Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories - Ken Liu

Chinese-American author Ken Liu's star is rising in speculative fiction. He started selling stories in 2002, but the bulk of his work appeared from 2010 onwards. He has nevertheless managed to produce around a hundred short pieces in that time.  At the moment the focus seems to be on novels. His d├ębut, The Grace of Kings, appeared last year to much critical acclaim. Later this year a sequel titled The Wall of Storms will be published. It is one of the most anticipated books of 2016. As if he wasn't busy enough already, Liu also works as a translator, bringing Chinese science fiction to a western audience. Last year's Hugo Award winning novel The Three Body Problem was translated by him. Liu, one could say,  is on a roll and publishing a collection seems like an obvious thing to do.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories contains fifteen pieces of short fiction, ranging from short story to novella. There is one original piece to the collection, the short story An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition. All the others were published before between 2004 and 2014. The selection contains some of his best known stories as well as a few pieces that received less attention. It contains stories that have been nominated for Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon and World Fantasy Awards, with a few winners among them. It is, in other words, a collection I expected a lot from. And for the most part, Lui delivers.

His fiction is hard to categorize, it ranges across genres and subgenres without ever fully being caught in one. As Liu states in the introduction, genre or mainstream is not something he pays attention to. In that same introduction he states: "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." That is certainly an approach readers will encounter in this collection. Liu loves metaphors. Some of his best stories are built around them.

Perhaps Liu meant to underline this with the opening story of the collection. The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species (Lightspeed, 2012), is certainly filled to overflowing with that. The story doesn't really have a plot, it is more a collection of descriptions on how various intelligent species around the universe store information, relay it to future generations and how all of it is eventually lost. Liu comes up with some fascinating possibilities in the story. There is something very sad about the all things must pass theme but on the whole I thought it was a good opening.

Given Liu's background it is not surprising that a number of stories contain Chinese elements. The most well known of these is probably the story that gave the collection its name. The Paper Menagerie (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2011) deals with the growing distance between and American born Chinese man and his mother. I've read it before and commented on it here. Another example is the longest story in this collection. All the Flavors (Giganotosaurus, 2012) tells the tale of an ancient Chinese warlord Guan Yu as well as that of the Chinese man that at one time made up a large part of the population of the Idaho territory. Structurally it is probably not the most refined novella but the history he discusses is fascinating.

The Literomancer (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2010) is also a story with two strands. It introduces the reader to a (much simplified) Chinese fortune telling using written characters. It is set on Taiwan and set in 1961, at the height of the cold war between an American backed Taiwan and mainland China. It's a brutal story but I thought it was also a bit predictable. Where many of these stories have a Chinese and western element to them, The Litigation Master and the Monkey King (Lightspeed 2013), is set in Qing dynasty China and deals with a repressed bit of Chinese history. It is again a brutal story with interesting historical roots. The book the main character tries to save would later play a part in the final rebellion against the Qing dynasty.

Chinese influences may be dominant in the collection but Japan pops up regularly too. China and Japan have a long and complicated history and they have not always been on the best of terms to put it mildly. Liu examines Japan's aggressively imperialistic politics of the late 19th and early 20th century in a few of them. Particularly harrowing is The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary (Panverse Three, 2011). It deals with Japanese war crimes in the 1930s and 1940s. I've read it before and commented on it here.

A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2013), takes a different approach. It is an alternative history in which Japan avoided being defeated in the second world war. To combat the economic crisis of the 1930s they strike a deal with the USA and build a trans-Pacific tunnel. Although not as violent as some stories, the Japanese nationalism is very clearly present, and human rights abuses are mentioned several times. The main character is scarred by them, both as a victim and perpetrator. The story contains a wonderful alternative timeline but the characterization is perhaps even better.

Mono No Aware (The Future Is Japanese, 2012) has a Japanese main character in a more positive role. It is a post-apocalyptic tale in which a Japanese boy is one of the few survivors on board a spaceship with a mostly American  population. It's a story about sacrifice and heroism. One might say the act of sacrifice and the main character's heritage are a bit too obviously linked in the story. It won a Hugo but I'm not sure it is Liu's finest work.

As with all collections some stories worked better for me than others. The two stories I had read before are some of the strongest Liu produced and The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species is another strong one too. Liu doesn't reach that level in many of the other stories. They are good stories, often thematically very interesting but not always as refined where they might have been. That being said, there are some fine examples in this collection of the excellent short fiction the genre is producing at the moment. Liu at his best is an author to keep an eye on.

Book Details
Title: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
Author: Ken Liu
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Pages: 450
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-784975-67-8
First published: 2016

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