some future encyclopedia. "An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition" alternates descriptions of different types of aliens with a family's choice of whether to journey in space to try to communicate with aliens.
Even in his more traditional stories, his focus is on the characters. In "State Change" everyone's soul is stored in a physical object, like a pack of cigarettes or, in Rina's case, an ice cube. Her need to protect the cube shapes her personality, in contrast to her roommate who had used up over half her cigarettes by college, until she decides to risk everything for a chance to love. "The Perfect Match" is a more traditional science fiction story about a computer program that manages everyone's life for them. In "Simulacrum", a daughter discovers her father cheating on her mother with lifelike 3D images of other women. In "The Waves" people on a generation starship have to choose between immortality and letting their children grow up.
One drawback to The Paper Menagerie is the lack of author notes on the story. There's a brief preface but nothing more, not even a brief note on what awards and nominations a story received. This book does not include any of Liu's many translations of Chinese science fiction. A separate collection of his translations, Invisible Planets, will come out from Tor this November.
Ken Liu's stories combine vivid imagery and great characterization with his own unique style. A Ken Liu story does not read like a story from most other authors even apart from his Chinese settings. Anyone who enjoys great stories, regardless of genre, or has an interest in Chinese culture, will want to read this collection. Highly recommended.