Ken Liu’s new story collection, “The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories,” is an excellent introduction to the award-winning science-fiction and fantasy author.
‘The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories’
by Ken Liu
Saga Press, 450 pp., $24.99
His unadorned, pellucid prose may be the reason for Ken Liu’s swift rise to prominence in speculative fiction. Or perhaps that rise occurred because of the tales he tells: like Octavia E. Butler, Liu probes our ethical wounds, examining injustice and oppression from some uncomfortable angles.
“The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories” is Liu’s second original book. He’s known for his 2014 translation from Chinese of the Hugo Award-winner “Three Body Problem.”“The Grace of Kings,” his 2015 “silkpunk” novel (steampunk set in East Asia), was his first original work of fiction. For readers unfamiliar with Liu’s debut, this new short-story collection offers an excellent introduction to his strengths.
The title story won Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards with its first-person account of a mixed-race American pushing past shame to acknowledge his love for his mother. A mail-order bride who speaks embarrassingly little English, the mother possesses magical abilities which do nothing but set the narrator awkwardly apart from his white peers. In the end he triumphs over self-hatred and death — and the author leaves his audience to decide which is the more difficult to face.
The title story’s narrator sees clearly that he’s in part to blame for his mother’s pain and isolation. This willingness to identify as guilty is also at the emotional heart of “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” and “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary.” The former is an alternate version of the Great Depression, in which Japan and the U.S. cooperate to build an undersea pneumatic tube. Resulting changes in the balance of power prevent World War II — but at the cost of thousands of civilian casualties, deaths in which this story’s narrator is complicit.
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Harsher yet in its subject matter, “The Man Who Ended History” combines a depiction of true-life atrocities committed by the Japanese army in Manchuria in the 1930s and ’40s with the properties of quantum entanglement, postulating a form of time travel which simultaneously proves the existence and erases the record of those atrocities.
In “Literomancy” and “All the Flavors,” evildoing is unambiguously the white man’s burden. Liu deepens potentially superficial confrontations by recounting them from the viewpoints of white children ignorant of divisions their elders take for granted.
Children play important roles in many of these stories. “Good Hunting” follows the lifetime ties forged at the first meeting of a pre-adolescent demon slayer and a young “hulijing,” a sort of Chinese succubus. “Simulacrum” switches between the reflections of a photographer and her inventor father, whose technologically-aided marital infidelity scars her when she uncovers it as a schoolgirl. And “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” is addressed to offspring of the narrator and his brilliant wife, explaining how she left the solar system to deploy an interstellar communication device she’d created.
Like childhood, these stories are simple — but far from simplistic. Besides making compelling points about subjects such as domination and empowerment, responsibility and freedom, they leave lingering impressions of smooth-gaited water buffalo; sky-filling solar sails; proto-sapient, lemurlike aliens; and camera implants disguised as prostitutes’ eyes. Long after the book has been read, these telling details continue to lend their subtle heft to stories that pierce to the core of what’s right.