Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie isn’t just for readers of SF, here’s why

Gautham Shenoy August 11, 2018

A story that wins the World Fantasy Award must surely have elves and dwarfs if not a sword or two at least, right? A story that wins SF’s most prestigious awards – the Hugo and the Nebula – should have a spaceship or a robot or tech in some form at least, right? Well, you’d be surprised. Because the first – so far, only – story to win all these three awards, The Paper Menagerie has none of these. And now, in hindsight, I can see why it could have been written by no one else, other than Ken Liu.

Born in China, Ken Liu would emigrate to the US at the age of 11; develop an interest in mathematics in high school, later go to Harvard College where he would major in English, study programming, work in the tech industry for a while would then go on to become a lawyer after studying at Harvard Law School. And each of these experiences informs each story in his prolific work – over 100 acclaimed short stories and two novels that he categorizes as ‘silkpunk’, a term he coined to describe his stories that fuse the familiar epic fantasy with East-Asia-inspired aesthetics.

Apart from his own fiction, Liu has also made his mark as a translator of Chinese science fiction, most notably the first and last book in Liu Cixin’s Three Body trilogy (with the former winning the Hugo) and Invisible Planets, the first-ever anthology of Chinese science fiction short stories to be published in English. But if there’s one place to begin your journey into Ken Liu’s vast bibliography, it would be The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, the anthology that collects his evocative short stories.

Left: Ken Liu. Image ©Lisa Tang Liu. Right: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Many people have called this anthology a must-have for every science fiction & fantasy fan. I disagree. This anthology is a must-have for every single reader who enjoys good, well-written stories. These stories are thought-provoking, pack an emotional punch, filled with wonder and they crackle with originality. The kind of stories that move you. And there are 15 such stories in this anthology, handpicked by Ken Liu himself to give it the “flavor of a retrospective” as he notes in the preface. In his own words, “It includes some of my most popular works (as judged by award nomination and wins) as well as works that I’m proud of but didn’t seem to get much recognition”.

A profoundly moving tale of love and loss, the title story, The Paper Menagerie, is about a mother who’d come to America from China as a mail-order bride and who tries to connect with her son – who’s embarrassed of her and who rejects his Chinese heritage – using origami animals into which she breathes life. Suffice to say that this story deserves every bit of praise it has garnered and every award it has won.

For all of that, the title story is but one of many high points in the collection as Ken Liu weaves his evocative, masterful prose into emotional tales of wonder.

There is a story set in a world in which people have objects for souls (State Change) and Liu tell the story of one such girl who is born with an ice cube for a soul as she lives her life trying to keep it from melting. Humankind’s problematic relationship with technology meanwhile forms the background to ‘The Perfect Match’ – which explores the overdependence of people on digital assistants in the future, and ‘The Regular’ about a bionic detective chasing a serial killer in the midst of dealing with her private grief and the toll it extracts on her mechanically enhanced body because of biochemical regulators in her spine that is meant to keep her hormones and emotions in check. As also ‘The Simulacra’, that deals with the aftermath of a daughter finding her father in bed with not one, but three virtual lovers.

In ‘All the Flavours’ – a story that Ken Liu wrote as his final project at Harvard Law School, instead of the usual scholarly legal paper – we meet a little girl in 1870s Idaho who in turn meets a man who may or may not be the red-faced god of war, in a tale that mixes history and legend as we learn about Chinese workers who transform a town through magic or perhaps the rule of law. If the story set in space on a generation ship, ‘Mono No Aware’ drives home the point of an almost-untranslatable Japanese term in the most poignant way possible, then ‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’ hammers home the pointlessness of war through a story that is harrowing in the way it spotlights the way we look at nation-states, memory, and how we relate to – and with –the past. These are but just some of the stories that await readers in ‘The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories’.

As wide-ranging as the stories in this collection are when it comes to their subjects, and varied in their setting, tone and treatment, there are many common strains that run through them all – those of love, loss, family, identity & individuality, relationships, politics, culture and belonging, cruelty, and all dealt understandingly well with sensitivity especially given the predominantly non-western settings.

Stories are not just tales we tell each other, they are the devices we use to make sense of our world, they are the language we use to speak with one another. Each of us may be different, but in our role as siblings, children, parents, friends, workers, colleagues, readers, we all share the same story, once shorn of the superficial. As Ken Liu notes in his preface, “We spend our entire lives trying to tell stories about ourselves—they’re the essence of memory. It is how we make living in this unfeeling, accidental universe tolerable. That we call such a tendency ‘narrative fallacy’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t also touch upon some aspect of truth”. Each of the stories in The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories touches upon that ineffable aspect of many truths, and that’s why I don’t recommend it just to SF/F fans but to everyone. So, happy reading!

Live long and prosper!


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