Monday, 14 March 2016

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu is the first collection from the acclaimed and award-winning author. I have previously reviewed some short stories by the author (including the titular story of this anthology), but this was the first time I read several of them in succession. The blurb is not terribly helpful, but I shall include it for completion.

A publishing event: Bestselling author Ken Liu selects his award-winning science fiction and fantasy tales for a groundbreaking collection—including a brand-new piece exclusive to this volume.

With his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, taking the literary world by storm, Ken Liu now shares his finest short fiction in The Paper Menagerie. This mesmerizing collection features all of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).

A must-have for every science fiction and fantasy fan, this beautiful book is an anthology to savor.

My first overwhelming response to this anthology was of adoration for the exquisite writing and fascinating ideas in the stories. I liked all of the stories and loved quite a lot of them. It's honestly hard to choose only a few favourites, but I'll try. "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" leads the anthology and evoked in me a strong feeling of "why haven't I read more SF like this?" And also made me wish that I could write that well. "The Paper Menagerie" is heart wrenching, even upon a re-read, and will probably always be one of my favourite stories. "Mono No Aware" is a story I've heard discussed before, but I never really knew what it was about until reading it.

None of the stories in this collection are particularly cheerful, although they may have happy moments in them. Many of them have heartbreaking moments, which Liu executes beautifully. Many of the stories also contain other stories within them, not just flashbacks but also characters telling stories out of history and/or mythology, woven into the themes of the overarching narrative.

I loved this collection and I will definitely be keeping an eye out for more Ken Liu to read. If I wasn't already keen to read more Liu short stories, then I would be now. I also have Grace of Kings on my TBR. I highly recommend this collection to all fans of science fiction and fantasy short stories. It does not disappoint.


THE BOOKMAKING HABITS OF SELECT SPECIES — This story, being the first in the collection, forcibly reminded me of how amazing Liu's writing is. An account of how different aliens species store and retrieve information (or what they regard as books). Gorgeous language and excellent, creative ideas; this is what science fiction should aspire to.

STATE CHANGE — People's souls are externalised into semi-random objects. If these objects are destroyed or used up (depending on the object), then they die. Imagine the anxiety if your soul was an ice cube. A very interesting "what if" concept, deftly executed. It actually reminded me a bit of "The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere" by John Chu. Not because the stories themselves are similar, but because of the way a fantastical premise is explored in a science fictional mindset.

THE PERFECT MATCH — A longer story set in a world where everyone is always online and algorithms serve us exactly what they want when they want them. The main character is taken on a bit of a tour of the underlying conspiracy from a couple of different perspectives. The inevitability of the near future world was probably the most frightening aspect of this story. That and the need for another character's paranoia.

GOOD HUNTING — Another longer story that starts with rural magic and takes us on a journey to colonial and steampunk Hong Kong. What is a demon hunter to do, when the magic fades? What about a shapeshifter who can't shift any more? The story had heartbreaking elements and an even better ending than I expected.

THE LITEROMANCER — A novella, I think. While reading the first half (ish) of this story, I was thinking that it was an absolute delight. Liu paints a strong picture of Cold War Taiwan, seen from the eyes of a young American girl whose father works there. Sure she has problems, but they're normal kid problems like bullying, and she makes some Chinese friends who help her through them. The theme of literomancy, discerning meaning from words, also features strongly throughout, which I found fascinating even if the etymologies aren't academically accurate, as the afterword tells us. But the story took a dark turn, which I won't spoil but which means I can't call it delightful overall. The harshness of the Cold War intrudes on the young main character's life and affects her deeply, even though she doesn't understand why. I still found that part of the story interesting, but also cringeworthy. An excellent story, but not an easy read towards the end.

SIMULACRUM — I think I've read this story before, but I really don't remember where. It's told in one-sided conversations with an interviewer that we never see or hear. The interview subjects are a father and the man who invented technology to record and project AI-enhanced copies of people, and his daughter, who grew to dislike the technology. It touches on some interesting points about living in the moment rather than living to record the moment, but at its heart it's a story about an estranged father and daughter and how they came to be that way.

THE REGULAR — Another novella, I think. A PI procedural as the main character tracks down a serial killer in a near-future world filled with artificial surgical enhancements. I enjoyed it. I don't have that much to say about it, though, since the main new thing it brings to the procedural table is the futuristic technology (and I should emphasise, being good SF/crime it doesn't lean on magical tech solutions or anything like that).

THE PAPER MENAGERIE — A story I have read before but didn't want to skip over. I cried the second time I read it too. The American son of a Chinese mail order bride recounts his relationship with her, including when she made magical animated origami animals for him to play with. The ending remains heart-wrenchingly sad and it’s not for nothing that this story won the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards.

