The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
Ken Liu is a writer of many talents, all of which are on full display in his first short story collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. Each of the fifteen pieces presented here is well-executed; many don’t have happy endings (as much as I would like them to), though Liu makes the best choices possible for the tales he’s telling, and I will admit that the end results frequently left me crying or stunned. He brings characters to life and makes you care about their situations, whether his fiction is based in historical fact or speculation upon a potential future. Despite the fact that these are all short works, dialogue is well-written, plots arc nicely, and character motivations ring true. Liu displays a remarkable range — from encyclopedia entries, tech noir, modern speculative fiction, to historical tales and more— and his familiarity with each of these genres is obvious. I felt that including Author Notes after certain stories was a good choice, since it shows that Liu’s done his research into scientific concepts or historical events, and encourages readers to become more informed if they’re so inclined.
The preface is short, but heartfelt, expressing Liu’s desire to connect with his readers and break down barriers of time, space, and communication. I appreciated his insight into the authorial process, particularly from his viewpoint as a translator, since expressing one’s thoughts in even a familiar language carries no guarantee of understanding or empathy. Happily, there was no loss in translation from author to reader.
“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species:” An encyclopedia entry-style story about the differences and similarities in the books and societies made by species across the universe. It’s imaginative and striking without relying on puns or cheap laughs.
“State Change:” Rina lives in a world in which one’s soul materializes in physical form at the moment of one’s birth. Joan of Arc had a beech branch, T.S. Eliot received a can of coffee, and Rina has an ice cube which she obsessively keeps from melting. Liu explores the potential ramifications of such an existence with compassion and gentle humor, and I found the ending to be both unexpected and lovely.
“The Perfect Match:” Sai shares every possible bit of data with his AI/personal assistant, Tilly, so that she can make the optimal suggestions for his dinner plans, romantic encounters, and jogging routes. His new neighbor, Jenny, insists that the company which owns Tilly has nefarious motives behind the data-mining. But what if Tilly is the logical progression of technology? While there isn’t a cut-and-dried conclusion, an ominous feeling of dread lingered with me long after I had moved on to the next story.
“Good Hunting:” Liang and his father are a demon-hunting team in rural China, following a family tradition which goes back thirteen generations. They’re put on the trail of a hulijing, “a demon who stole hearts,” and her daughter, Yan. Liang and Yan discover that magic is being drained out of the earth, due to English imperialists and their installment of a railroad. Coal-powered engines lead to steam, which leads to automata, and the pair must decide how to define their own identities in a world which seems to change faster than they can keep pace with. Liu takes elements which I find objectionable about steampunk — whitewashing, support of imperialism, willful ignorance that engineering marvels require backbreaking labor — and confronts them directly, enriching the story and filling it with fury. I would happily read more in the “Good Hunting” universe; the story is self-contained, but there’s absolutely room for more, and I hope Liu returns to it at some point.
“The Literomancer:” Set in 1961, this story focuses on Lilly Dyer, a young girl who recently moved to Taiwan from Texas due to her father’s employment. Lilly is a brave, cheerful, conflicted girl who feels woefully out of place among her racist schoolmates on the American military base. One day, she meets Kan Chen-hua and his grandson, Ch’en Chia-feng, and Mr. Kan reveals that he is a literomancer: he can tell a person’s “fortunes based on the characters in their names and the characters they pick.” He tells her some stories, she repeats them to the wrong people, and while Lilly doesn’t have the context for the activities of American government agents in Taiwan, I certainly do. This story was heartbreaking, all the more so because these things actually happened.
“Simulacrum:” Paul Larimore is the inventor of a camera which is capable of capturing the mental patterns, appearance, and physical behavior of a person, then replaying the sum of that data as a sort of living hologram which can be interacted with in endless ways. Anna Larimore hates her father’s invention and refuses to speak with him, despite the best efforts of her mother, Erin, toward reconciliation. In this story, Liu explores the inability of children and parents to accept fallibility and see one another as adults.
“The Regular:” A prostitute, “Jasmine” (real name: Mona), receives a client, “Robert.” She thinks he’s hired her for sex; he kills her, cuts something out of her, robs her, and leaves. Ruth Law, a private investigator in Boston, is hired by Mona’s mother, Sarah Ding, to find out what happened to her daughter. “Robert,” known by his associates as The Watcher, is a hard man to find, but Ruth’s got a few cybernetic implants and aces up her sleeve. I liked the tech noir tone, as well as the various types of implants available to either give cops an edge over criminals or to increase one’s sense of personal security, and the dangers of over-reliance on the technology. The circumstances of the ending were a little too closely patterned after a formative event in a character’s backstory, but the conclusion itself was still satisfying.
“The Paper Menagerie:” A boy’s mother, purchased from a Hong Kong marriage catalogue in 1973 and brought to America, has the gift of breathing life into origami animals. Thus begins a bittersweet story about wanting desperately to fit in, being unable to do so, hating one’s parents for things they couldn’t possibly control, sacrifice, and the realization that life is too short for grudges. “The Paper Menagerie” won the 2012 Hugo for Best Short Story, and it was a well-deserved award.
