Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu



The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

by Ken Liu

Speculative Fiction | Anthology | 450 Pages | Published by Saga Press in 2016


| Rating |


This book was received from Netgalley in return for an honest review

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is an anthology of short fiction which stormed to the top of my reading pile following the success of The Grace of Kings last year. Throughout this anthology, Ken Liu, who has received much acclaim for both his feature length work and his short stories, explores a series of isolated narratives which strike a fine balance between truth, history, fantasy and science fiction.

An author who doesn’t shy away from the dark; within his narratives Liu weaves together the horrors which come with both truth and history and delivers it with a flair for the fantastic. Through addiction, memory and the choices we make, he constructs tales of the collective conscience where cultural memory, technological evolution and the growth of the species are the constant throughout. These are tales which resound with morality, with the choices we make as human beings, and with the weight of our own global past; attributes which make The Paper Menagerie an altogether beautiful, eloquent and often harrowing collection.Ken Liu has published almost 100 short stories and won nearly every genre award in existence. Here, he has selected his 15 favourite stories, including The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary (Finalist for Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon Awards), Mono No Aware (Hugo Award winner), The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), and the most awarded story in Science Fiction and Fantasy history, The Paper Menagerie – the only story ever to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

The Book Making Habits of Select Species is a beautiful, transcendent tale of the written, carved, created and experienced word. In a universe where a myriad of cultures and alien species have innumerable methods for documenting knowledge and memory, the one constant is the desire to record, whether the method is obvious or not. This succinct tale is a lyrical exploration of books and the passage of information, a tale which provides an intriguing opening in which to introduce Ken Liu and his beautiful and captivating writing style.

State Change is a story of a young woman whose soul takes the form of a physical object – an ice cube. In a narrative which shows the pains she takes to protect and nurture her soul, this tale becomes a metaphor for those parts of ourselves we cling to and which become the defining force in our lives, even when beyond all sense and reason. Both poignant and humorous, this is a story about personal growth and the things we must sacrifice in ourselves to truly live.

The Perfect Match is a disturbing prospect of the future. In a world where huge technical corporations take control of every aspect of our lives, privacy and individual thought and reason become almost none existent. Both catering to our every need and taking away all our freedom of thought and action, these companies come to rule the lives of anyone linked to their technology but, perhaps most disturbing of all, it is a world that we have  already dipped a toe into.

Good Hunting is a story about cultural growth and change. In a tale where the face of China is changed forever, the inherent folklore and traditional magic which once permeated society is pushed aside by the coming of the British and the age of steam. No longer do the creatures of myth and legend stalk the nights, no longer are demon hunters required to protect their villages; but this is the age of steel and steam, where the possibilities produced by progress may just echo the magic of the past. Through the device of a fantastic alternative history, Liu’s narrative illustrates how tradition must adapt if it is to survive the future.

The Literomancer is a beautiful but harrowing tale of a young American girl living in China. When just one seemingly innocent word can have such unfortunate consequences, The Literomancer illustrates how fate can both bring two people together and tear them apart. This is a narrative about words and stories, about the futures we can discover through their telling, and the futures which may be lost because of them, demonstrating a darker and more haunting side to Liu’s writing.

Simulacrum is a tale about the invention of a technology which allows an exact record of a person to be projected and interacted with in three dimensions, and the consequences such a technology might have on society. In a narrative which switches between the inventor and his estranged daughter, this is a story about how a girl railing against the simulacrum is in fact acting as one herself by capturing a single moment of memory and replaying it over and over until the real person no longer remains.

The Regular is one of the highlights of this collection and showcases the diversity in Liu’s writing. A dead prostitute, body mutilation and an unknown killer on the loose; The Regular is a dark sci-fi thriller following the story of Ruth Law, private investigator, as she tracks down a murderer who is targeting the city’s working girls. Tense and exciting, this is a longer piece which touches on sorrow as Law’s cybernetic improvements become a necessity to take away the pain of her past.

The Paper Menagerie is  heart-breaking tale of a young boy of half American and half Chinese heritage who struggles to accept his shared culture. In a tale woven with enchantment and magic – a magic that comes with innocence and one which is almost lost in the desire to be something and someone else – Liu explores the themes of cultural identity, acceptance and the consequences of not realising what we have until it’s gone.