AN ADVANCED READERS PICTURE BOOK OF COMPARATIVE COGNITION — This story tells many things: the way different alien species think, how the narrator met his wife and child's mother, and what happened to spare their family. It covers many different ideas including possible alien physiologists and a method of receiving messages from other parts of the galaxy. It was a good story, but it didn't grip me as much as some of the others have.

THE WAVES — Another longish story that did not end where I expected it to based on the start. It follows characters on a generation ship and throws in several familiar tropes, mixing them together in a new way. Most interestingly, the first complication, thrown at the colonists is that of immortality discovered by people still on Earth. How can they accept the new technology when the resources on the ship are so delicately balanced? The story is also punctuated by the main character telling her children and grandchildren different cultures’ creation myths, breaking up the main narrative.

MONO NO AWARE — Confusingly, this story also features a solar-sail-powered spaceship heading towards the same star as the previous story. The reasons for leaving and the name of the ship are different, however, as is the rest of the story. It is about a ship fleeing the asteroidal destruction of Earth. Told partly in the present and partly as flashbacks to before the asteroid hit, the story touches on ideas of culture — how Japanese are you if you left Japan when you were very young? What if you are the only representative of your race left? — and the meaning of heroism. Also how appallingly people cane behave when the world is about to end, and how stoically. A wonderful, bittersweet story.

ALL THE FLAVORS — Definitely a novella as far as length goes. Also a story containing several other stories. We follow a little girl living in Idaho City during the gold rush. She gets to know a group of Chinese miners and, in particular, their leader, who tells her a lot of stories. So while reading about the challenges faced my the Chinese miners in a foreign land, we also get a generous dose of Chinese mythology/history, including some of the personal history of the miners. This is another story that didn't go where I expected it to based on the start. Admittedly, this is is large part because I didn't realise how long it was (curse the Kobo for not telling me how long is left in each chapter). Unfortunately, I think knowing the length at the start would have changed my perspective of the whole story. Obviously, this is not the story's fault.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE TRANS-PACIFIC TUNNEL — A beat alternate history story in which, after World War I, Japan and China do not go to war and instead, Japan builds a tunnel under the Pacific Ocean liking Shanghai, Tokyo and Seattle. Because of this and a few other factors World War II didn't happen and the world becomes a very different place. We see it through the eyes of a former tunnel Digger, originally from what we would call Taiwan, some time in the alternate 60s. I enjoyed the world-building/-changing details. I particularly liked the part where, just because the WWII human rights violations didn't happen, doesn't mean other, similar human rights violations didn't take place instead. (Korean comfort women being the most obvious example.)

THE LITIGATION MASTER AND THE MONKEY KING — A man who helps villagers out with legal disputes is dragged into something much bigger than himself. Also the Monkey King talks to him, mostly in his head, but also in his dreams. When it comes down to a choice between saving his own life and subversively helping others, the Monkey King helps him with his choice. Although the character is fictional, I gather from the author's note that some of the events are of historical significance (I don't want to go into more detail and spoil the plot). Not a cheerful story (were any of them?) but one I enjoyed reading.

THE MAN WHO ENDED HISTORY: A DOCUMENTARY — A novella rather dense on historical fact and philosophical questions. This is my overwhelming impression, having just finished reading; perhaps not an entirely fair verdict. The premise is that a method for directly observing the past using new discoveries in physics. The catch is that any spatial and temporal portion of the past can only be observed once; the act of observing destroys the echo being observed. The story is told in documentary form, following primarily the two discoverers of the technique, a husband and wife team. The historian husband decides that he wants to use the technique to look back into Pingfang in China, the site of many Japanese WWII atrocities. The story explores the ramifications of being able to view history only once, whose “trip” to the past should be prioritised and some of the politics surrounding the choice of initial destination. It was an interesting story that had be pausing to Google a few facts (for my own personal edification, not because the story was lacking). It contains a reasonable amount of information about the Chinese/Japanese part of WWII and alludes to more. It certainly wasn’t a fun read (who enjoys reading about atrocities?) but I am glad I read it. It also wasn’t perfect as a story. At some point while reading, my mind happened upon the impossibility of the premise. Not the fact that the physics is made up (that’s fine in SF) but some logistical difficulties within the framework of the fictional physics. That did throw me out of the narrative a little, but the way the documentary format jumped around after relatively short sections meant this didn’t last for long.

5 / 5 stars

First published: March 2016, Saga Press (Simon & Schuster)
Series: No
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

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