The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories – Ken Liu
This mesmerizing collection features many of Ken Liu’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).
Review: Before starting this story collection, I had heard a lot about Ken Liu. His work has won basically every sci-fi/fantasy award ever. A lot of the bookworms I follow online are obsessed with his novels. I decided to give his work a shot, even though fantasy and hard sci-fi aren’t my favorite genres. I mean, books set in space are cool, but once an author starts getting into all the mathy minutiae about how space travel works, I stop caring. I worried that these stories might have too much detail for me.
I was definitely right about some of the stories. A few of them are absolute slogs. (Especially “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” and “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King.”) I feel like the author sometimes goes into so much detail about a subject that I lose sight of the plot or characters. Then I stop caring and become tempted to skip to the next story. I didn’t do that, though. I plowed through the whole book. Even the slow bits. *Pats self on back.*
I do like the themes that Ken Liu writes about in this collection. Most of the stories blend Chinese history or legends with futuristic technology. I love that clash between the past and the future. Many of the characters are trying to make peace with their pasts while dealing with futuristic problems.
My favorite stories are the magical realism ones. Ken Liu writes brilliant magical realism. The stories are realistic enough that the author doesn’t have to spend a ton of pages explaining the world, but they’re bizarre enough that I was completely captivated by them. Those stories have the perfect balance of weird and real for me.
I also learned a lot about China from this book. It’s not a place I know much about. If you’re interested in non-western sci-fi/fantasy worlds, then this is a must-read.
For me, these are the stand-out stories:
In “State Change,” people’s souls are random objects. This is a big problem for a woman whose soul is an ice cube. What if it melts? The woman becomes cut off from other people because she spends so much time protecting her soul. Very creative and relatable.
“Good Hunting” is like a steampunk Chinese myth. This is one of my favorites because it’s twisty and unpredictable. It’s about adapting to change and how our old stories transform as we carry them into the future.
“The Literomancer” feels more like a historical story than a sci-fi/fantasy story. An American girl befriends a Chinese family. The girl starts telling fantastical stories about the family, which makes the American government suspicious about their activities. Devastating things happen. This story is set during the Cold War and was inspired by real events.
“‘Miss Lilly.’ Mr. Kan stood up and solemnly shook her hand. ‘When there is such a large gap of years between two friends, we Chinese call it wang nien chih chiao, a friendship that forgets the years. It’s destiny that brings us together. I hope you will always think of me and Teddy as your friends.’” – The Paper Menagerie
Another historical story that was inspired by true events is “All The Flavors.” It’s about the Chinese men who came to Idaho City in the 1800s to find gold. At first, they face discrimination, but soon they become an integral part of the community. I like the parallels between “Logan’s” life and the Chinese God of War stories that he tells. Also, there’s a lot of Chinese food in this story. I love Chinese food.
My favorite story is “The Paper Menagerie.” This one is stunning. It has origami animals that come to life. It’s about a young man who is struggling with his Chinese-American identity. As a kid, he takes out his anger on his Chinese mother, but when she dies, the origami she leaves behind finally helps him understand her. It’s sad, and magical, and clever, and comes together perfectly in the end.
My final favorite is “A Brief History Of The Trans-Pacific Tunnel.” I guess this is alternate history? Instead of Chinese immigrants building railroads in North America, they build an underwater railroad from North America to Asia? I don’t know, but it’s a cool story. The main character spends so many years working on the tunnel that he can no longer function above ground. I felt bad for him.
TL;DR: I adored most of the magical realism stories, but I got really bored with the sci-fi ones.