BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Fifteen good-to-great stories that span the spectrum of science fiction and fantasy.
PROS: Not a bad story in the bunch; Liu’s writing is clear; his voice is confident; many of the stories carry emotional weight; some of the stories were educational as well as entertaining.
CONS: AS with many collections/anthologies, your mileage may vary.
BOTTOM LINE: A worthwhile collection by any measure.
It’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the great short fiction being published these days, so I do what most people probably do: keep tabs on the “Best of” anthologies and dip into the other short fiction collections that seem to rise above the crowd. Ken Liu’s first collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is one of those collections.
Liu garnered a reputation for being an accomplished writer through short fiction alone — and not just by writing lots of stories, but by writing lots of good stories. His stories have been repeatedly lauded in multiple venues, collected in Year’s Best anthologies, and even picked up a few awards along the way. With those creds, it was an easy choice to dive into this collection.
Did the stories live up to the hype? You bethca! Every single one of the fifteen stories contained in The Paper Menagerie are worth reading. Many of the stories leverage (and thus feel similar to reading) various Asian mythologies, legends and fairy tales. Some are the kinds of stories a parent reads to a child, with both finding value therein. Many of the stories are deep and meaningful, but there are still others are page-turning fun. Some of the stories are near-future sf; some are fantasies that fell simply magical. The collection as a whole offers a diverse selection of topics, but they are always delivered with a clear and confident voice, making this a must-read collection.
Individual story reviews follow…
Less of a conventional story and more like a survey of various species, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species“ is about how a variety of uniquely imagined races read books, or the equivalent of reading books. Each description in itself is an imaginative exercise in world building. One species reads and writes in a manner analogous to that of recording and listening to vinyl records, for example. Unconventional for sure, but nonetheless mind expanding and an illuminating perspective on books and reading.
Smartly written without being pretentious, “State Change“ (inspired by Martha Soukup’s short story “Waking Beauty” and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass) is the poignant story of a girl named Rina whose soul is embodied by an ice cube. Other people in Rina’s life have different manifestations of their soul, like a candle or a box of cigarettes. This far-fetched premise turns out to be a great metaphor for the temporary nature of life and how it is best lived when you take risks. Liu’s quick-but-interesting examination of these different souls is surprisingly thought-provoking. Well done!
“The Perfect Match“ is a story that examines the never-ending conflict between privacy and convenience in the digital age. In the near future, a company named Centillion (a stand-in for Google), makes life easier by monitoring its users and recommending products and activities that they will like. Centillion is so pervasive, that most users don’t even realize the power that he company holds over them. Sai is one of these devoted customers, but he questions things when he meets a girl named Jenny who opens his eyes a bit. This story is interesting for its parallels with current digital technology and extrapolating the very scary direction of what some would call “progress”.
“Good Hunting“ is superficially the story of change, mainly of a magic-infused culture giving way to one of technology. This change is seen through the eyes of a Chinese demon hunter who falls for a woman who can transform herself into a fox. As magic leaves the world, she loses her ability to transform and he must find another way to make ends meet. They keep in touch over the years, and do what they always do: adapt to survive. Underneath the story’s skin of magical transformation are other layers, notably the theme of colonialism. To serve as another example of change, the story flavor itself morphs into something of a fable-like fantasy feel to one of steampunk.
Ken Liu’s history-infused story “The Literomancer“ takes place during the Cold War 1960s and focuses, initially, on the daughter of an American ex-pat in Taiwan. Lily Dyer is having a rough time and is the ridicule of the local boys and the other American girls at school on the military base. She is befriended by a Chinese man and his young ward. The man, a Chinese refugee, teaches Lily the magical power of words. The fantastical elements here are minimal, but the story carries a lot of emotional impact — especially as the story takes a much more serious and darker turn when the politics of the region come to the fore, leading to family betrayal and great loss.
“Simulacrum” concerns an inventor’s technological creation of being able to simulate digital recreations of people. Or, more specifically, how that technology affects the relationship he has with his daughter. Told through alternating viewpoints, the story is interesting for its depiction on how technology affects us. Even more interesting, is how the daughter rejects the simulacrum technology because she feels it depicts a person at one point in time and lies about entire reality, while she also rejects the father by making the same mistake.
I read “The Regular” when it was included in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois. Here’s what I said then: “I made the mistake of starting “The Regular” by Ken Liu late at night, a shame because this was a story I simply could not put down. It was a police procedural set in a near future Boston about a cybernetically-enhanced investigator (Ruth Law) looking for a serial killer. The alternating viewpoints, the fast-moving narrative and brief-but-weighty character backgrounds worked in concert to deliver tightly plotted and truly gripping story. Nicely done!”
