The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
“Time’s arrow is the loss of fidelity in compression. A sketch, not a photograph. A memory is a re-creation, precious because it is both more and less than the original.”
Before moving to novel-length fiction with last year’s excellent The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu concentrated his writing on short stories. His moving and inventive short fiction has won him a devoted fanbase and also many awards, including the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award, along with being nominated for many more.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories collects the best of his short fiction, dating back to 2004 through to the present. Together they display a staggering breadth of imagination. Liu covers everything from whimsical fantasy to re-imaginings of Chinese myths to hard SF and alternate history, all handled with a deft intelligence, generous characterisation and a real ear for prose. The end result is an essential summation of the first phase of the career of one of the genre’s finest writers.
By their nature, a collection of short stories by a single writer will throw into relief the author’s obsessions and major themes, their stylistic quirks and strengths. Ken Liu is fascinated by what happens when different cultures mix. The stories in this book show mixed race children discovering their cultural heritage, people in unusual circumstances drawing strength from their culture, and Chinese immigrants to America in the 1800s enriching the frontier towns. They also show native cultures eroded by industrialism and military Imperialism.
Liu manages to skilfully handle these weighty subjects thanks to both his well-researched understanding of an impressive array of world history and the depth and empathy with which he draws his characters. Liu is not afraid to have his characters do horrible things, however he always takes the time to make sure that the reader understands his characters’ motivations and feelings. The stories are also characterised by their fascination with life and the various forms it may take. Liu’s tales are inhabited by a dazzling array of alien and supernatural life, and the stories joyously explore the shared personhood that joins us to even the most radically different life forms.
“The Paper Menagerie”, the story that gives the collection its name, is probably Liu’s most well-known work, and is also the first story of any length to sweep the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award. It’s still a wonderful encapsulation of what makes Liu such a wonderful writer. The story is deeply moving without having to resort to cheap sentiment. It tells the tale of the son of an American man and his mail-order Chinese bride who connects to his estranged mother after her death via the magically animated origami animals she made for him when he was a child. The prose is clear and lyrical, the magic spoken of in such a matter-of-fact manner that one can’t help but believe in it. The fantastical heart of the story is grounded by Liu’s profound observations about the mixed feelings those with multiple heritages often have towards their place in between two different worlds. This marriage between the fantastical and the real world characterises much of Liu’s short stories.
“Good Hunting” is about the unlikely friendship formed between a demon hunter and a demon as the colonisation and industrialisation of Hong Kong by the British Empire drains the magic out of rural China. It’s a heartfelt exploration of the destruction of the indigenous culture by the intertwined forces of Imperialism and modernisation, and the racist legacy of colonialism. It’s also a deeply imaginative work of fantasy that weds Chinese mythology to a steampunk aesthetic.
“All The Flavours” continues the theme, exploring the lives of Chinese immigrants, one of whom may be an incarnation of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, in a frontier town in America in the 1800s through the friendship they strike up with a precocious young American girl. In some ways a dry run for The Grace of Kings, “All The Flavours” is steeped in Chinese mythology, here meeting Western culture through the medium of shared experiences and stories rather than epic fantasy. It shares with that book a wide range of viewpoint characters, all of whom are given detailed backstory and understandable motivations even when unsympathetic, as well as an understanding of the evil that people can do that does not temper the author’s hard won optimism and belief in the good people can do.
Liu can write with a charming whimsy, in stories like “State Change”, in which the fantastical trope of people’s souls being externalised in a physical object becomes a metaphor for learning to release ourselves from the limits we place on our enjoyment of our own lives and our perspective on ourselves. At other times he uses his fantasy stories to bring alive the horrors of history to the reader.
“The Literomancer” starts off as the charming tale of the friendship between a young American girl whose family has moved to Taiwan and an old Chinese calligraphy teacher who teaches her the magic behind the Chinese writing system to help her fight the bullies at her new school. However it soon takes a turn for the dark and disturbing when we discover that her father has moved to Taiwan because he is working with American intelligence and suspects her teacher of being a Communist spy. Similarly, “The Litigation Master And The Monkey King” starts off as a Chinese mythology indebted tale of a trickster who uses his wits to defend the poor peasants against the rich landowners who would exploit them, and ends up as an excavation of the Yanghou Massacre, an atrocity carried out during the Manchu Conquest and long suppressed in China, as well as a reflection on the nature of heroism in the face of certain death.
Given the interest in real world history and genuine lived experiences that runs through his fantasy stories, it should perhaps be less surprising that Liu’s science fiction tends towards the hard end of the spectrum. Although he is interested in how new developments in technology affect individuals and society, the developments in question are realistic and grounded in a thorough understanding of the current science. Some of the stories in this collection fall into the category of near future post-cyberpunk.
“The Perfect Match” extrapolates our current search engines and social media fifteen minutes into the future, to imagine a world in which personal AI assistants monitor and control every aspect of our lives, expressing an uneasiness with the sterile, regulated world we are in the process of building around us and a cynicism towards the corporations who benefit from reducing humanity to a series of algorithms.