“An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition:” Another encyclopedia-style entry, this time about methods of thought, and interspersed with addresses from a parent to a child whose mother wants to visit the stars. The tone is hopeful, but sad; Liu mixes science and poetry in his writing, lending authority and wonder to the fantastic things he describes.
“The Waves:” Maggie Chao, captain of the generation ship Sea Foam, tells creation stories to her children to pass the time on their long voyage to the planet 61 Virginis e. Her husband and first officer, João, informs her that the potential for immortality has been discovered, which completely changes the purpose and progress of their mission. If adults take the treatment, no more children can be born on the ship; if the adults die, they’ll never get to experience landing on another world. The story follows Maggie’s choices as she continues to tell stories, all of which circle back around to creation and the profound need to alleviate loneliness.
“Mono no aware:” Hiroto Shimizu is a teacher on board the Hopeful, a spaceship shaped a little “like the kanji for umbrella.” Just over one thousand colonists are on their way to the star 61 Virginis after narrowly escaping the catastrophic collision of Earth and a massive asteroid. “Mono no aware” is “a sense of the transience of all things in life,” and Hiroto must cling to that idea many times throughout this beautiful, poignant tale, which won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
“All the Flavors (Tale of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, in America):” A group of Chinese miners arrive in Idaho City just after the Great Fire of 1865. Lily Seaver, a child, is intrigued by their music and food, and ends up befriending their leader, Lao Guan. “Logan” tells her stories about Guan Yu, the red-faced Chinese god of war featured in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms; these tales mingle with Lily’s father Jack’s Irish folk songs and the very real history of the brutal exploitation of Chinese immigrants and forced laborers during their ocean voyages and upon arrival in America. Liu’s juvenile characters are childlike without seeming as though he’s pandering, and are as emotionally complex as the adults around them. In this piece, he balances stories within stories, carefully maneuvering them into the literary equivalent of a perfect meal, one which has “sweet, sour, bitter, hot, and salty, all the flavors in balance.”
“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel:” In an alternate history in which the Japanese Empire controls the Pacific region, a Formosan man named Charlie meets Betty, an American waitress in a Midpoint City noodle shop. They each prefer living beneath the ocean to life above, and as the two become more intimately acquainted, Charlie reminisces about the horrible experience of tunneling through bedrock alongside Chinese Communist political prisoners; his past and their present-day are woven with travel guide segments and newspaper articles which illuminate how this world differs from our own. The tunnel is an engineering marvel, but Liu asks here and elsewhere in The Paper Menagerie, what are advances in technology or science worth — what is an increase in a country’s prosperity worth — if human lives are destroyed in the process?
“The Litigation Master and the Monkey King:” Tian Haoli lives in a decrepit house in Sanli Village, in the lower Yangtze region, during the Qianlong Emperor’s reign. He is an extremely skilled litigator who prefers to spend his time in dreams of sharing meals and tales with the Monkey King of legend. A village woman, Li Xiaoyi, needs his help with a legal issue, and he defends her successfully; later, she returns seeking aid for her fugitive brother, who has come into possession of a banned book. I was expecting a light-hearted tale of trickery, but this rapidly became a tragic story about heroism and defiance in the face of brutality, even when the benefits of one’s actions may not be seen for hundreds of years.
“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary:” Dr. Akemi Kirino, of Feynman Labs, is part of a team which has revolutionized physics with her discovery of Bohm-Kirino particles, which allow a person to view past events. Unfortunately, this can only be done once, by one person, and the particle is destroyed by the process. Dr. Evan Wei, a historian, wants to use these particles to show the world what many Chinese people already know: during World War II, Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army performed gruesome experiments upon Chinese prisoners at Pingfang, “the Asian Auschwitz.” The global response is mixed; many do not believe that wartime atrocities need an apology, while others don’t believe that the time-travel process or accounts of the travelers are reliable. Liu’s descriptions of torture and vivisection are stomach-churning, but necessary, presenting the supposed scientific advancements gained by this experimentation in contrast with the terror and pain experienced by the human subjects.
Presented as the transcript of a documentary, featuring interviews with notable figures and men-on-the-street, and blending real history and people with possible future technology, this story could easily stand on its own as the ultimate example of Liu’s strengths, capabilities, and passions. As the closing story in this collection, “The Man Who Ended History” takes the sum total of the philosophical musings presented in previous works and combines them with one last question: Who has rights to the past, especially when it comes to ownership and discussion of war crimes? Those who suffered, those who caused that suffering, the descendants of either or both? Perhaps none, or perhaps all. The weight of history is tremendous, too much for any one person to bear, but the truth must be known if there is to be any hope of preventing future atrocities. This is a thorny issue, with many complications, and Liu doesn’t shy away from any of them; to do so would be to ignore the legacy of those who have been silenced throughout history and those, like the late documentarian Iris Chang, who have tried to bring Pingfang and so many other examples of human cruelty to light. I took a Japanese History class in college, and this was my first time hearing about Unit 731 or Pingfang, so this story was illuminating far beyond my expectations.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, while emotionally devastating at times, is a collection that I will be re-reading for years to come, a book that I’ll lend to trusted friends and will recommend to complete strangers. It’s obvious that Ken Liu has worked hard at his storytelling craft, and I look forward to both learning from and enjoying much more of his work in the future.
