The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you've already been following Liu's career as a short story writer from 2004 - 2014, you don't actually need to buy this book. The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a collection of Liu's science fiction and fantasy shorts, as follows:
- The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species (Lightspeed, 2012)
- State Change (Polyphony 4, 2004)
- The Perfect Match (Lightspeed, 2012)
- Good Hunting (Strange Horizons, 2012)
- The Literomancer (Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2010)
- Simulacrum (Lightspeed, 2011)
- The Regular (Upgraded, 2014)
- The Paper Menagerie (Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2011)
- An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition
- The Waves (Asimov's Science Fiction, 2012)
- Mono No Aware (The Future is Japanese, 2012)
- All The Flavors (GigaNotoSaurus, 2012)
- A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel (Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2012)
- The Litigation Master and the Monkey King (Lightspeed, 2013)
- The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary (Panverse 3, 2011)
(There only seems to be one new/unpublished story.)
I find that I don't enjoy Liu's straight science fiction as much probably because his sci-fi veers towards a dryer, hard-science style and I don't really have much a feel for his aliens. The more spec-fic mash ups are pretty good, but it's his Asian fantasy that really comes alive.
At the top of the list is, obviously, The Paper Menagerie -- it's hauntingly beautiful; the poignancy of a boy torn between his Chinese roots and his American reality and a man finally coming to terms with being both. Similarly, in All the Flavors, Liu seems to be creating a new mythology for the Chinese-American, combining Chinese-type myths with the story of Chinese migration to America in the 1800s. The Literomancer, in turn, brings you to Taiwan where Mr Kan extends a magical world and an odd sense of belonging to Lilly Dyer, a Texan transplant.
I suppose it's this sense of transience that Liu manages so well -- his characters are in-betweens, never quite fitting in, never quite finding who they are, always searching and yearning. Even in Good Hunting and The Waves there's an unsettling sense of change -- whether it's because the magic is leaving the land, or that science is changing humanity.
There's also a sense of guilt and the need for redemption -- Liu bases some of his stories (The Litigation Master and the Monkey King, The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary) on injustices long hidden in history, as if he is apologising for them.
The stories in this collection are mostly hard-hitting. They're not light, bubbly type reads; but shorts with depth, often reaching into the dark sides of humanity. It's about balance and how humans can't, won't. It's past and future, hope and fear. And that muddly thing between that makes humanity what it is.
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