The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu. ★★★1/2
While I never made it through The Grace of Kings, I’ve discovered that I quite like some of Ken Liu’s shorter fiction. The Paper Menagerie is an anthology of his shorter fiction, much of which has science fiction or fantasy elements.
The stories tend to be concept focused rather than character focus, and they are generally very well written and told. However, they tend to have a melancholy tone, and I think I would have enjoyed the collection more if there was more variation in tone.
The first story, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” is a series of vignettes describing how various alien species craft books. It’s a short and lovely piece, and I think it works well as an introduction to the rest of the tales.
Probably my favorite story of the collection is the titular “The Paper Menagerie,” his short story that won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award. That story always makes me tear up. The narrator is the son of a Chinese mail order bride and an American man. When he was a child, his mother would make origami animals that she would breath life into, so that they moved on their own. It’s a story about relationships between parents and children and about assimilation and immigration. It’s incredibly powerful, and I can see why it won so many awards.
Other stories deal with the ideas of cultures colliding and changing. In “The Waves,” Earth makes contact with a generation ship, offering them the formula for eternal life, and each individual on the ship must decide whether to stay as they are or to change and adapt. “Good Hunting” is a steampunk tale where the laying down of railroad tracks disrupts chi flow and gradually removes magic from the land, leaving those dependent on it adrift. “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is an alternate history tale where the Great Depression is staved off with a giant building project: an underground tunnel beneath the Pacific Ocean, connecting the East with the West.
Some stories contain no or few speculative elements and are instead historical fiction. “The Literomancer” is an incredibly dark tale about a little girl living in Hong Kong who befriends a Chinese boy and his grandfather. Another very depressing historical tale is “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King,” about the Manchu slaughter of Yangzhou and then the repression of any mention of the massacre. On a bit of a lighter note (although still not light exactly), “All the Flavors” is a historical novella about Chinese immigrants to the Midwest.
While the story “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” is entirely in the realm of science fiction, it deals with some of the same ideas about remembrance of historical tragedies as some of the historical fiction stories. In this story (which is told in a documentary format, akin to Ted Chiang’s “Liking What You See: A Documentary”), a physicist invents a way for one person to re-experience a historical event… but each event can only be re-experienced once, by one person. Who does history belong to?
“The Regular” is a longer cyberpunk, sci-fi noir crime thriller about a serial killer murdering prostitutes and a private investigator trying to catch him. It was all right, but I feel like it resembled other stories I’ve read. However, it was more original than “The Perfect Match,” a dystopian about a future where one corporation guides your every desire, without you ever knowing it. It ended up feeling like a rehash of so many different stories, where a mediocre man meets a woman who shows him how to resist, but resistance ends up being futile.
“State Change” is a conceptually driven story where each person is born with an object that houses their soul. If the object is destroyed, you die, a real difficulty for a woman who’s born with ice cubes housing her soul. This story is almost the literal embodiment of the Defrosting Ice Queen, a trope I’m not super fond of, especially as it can be not great to aro and ace people.
None of the three other stories in the collection made much of an impression. I can hardly remember what happened in “An Advanced Readers Picture Book of Comparative Cognition,” aside that it had some similarities to the very first story. “Mono No Aware” is the tale of the only Japanese man on a generation ship. “Simulacrum” is another conceptual driven story, this time about the idea of record keeping and reality.
All in all, I’m glad I took the time to read this collection, although the only story I see myself returning to again is “The Paper Menagerie.”