I have to confess, I don’t expect a lot when I go into a collection of short stories. Rarely have I read a collection where I’d rate the vast majority of stories, say 80+ percent, very good or excellent. It’d be nice, but I don’t expect it. And that’s OK. If I can get 50 or 60% that are very good or better, a few that are average or a bit better, that’s enough to get me by the bad or “meh” ones. And sometimes, I don’t even need that 50-60% if the author can really wow me with just a few select tales. Well, Ken Liu both wowed me with several of the stories in his collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and hit that rare 80+ percent mark, making this one of the best single-author anthologies I’ve read in some time. That’s pretty much all you need know, that and the fact that you should pick this up immediately, but here are some brief reactions to some of the stories in a rough order of preference.
The Great Stories
“The Paper Menagerie:” A first-person POV story of a boy whose mother (a catalog bride) has a particular talent with regard to the origami animal creations she makes for her son —
She breathed life into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic.
As the boy grows up and seeks to just be a “normal American kid,” the kind who eats American food and plays with Star Wars figures rather than origami animals, his mother can only watch in silent anguish as the distance opens between them. There’s a reason this is the title story, and a reason it won a Hugo award; the story is absolutely brilliantly executed. Heartbreaking, moving, realistic, almost too painful to read, it alone makes this a collection worth picking up.
“State Change:” The premise of the story, that one’s soul physically manifests itself at birth as an object unique to that child (T.S. Eliot’s is a tin of coffee, Cicero’s a pebble), would have made this story wonderfully fresh and a good read just for that. But by choosing a protagonist (Rina) whose soul takes the form of an ice cube, forcing her to worry incessantly about its fragility (she never goes out for lunch at work for instance, fearing a sudden power failure that might shut down the freezer she keeps her soul in under her desk), Liu offers up a tender, beautifully quiet character-driven story.
“The Litigation Master and the Monkey King:” In a “tiny cottage at the edge of Sanli village — away from the villagers’ noisy houses and busy clan shrines and next to the cool pond filled with lily pads, pink lotus flowers, and playful carp,” lives the litigator Tian Haoli, a fifty-some year old man who “smelled of the cheapest rice win and even cheaper tea” and who conversed regularly with the Monkey King in his head. This began as a light comic “trickster” sort of story, but quickly turned darker and more serious, to powerful effect.
“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species:” A wonderfully original, imaginative short story describing, as if in an academic encyclopedia, the way:
every species has its unique way of passing on its wisdom through the ages, its way of making thoughts visible, tangible, frozen for a moment like a bulwark against the irresistible tide of time. Everyone makes books.
This one has a real Italo Calvino feel to it and makes for an especially apt opening story.
“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel:” An alt-history tale set 25 years after the Trans-Pacific Tunnel was built to connect the Japanese Empire (they control most of Asia) to America. The narrator, a Formosan named Charlie, worked on the tunnel and we learn of his specific experiences and the tunnel construction in general via a mix of his conversations with an American waitress, and various document excerpts from sources including travel guides, newspapers, and “The Ignoramus’s Guide to American History, 1995.” The story builds wonderfully and has an absolutely killer ending.
The Good Stories
“The Waves:” A generation ship story that intersperses various creation myths (told by the ship’s captain, Maggie Chao, to her children) with the journey of the ship and (quickly) the discovery of a means to immortality that forces hard choices upon the crew. The story spins out far into the future and we get to see immortality’s impact on humanity. This could have just been a nicely structured story, or a cool look at far-distant humanity, but in Liu’s hands it becomes a warm story of love, family, and the desire for company.
“An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition:” Similar to “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” in its encyclopedia-like format, this story focuses on how various species think and remember. Another highly imaginative story, this one stands out as well for its lovely lyricism.
“Good Hunting:” The story follows a father-son (Liang) demon-hunting duo in China, specifically opening with their tracking of a “hulijing… a demon who stole hearts,” who turns out to have a daughter (Yan) whom Liang takes pity on and befriends. As time passes, they notice that the magic of the land is waning, being overcome by Western industry (steam power, railroads, automatons), and so as the world changes around them, they must change/adapt as well. A deeply layered, serious story.
The other stories I’ve not included are only “weak” in relation to the above ones, but there’s nary a bad one in the bunch. “Simulacrum” was well written but didn’t feel particularly fresh; “The Regular” had strong details, but the ending was a bit too neat. But even if each of the ones not covered above is flawed in some (usually singular way), they’re all well executed and well written, often filled with vivid detail, sharp prose, and a good sense of voice/tone. Easily one of the best collections of the past several years, if not longer.