An Advanced Readers Picture Book of Comparative Cognition is a lyrical exploration of time and space which showcases the breadth and beauty of Liu’s writing through the vastness of the universe and the human desire to discover. In the same vein as The Book Making Habits of Select Species this is a tale which, through a number of fascinating literary sketches, explores a myriad of alien species in something akin to a field guide for the universe.

The Waves is a story about humanity and their existence, growth and evolution as they sail through time aboard The Sea Foam. As technology advances and immortality is within our grasp, this is a tale which asks how difficult it would be to let go of our pasts and become something new.  In a narrative which explores stories of creation, The Waves illustrates how the choices we make can lead to our adaptation and evolution, and how such growth may spark our transcendence from humanity to creators.

Mono No Aware is an incredibly beautiful but sad tale about the last days of humanity and the chance of survival given by the Hopeful. In a narrative which showcases the strength and beauty of a people who accept their fate and will do all they can for the survival of the whole, Mono No Aware tells the story of the survivors of an asteroid impact through the voice of the last Japanese man in the universe. This man, who has seen the loss of both his family and his entire people, finds that it is his decisions which will ensure either the destruction or survival of humanity.

All The Flavors is a long and sprawling tale of the Chinamen of Idaho. In a narrative which weaves together history, folklore and mythology, All the Flavors is both a story of cultural identity and acceptance, and the strength and adaptation of tradition. Despite the fascinating tales of China and its history told by Lo Guan, this tale was perhaps my least favourite in the collection and failed to capture my imagination as readily as the other stories.

A  Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel is a short alternative history which tells the tale of a great tunnel built between the Americas and Asia and its impact on the history of the twentieth century. This story demonstrates that no matter how much we change history, there will always be people who make the wrong choices and who will discriminate and subjugate others to their own ends. History may have changed but the players remain the same, ensuring the survival of the same prejudices and the same oppression which comes so readily to mankind.

The Litigation Master and the Monkey King is a tale about a cunning litigation master who makes his living aiding peasants in their troubles with the law; a litigation master who can both speak to and see the Monkey King. In a dark and distressing tale which resounds with history, truth and bravery, The Litigation Master and the Monkey King weaves together the story of the Yangzhou Massacre and how one man may change the course of the future by the revelations of the past.

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary closes this anthology with a science fiction narrative which bears witness to a horrific truth. A terrible and traumatic tale, this is a story which details the horrors of Unit 731 at Pingfang and the atrocities committed by the Japanese against its Chinese prisoners during the Second World War. Denied, covered up and used by those who claim to fight for justice to further their own ends, this narrative reads like a future documentary where individuals are taken back in time to witness the shocking brutality, and raises the question of who, if any of us, has a claim on history.The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a wonderfully inventive, beautifully composed and impressive collection of stories which weaves together history, fantasy and science fiction with a thoughtful and moral undertone. Ken Liu has an effortlessly engaging and lyrical style which is almost poetic in its transmission, and constructs tales which explore both the vastness of the universe and the breadth of our own history. Evocative and intelligent, this is an anthology which I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending.

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11 thoughts on “Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

    1. It’s a gorgeous collection – if you love short SFF stories then I’m sure you’ll really enjoy it. It helps that my least favourite of the collection was actually rather good too!

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    1. If you love short stories then you’re sure to love this. I can’t believe how beautiful Liu’s writing is – I love it. And most of the stories are excellent with only a few stumbling points.

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  1. I gave this book the same rating. Given the usual challenges with a short story collection, I was actually really pleased with the overall quality of the stories in here, though I felt the earlier ones were better than a lot of the ones at the end, or maybe I was just feeling “anthology fatigue” by then.

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    1. They were all gorgeous and so well written… but there’s just something about short stories that doesn’t quite capture the essence of what a feature length novel does. Having said that, there was only one tale in the collection which took me FOREVER to read – All the Flavors – but I did thoroughly enjoy the majority. You’re right though about the earlier stories. The first half seemed a lot more lighthearted… less depressing!

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