Another terrific story is “The Paper Menagerie”. The narrator is Jack, son of an American father and a Chinese mother, who aims his resentment for his biracial heritage at his mother. Their relationship started out fine; as a child, the mother would use magic to breathe life into origami animals and make them come alive. However, as Jack grew up and felt the social pressures of being different, that relationship devolved. It’s a touching and tragic story, one that carries significant emotional weight.
“An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” is an unconventionally told story formatted as a series of vignettes. Many of the vignettes depict an alien cultures methods of memory sharing, in a manner similar to Liu’s “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”, noted above. However, several of the vignettes are related and tell the overarching story of a family impacted by the mother’s decision to travel to the stars. This more traditional narrative grounds the story in poignancy much more effectively than the seemingly random vignettes.
Humanity’s evolution is like clay in Liu’s hand in “The Waves”. Almost fable-like in its depiction of humanity’s future, it’s a story about how mankind evolves over the coming eons. It starts with a simple thought-provoking concept: while on a centuries-long journey, the crew of a colonization ship learn that people back on Earth have found a way to become immortal. This throws their mission off track a bit as resources for the trip – as well as breeding terms – were carefully calculated. Lifespans take on new meanings. But this is just the first of several evolutionary waves Liu has in store for a reader looking for sense of wonder. The same pattern repeats, each time escalating humanity’s existence into something new.
“Mono no aware” is a first-rate science fiction story about the last of mankind escaping Earth on a ship driven by solar sail. The narrator, Hiroto, tells his story partly through flashback, from when he was a little boy in Japan, to his job monitoring the sail several years into their centuries-long journey. He recounts the life lessons learned from his father, most notably about the transience of life. Also on tap is a problem that endangers their journey. This is a riveting, economical story that perfectly balances characters, relationships, and plot.
“All the Flavors“ is a story about Chinese emigration, albeit one that takes place in the late 1800s, during the Gold Rush in Idaho. Subtitled “A Tale of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, in America”, the story mixes in the wonderfully told, fable-like legend of Guan Yu, a Chinese youth who was cheated by the emperor and escaped after seeking vengeance. It’s obvious to readers that Guan Yu is Lao Guan (whom the locals have Americanized to be named “Logan”), an elderly Chinaman who came to Idaho to seek his fortune. Logan befriends a young girl named Lily, whose father tells her to be way of the foreigners, and whose mother is ignorantly racist against what she does not understand. Much of the Chinese culture pervades the story (which has few speculative elements) and it does a terrific job of making you care about characters; you either like them or, like the pair of outlaws who repeatedly harass the city and its several thousand residents, don’t. More impactful are the themes of immigration and culture clash that infuse the story and echo many of today’s news headlines.
“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” consists of two interleaved narratives. The first one offers an alternate history in which Japan, a world super power, collaborates with America to build a tunnel connecting two continents. The second one revolves around the relationship between a Formosan man and an American woman in Midpoint City, located halfway through the tunnel. Both narratives portray the sad state of race relations in this world, and show how even the smallest efforts to change things for the better are worthwhile.
More historical than speculative, “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” is a terrific story of a man in 18th century China who ekes out a meager living as a lawyer. Tian Haoli may be eccentric — he dreams about and has conversations with the mythological Monkey King, a trickster demon who fought monsters — but he has a knack for finding loopholes in the law. This allows him to get by, but doesn’t win him any favors, especially with the court. But his heart is in the right place, helping the oppressed and cheated citizens from becoming victims. His latest case involves a secret history of the currently reigning dynasty that means danger should it ever go public. That puts Tian is a position where he must choose to sit idly by while a great injustice takes place, or find the courage to stand up to the hidden truth. This is a very good story that itself reads like a myth.
“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” is a fantastic story for several reasons. First, the central conceit is mind-bending. It concerns an ability to “sort of” time travel by allowing people to witness the past. The gothca is that once witnessed, it can never be seen by anyone else. The science here is a little hand-wavy, but still cool. Second, it uses the premise to introduce some thought-provoking ideas. Who owns the events of a given historical event when geo-political boundaries change? Are they state-owned events at all? Are they instead personal artifacts belonging to the people who lived them? Or do they belong to humanity as a whole? Thirdly, it highlights the atrocities of the (previously unknown to me) Unit 731, a covert Japanese WWII human research facility that did inhumane things to its civilian Chinese prisoners. Liu’s story thus transcends entertainment and becomes educational as well. The format is told in a documentary format, highlighting the experiments of the scientist pair that developed the technology, one Japanese-American, one Chinese-American. This makes the story more engaging despite its unconventional format. Several of the descriptions of the atrocities that occurred there – made all the more heinous being based on real life events – were downright disturbing, but that’s sort of the point. All told, a well-done story that gets high marks for offering several levels of enjoyment.