First published in The Star on 27th March, 2016
Review by DAPHNE LEE
THE PAPER MENAGERIE AND OTHER STORIES
Author: Ken Liu
Publisher: Saga Press, 464 pages
THE Grace of Kings was my introduction to Ken Liu. It’s the author’s first novel, published in 2015, and the first in a planned “silkpunk” (a variation of steampunk) fantasy series called The Dandelion Dynasty. Kings is a spectacular piece of entertainment – ambitious, original and memorable, the world-building impressive, the characters convincing and sympathetic, and the fantasy elements fresh and surprising.
The problem with discovering an author at the first-novel stage of their career is you usually are in an agony of anticipation, waiting for the next book to come out. Fortunately, in Liu’s case, there is a prodigious body of prior work in the shape of short stories, novellas and novelettes. On top of that Liu is the translator of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem trilogy (the final book is out this September), the first volume of which was the first translated novel to win the Hugo Award (2015).
And then there’s this collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. Comprising 15 stories of varying lengths, styles and genres (within the speculative fiction spectrum), it aims to showcase Liu’s development and achievements as a writer of short fiction, but must have been a b**** to compile considering the fact that he has published over 100 stories since 2002.
The inclusion of the titular tale would have, of course, been a no-brainer. In 2012 it won all three of the most prestigious of sci-fi/fantasy prizes: the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards), and it is easily one of my favourites in this compilation.
In my opinion, Liu’s gifts as a storyteller shine brightest in stories such as this magic realism tale about the relationship between a son and mother. Whether using science or magic, myth or fantasy to give shape to his ideas, Liu’s words are warmest and most true when he is writing about human connections – love, friendship, blood ties – and the triumphs and failings of human nature – sacrifice and betrayal, cruelty amidst beauty, kindness amidst cruelty.
My other favourites in this book include All The Flavors: Tale of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, which interweaves American history and Chinese mythology; The Literomancer, a seemingly gentle, comforting story of friendship that escalates into the dark bitterness of betrayal; Simulacrum, which uses the metaphor of an image to explore how one’s usually limited perceptions of people and situations may confuse reality; Good Hunting, which questions and subverts the misogynistic myth of the Chinese hulijing (fox spirit); Mono No Aware – the title is the Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (from wikipedia) and the story’s main takeaway, for me, is how this awareness makes all forms of love a bittersweet and yet addictive experience.
I feel I should also mention The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary. It’s the final story (a novella) in the collection and focuses on Unit 731 and the horrific medical experiments that were carried out there during the second Sino-Japanese War. I had previously only a vague idea of what went on in the Japanese research base, but now I’m unlikely to ever forget. Many are unaware of such events in history. What we are told is chosen based on agendas steeped in political bias and cultural prejudice. The Man Who Ended History resonates strongly at the moment, so soon after the widely-covered Brussels attacks, and the many other Isis killings (in Yemen, in Turkey, in Nigeria, in Tunisia) that garnered no headlines.
This is not the only story in which Liu offers us a view of the forgotten (or even never-acknowledged) past. All the Flavors remembers the Chinese community that made up part of the population of Idaho Territory in the late 19th century; The Litigation Master and the Monkey King is dedicated to the victims of the Yangzhou Massacre, which occurred during the Manchu Revolution; and America and the Republic of China’s joint covert operations against the communist party during the Cold War is featured in The Literomancer.
Although some stories in this collection made more of an impression on me than others, all are outstanding and, in my opinion, this is chiefly because of the ideas they explore; their varied style; the way the stories’ characters are, without exception, fully fleshed-out, complicatedly nuanced individuals (this is an amazing achievement for characters in short fiction). I especially like how Liu takes a historical event or a mythological character and grows it into a thoughtful, unpretentious and wholly unexpected tale. These are stories like no other, and, in my opinion, he and the Nigerian speculative fiction author, Nnedi Okorafor, are two of the 21st century’s most original creators of fiction.
The book runs to 464 pages and is not to be polished off in one sitting, not just because of potential eye strain, but because it deserves to be read and savoured slowly. Apart from how you can’t help but lose yourself in the worlds Liu has created, these stories also beg to be explored and discussed, their storylines and characters analysed, and their meanings reflected on. If you choose this book for a book group discussion, you may want to do a pyjama party session. (And serve lots of coffee.)
I would recommend this anthology to anyone who is searching for speculative fiction which draws upon East Asian culture and mythology. For Asian fans and aspiring authors of the genre, this is a seminal work, a gratifying source of inspiration.