“The Regular” is a straight-up cyberpunk thriller, in which a cybernetically altered cop chases down a serial killer who murders prostitutes so he can steal the hidden cameras in their eyes and use them to blackmail clients. Liu has a lot of fun playing in William Gibson’s ballpark, but he also manages to add some personal touches, exploring through the cop’s grief at the death of her child, something she can keep at bay using an implant in her spinal cord designed to make police more rational and less emotional, the extent to which technology can dehumanise us, and our need to be in touch with our emotions in order to overcome our problems and function.
The best of these near future stories is “Simulacrum”, another moving story in which a virtual imaging technique is used as a metaphor for the disintegration of the relationship between the technology’s inventor and his daughter. A tragic story about how two people who love each other can utterly fail to understand each other, it is a profound examination of how the inability to forgive freezes both parties, creating an inability to progress beyond a fixed point in time.
Some of Liu’s other stories extend further into the future, imagining a future of space travel. Rather than creating a fantastical space opera, these stories use realistic extrapolations of space flight technology to examine how the limitations imposed by the physical laws of the universe would affect space travel. Both “The Waves” and “Mono No Aware” feature generation ships powered by solar sails as a realistic method of travelling across the astronomical distances between stars.
“Mono No Aware” is another moving tale, this time about a young Japanese man on a spaceship fleeing an Earth doomed by asteroid collision drawing the necessary reserve and dignity from his culture in order to become a hero and save the future of humanity. “The Waves” gives its generation ship premise a cruel twist; some time into the journey a treatment for immortality is discovered. The crew of the ship choosing between living forever or dying and making room for their children begins a process of uplift and evolution that stretches the definition of what it means to be human.
“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” and “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” similarly complement and contrast with each other. These imaginative stories see Liu inventing various weird and wonderful forms of aliens, twisting and extending our understanding of what life is and what it can look like into all sorts of new and bizarre forms, whilst finding a common thread to link them back to us. There is something so inherently ‘human’ about writing and reading books, and about having thoughts and sharing them, that however radically different a species’ conception of these ideas are, their existence links us all together as people. These are the things that, whether gigantic single cells exchanging memories by linking or copper hourglasses with stone brains, allow us to think of each other as people and to share the empathy of being alive.
The remaining two stories in the book are perhaps the most stylistically ambitious and the most hard-hitting. “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is an alternate history in which Japan helped the USA out of the Great Depression by building an air-powered transport tunnel linking Japan to America, the resulting boost to the world economy caused by the increased employment and resulting trade averting World War II entirely. The story is partially told from the point of view of one of the Formosan workers on the tunnel, now living in one of the stations underground, with details being filled in by newspaper articles and history books from this world.
At first the world of “Trans-Pacific Tunnel” seems almost utopian; the technological horrors of World War II culminating in the holocaust and the nuclear bomb have been entirely averted, and humanity was able to come up with a productive, peaceful solution to its problems. However, Liu skilfully slowly reveals hints of the dark side of this world. Thanks to the racist legacy of the Japanese Empire, which has never been toppled, Koreans, Chinese and other Asians are seen as second class citizens to the Japanese, a problem reflected in an America in which the civil rights movement hasn’t happened. Liu reminds us that wars are not the only way in which large numbers of people are abused and killed; the protagonist is haunted by the fates of the slave workers, political prisoners of the Japanese, worked to death in the tunnels, a secret hidden from the newspapers and history books.
“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” is even more unsettling and inventive, and for my money the most powerful story in the collection. Told in the form of a documentary, with camera instructions, interviews, voice overs and snippets of news reports, the story is about a husband and wife team of scientists who discover a means of sending people back in time to view the past, and become obsessed with bringing to light the truth about Unit 731, Japan’s experimental weapons research department during World War II whose crimes against humanity have been suppressed by the Japanese government with the aid of the Americans in exchange for the results of their experiments. “The Man Who Ended History” demonstrates both all of Liu’s prodigious skills as well as what the genre can accomplish at its most intelligent and engaged.
Linked subatomic particles are used as the basis of a form of time travel that allows the observer to experience a moment of history but in the process destroy it, a smart and inventive take on time travel. From here, the historian’s attempt to use this method of time travel to bring to light the crimes of Unit 731 allows Liu to bring the horrors of this frequently overlooked atrocity to life for the reader. Liu has done his research, and his accounts of the torture and experiments from the point of view of the victims, as well as the confessions of the torturers, are striking and disturbing.
However the story is not merely a catalogue of horrors. It is also an exploration of how to make history feel vivid and lived in, and why we frequently give credence to dry fact over raw emotion. It raises questions about any form of archaeology that can only bring the truth to light by destroying the evidence in the process, and it forces us to confront how by observing something we become involved in it and so have changed it. It’s about who owns the past, and that excavating the past can never be a politically neutral act. It asks us how we can justify hiding the truth with political convenience. It also forces us to confront the fact that we share our humanity with the people who committed these atrocities, that the monsters who tortured and killed innocent people went home to their families at the end of the day. It is a devastating and haunting piece of writing by a writer we are lucky to have in our field.