Ken Liu is on quite a spree this year: in October Tor will publish his translation of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the concluding volume to The Three-Body trilogy, in November Saga will publish The Wall Of Storms, the sequel to Liu’s own The Grace Of Kings, and November will see the release of Invisible Planets, an anthology of Chinese SF stories & essays, all of which he translated.
March 2016 saw the publication of The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories. Yes, that’s a great title, and an even better cover! The 450 page collection features 15 short stories and novellas, almost all of them from around 2012. They have all been published elsewhere before, except one. The stories are short indeed: most are about 20 pages. Only four are significantly longer: 38, 55, 61 and 95 pages.
Liu is quite explicit about his philosophical framework and goals in the preface. The universe is accidental and senseless, and the stories in The Paper Menagerie have a clear objective: they are tools in a search for meaning and truth.
For me, all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors – which is the logic of narratives in general – over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless.
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 “the narrative fallacy” doesn’t mean it doesn’t also touch upon some aspect of truth.
A few of the stories are quite meta, almost all deal with aspects of cultural identity of some sort, and there’s a clear presence of Asian themes and settings. Liu writes both fantasy and science fiction, and as such it is a varied collection. Still, in all of these stories Liu manages to write with a fairly recognizable voice: most share a kind of magical realism feel. You won’t find epic high fantasy, nor epic space opera, or chilling hard SF, but instead will find a subtle, sometimes even poetic collection – not without blood and suffering though. Taken as a whole, I loved it.
I will refrain from giving a summary for each story, but try to use each of them to highlight some features of Liu’s writing.
The Bookmaking Habits Of Select Species (2012, 9pp.) is meta and as such a good choice to open the collection. It didn’t really work for me, as I couldn’t get over some of the concepts, like the stone minds. It’s not really a story-story, but a collection of ideas for the sake of the message that “Everyone makes books.” State Change (2004, 16pp.) is the oldest story of the collection and it is simply great. It doesn’t try to be anything, it’s simply an eerie beauty that manages characterization and emotion in such a short space. The Perfect Match (2012, 25pp.) is a bit too obvious, and plays on fears for privacy, the monopoly of Google, and the likes. It is the first story in the collection that introduces themes of politics and imperialism. Throughout the collection, Liu sometimes shows a melancholic, romantic mind, musing on parts of a past that is lost.
You’re just propagandists of a different ilk – for making the world flat, turning everywhere into copies of suburban America studded with malls.
Good Hunting (2012, 23pp.) continues in this vain: it is a story about the disappearing of old magic, and modernity coming to China. The pacing is great, the characters likable, the atmosphere fitting. It even manages to link fantasy and SF. The Literomancer (2010, 38pp.) is the first of the longer stories, and is the first story to really show Liu has an interesting, original mind. It has insightful parts on nationalism, but it’s not preachy. For me, this story alone is worth the price of the book. It ties magic, writing, Chinese culture and politics in an original, thoughtful way. The ending is brutal and real, and shows that Liu isn’t timid or faint-hearted.
Simulacrum (2011, 11pp.) had me fooled. I didn’t like the main character and thought her to be sanctimonious. The ending however made the story great, and showed Liu’s subtlety: because of his worldview (see those preface quotes), a judgmental story would have been out of character. Liu is more interested in the gray, in understanding, and not so much in black or white ukase. I’m glad to report that remains the case for the rest of the volume.
The Regular (2014, 55pp.) should be made into a movie by someone like David Fincher. Pronto! Really. It’s something totally different from the previous stories, and reveals the scope of Liu’s writing. The Regular is a thriller about someone killing prostitutes, hunted by a private detective. It’s science fiction, but as is the case for the entire Menagerie, ‘subtle’ is the key word. It has a great backstory, great characters, tons of emotion, sharp observations. Again a very human story, that again manages to elegantly slip in identity and migration as minor themes.
The Paper Menagerie (2011, 15pp.) is magical realism at its best. Heavy on the identity theme, and again emotionally brutal and honest. An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book Of Comparative Cognition (2016, 15pp.) is a bit of the same cloth as the very first story: more about an idea than a story, and it has the same kind of bloated title. It didn’t do anything for me either. The Waves (2012, 26pp.) continues with some SF, and has some original, surprising takes on the generational starship trope. It could easily be the subject of a full-length novel. Mono No Aware (2012, 21pp.) is SF too, but I never really connected to the main character. I thought it was a bit too one-dimensional. Both this and The Waves deal with displaced people, and as such tie in nicely with this collection’s overall themes.
All The Flavors (2012, 95pp.) is the longest story. It is set in the USA of 1865, and again illustrates Liu’s versatility: it’s historical fiction, in which some of the characters tell each other fantastical folk stories. As it is about Chinese migration & human trafficking to Idaho, it’s themes are unsurprising, but powerful nonetheless. A gem.
A Brief History Of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel (2012, 19pp.) – I’m sorry for the repetition – deals with displaced humans too. It presents an alternative history to the 20th century, and the title gives away it’s about the digging of a trans-Pacific tunnel. Workers’ abuse and de facto slavery are themes that are ever so relevant in the 21st century, but this story is more of a sketch, and as such didn’t manage to convey the intended emotion.
The Litigation Master And The Monkey King (2013, 19pp.) is set in China, 1745. Suffering, death, abuse of power. I liked it, but it maybe it was a bit too focussed on the need to do the right thing, and as such, a bit preachy.
We’re al just ordinary men – (…) – faced with extraordinary choices. In those moments, sometimes heroic ideals demand that we become their avatars.
The entire collection has a flow that is masterful: the sequencing is well thought out and no coincidence. The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary (2011, 61pp.) ties in nicely with the issue in The Litigation Master: what to do when faced with extraordinary circumstances? This last story is the most political. It deals with atrocities Japan has committed in China during World War 2, known as Unit 731. It is meticulously researched – it even has a bibliography. Liu was inspired by Ted Chiang’s Liking What You See for its form: a written account of a documentary. It works much better than Chiang’s story. It’s not fully successful though: it drags a bit at times, and the SF technology the story is build on is only a gimmick to get to the central metaphor (see those preface quotes again). Plus – maybe because of its documentary form – I didn’t connect with the 2 main characters. But, all that is minor criticism, as the story hits hard. On a few pages is was truly horrid, almost too uncomfortable to read. Uncomfortable and distressing, it reminds us about easily forgotten parts of the true, full nature of reality. It is again nuanced and balanced, and again it avoids throwing stones.
If Ken Liu manages the same originality, the same poetic touch, the same honest brutality and the same moral complexity in his long form fiction, we’re all in for a treat with The Dandelion Dynasty trilogy. I’m very, very much looking forward to reading the first book, The Grace Of Kings, soon.
For those interested, the splendid title story is here: The Paper Menagerie. The stories from this collection published by Lightspeed Magazine (Simulacrum, State Change, The Perfect Match, The Litigation Master And The Monkey King, The Bookmaking Habits Of Select Species and Mono No Aware) can be found on Lightspeed’s website, along with a few others. GigaNotoSaurus hosts All The Flavors, and Ken Liu’s own site The Man Who Ended History.