Posted on February 3, 2017
5. ‘The Paper Menagerie’ by Ken Liu
The Paper Menagerie is a collection of sci-fi/fantasy short stories by prizewinner Ken Liu. I’ve already talked about this book, about a week ago when the first couple of stories blew my mind so hard I had to stop reading. The rest of the book proved to be almost as good as that incredible opening.
This is a pretty long book for a collection of short stories, and a couple of the stories are more like novellas. There is a really eclectic mix of different styles in here – from futuristic crime to magical realism to straight-up sci-fi – but there are some major themes that run throughout the entire collection. Liu seems to be particularly preoccupied with how technological advancements affect what it means to be human (particularly in the form of body modifications and ‘cyborg-ism’); and a lot of stories revolve around national identity (particularly Japanese, Chinese and American patriotism). There are undercurrents of mythology and fairytale (especially Asian folklore), and there is quite a lot of political activism that sheds light on historical tragedies.
I can remember basically every story in this collection (a very good sign!) and although not every story gave me quite as visceral a reaction as those opening two, that was more down to personal taste than any problems with the writing. The ones that really stood out to me were ‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species’, which is about how different alien species make books, ‘The Paper Menagerie’, which is about origami animals that come to life and a son’s heartbreaking relationship with his Chinese mother, ‘The Waves’, which is about space travellers and human immortality, and my absolute favourite, ‘State Change’, in which people’s souls manifest as inanimate objects that they have to carry with them. Essentially this collection couldn’t have been more perfect for me: timeless human questions set against a backdrop of magical realism/space travel. Um … count me in!
Liu’s writing style is incredibly versatile (all those different genres!) and his imagination just staggers me. I have no idea how he could sit down and come with entirely new, mind-boggling alien races, or how he is able to so seamlessly mix ancient folklore with cutting-edge technology. The closing story, ‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’ is probably the most structurally creative in the collection; it is written in the style of a TV documentary (complete with stage directions about found footage and voiceovers) and it brings to life the true story of a horrific war crime (Unit 731 in the Second Sino-Japanese War) in the context of a scientist who has managed to invent a form of ‘time travel’ that lets you witness the past exactly as it happened. The story is a towering achievement on which to end The Paper Menagerie: it is an important, politically motivated story that builds its own scientific world and touches upon everything from global politics to the finer points of one couple’s marriage. Mind-blowing.
I really can’t think of anything else to say about this book other than READ IT. It’s astonishing and magnificent; probably the best short story collection I’ve ever read (yes, it may have even toppled Revenge by Yoko Ogawa).
“For me, all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless.” – Liu, Preface
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy The Paper Menagerie here.