Title: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
Author: Ken Liu
Genre: Fiction, short stories, science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, historical fiction
Where I got the book: I purchased this book through Book Depository.
My rating: ★★★★★
Summary: A boy helps a hunted creature from Chinese folklore to adapt to a steampunk future. A mother expresses her love for her son by creating origami animals, which she magically brings to life. A couple offers people a chance to travel back in time to explore one of the hidden atrocities of the Second World War, but their invention has widespread consequences. This collection of fifteen short stories and novellas explores our technological advances and the individual’s assimilation into society.
“Every moment, as we walk on this earth, we are watched and judged by the eyes of the universe.”
– “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” in The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Ken Liu
This is a collection that primarily falls within the science fiction/speculative fiction categories, but it can also be seen as a blend of different genres, including magical realism, crime/thriller, dystopian, and historical fiction. It turned out to be nothing like I expected – it actually exceeded my expectations completely.
Liu uses the Chinese-American experience when describing themes that relate to identity, assimilation, and adaptation, and this in itself was a refreshing angle that I really enjoyed reading about. I loved the contrasts that were sometimes made between Eastern and Western culture, and how creatively and seamlessly these contrasts were worked into a story, whether the story had a sci-fi perspective or a historical angle.
Of course, like with all short story collections I liked some better than others, but generally I found all of these to be either good or great. Even the ones I liked “less” made an impression on me and I really can’t think of one story that I simply did not care for. My favorites of the bunch were “The Perfect Match”, “Good Hunting”, “The Paper Menagerie”, “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel”, and “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary”. These were all so unique and moved me in different ways.
“The Perfect Match” explores how the accumulated data about an individual, all of the constantly shared preferences that perfectly matches us to a product, can become a threat to privacy and even our own decision-making. “Good Hunting” combines Chinese folklore and steampunk in an unexpected way, while at the same time discussing themes such as friendship, alienation, and adaptation. “The Paper Menagerie” concerns the difficulties of fitting into society and how hard it can be to come to terms with your identity and your roots. It also concerns the sacrifices parents make and how love can transcend the boundaries of language, time, space, and even death. This was a very relatable and absolutely heartbreaking read. “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is a take on alternate history that describes how superpowers come together to create something great, but also how human rights are abused in the process. At last, “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” is such a uniquely written piece about Unit 731, which was a research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army located in Pingfang, China. A number of horrendous human experiments took place here during the Second World War, and the majority of the victims were Chinese. On one hand, this novella reminds us to never forget history or remain indifferent about the atrocities that have happened in the past. On the other hand, seen from a sci-fi perspective, it also explores the legal, historical, and personally devastating consequences that follow a groundbreaking invention such as time-travel. I could honestly continue and say something about all of the stories but this will take ages so I’ll limit myself to these personal favorites.
This collection presents some really profound, complex, and at times mind-blowing ideas. I’m impressed at how Liu explores a concept at a current and familiar everyday level in one moment, and then at a vast, universal, almost inconceivable level the next. These stories are like different journeys, all wrapped up in beautiful writing. At the same time, no matter what is discussed, each story comes across as genuine, honest, and not to mention realistic. I’m really in awe at both the imagination and the research that has gone into this – some of the stories include author’s notes and references to relevant articles, and I just love when an author does this. This is a unique collection that is well-thought-out and well-written. I definitely don’t think it’s for everyone but I still highly recommend this!