The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, dystopian
Published: March 2016 by Gallery/Saga Press (US) and Head of Zeus (UK)
I’ve been meaning to read Ken Liu’s first collection of short stories for a quite a while. His translation for two of Cixin Liu’s books in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy was excellent and I’ve heard a lot of great things about the titular short story of this collection.
In my opinion, the preface alone warrants at least a 5-star and an award. Liu’s writing is utterly beautiful and profound, and one can clearly see how talented and intelligent this author is just from reading his preface to the collection. I’ve highlighted at least half of it because it was so well-written.
“Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.
… And yet, whatever has been lost in translation in the long journey of my thoughts through the maze of civilization to your mind, I think you do understand me, and you think you do understand me. Our minds managed to touch, if but briefly and imperfectly.
Does the thought not make the universe seem just a bit kinder, a bit brighter, a bit warmer and more human?
We live for such miracles.”
It was my intention to read Paper Menagerie and Other Stories slowly; no more than a story a day. Below are my brief thoughts right after I finished each one.
The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species
5 stars – such an inventive, profound and thought-provoking piece. I’m in awe with Ken Liu’s mind on crafting this brilliant narrative about the various methods of creating and consuming books. These allegories drawn from alien manifestations are still completely relatable to human beings.
4.5 stars – what an original and emotional story about souls being represented by inanimate objects. Objects that truly represent the aura of the person whose soul it contains.
The Perfect Match
4 stars – a relevant story about how internet giants are taking over our lives. Amazon, Facebook, Google are pretty much synonymous with vast data sharing, 24/7 surveillance and consumer targeting algorithms. I think if I’ve not read quite a few other great short stories with a similar theme, this would have had even more of an impact.
4 stars – an imaginative and though-provoking narrative on the transformation of the world from old magic (supernatural) to new magic (technology).
4.5 stars – wow, this was beautiful and brutally sad in equal measure. A really well-written short story about literomancy, racism and the revolution against Communism in Taiwan.
4 stars – this story about a camera being able to capture a person into a simulation of a particular moment was deeply affecting. It is both disturbing and very poignant. Told from two perspectives of a father and his daughter.
3.5 stars – a decent murder mystery with emotion suppression as its core theme. Is it ever a good idea to suppress emotions, be it fear, grief or rage?
5 stars – magical, emotional and poignant, Ken Liu managed to hit really hard in just 15 pages. This short story deserved all its awards, and it’s a must-read.
Note: If you want to read this extraordinary short story to get a taste of Liu’s genius, you can do so here.
Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition
4 stars – another profound piece of writing where Ken Liu created comparative cognition between various alien species and humans; concept of memory, falling in love, depletion of natural resources, and parental control/decision. One of the more hard sci-fi entries in the collection.
5 stars – wow, yet another profound piece that juxtaposed creation myths against a story of humans becoming immortal as they sought the stars and explore the universe. It became so surreal until the last moment when the story came full circle back to creation.
Mono No Aware
4.5 stars – a beautiful story about the transcience of life in the universe told with Japanese sensibilities.
All the Flavors
4 stars – the longest story in the collection, it depicted the settlement of the Chinese in the America as they sought make their fortune in a country known to them as Old Gold Mountain. Woven through the frame story was a tale of Guan Yu, a deified military general worshipped as the God of War by the Chinese.
A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel
4 stars – an alternate history piece where Japan proposed to connect the major Eastern cities to America with a tunnel under the Pacific ocean. While a marvellous achievement, the Trans-Pacific Tunnel was constructed at a huge cost, in every sense of the word. A pointed allegory of humanity’s capacity to do whatever it takes for advancement.
The Litigation Master and The Monkey King
4 stars – a bleak and depressing story that commemorated those who suffered under the brutality of the Manchu rulers in China. The addition of The Monkey King added a most unusual conflicting tone of irreverence to the bleak narrative.
The Man Who Killed History: A Documentary
5 stars – a very powerful and thought-provoking narrative that evoked the horrors and atrocities committed in Pingfang by Unit 731 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. A brilliant science fiction piece where the concept of quantum entanglement enabled time travel back in time to revisit history; history that had been sanitised or worst, altogether silenced for political gain and power. Another must-read alongside with the titular story.
As with most collections, the quality inevitably varies from one story to another. Regardless, as a collective, they echo the same theme, and that is the importance of stories, regardless of which genre it came in. The majority of these short pieces were incredibly moving. That Ken Liu managed to convey so much through so few words is a testament of his immense talent and the profundity of his imagination. His writing is evocative with an Eastern-like grace which is understated yet heartbreaking. The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is an enchanting collection of short stories that is meant to be savoured time and again.