Title: The Paper Menagerie
Author: Ken Liu
Genre: Speculative Fiction, SFF
Rating: ★★★☆☆ || 2.5
This was such a mixed bag for me, more than most short story collections, which are I think necessarily a mixed bag. This is due in part to the fact that Ken Liu is a prolific science fiction writer, and I don’t like science fiction. Don’t get me wrong; his writing is solid and his concepts are interesting. I just didn’t find what he did with a lot of those concepts interesting, because they’re very steeped in sci-fi language, and I hate science fiction.
Out of the fifteen short stories, I really enjoyed State Change, Good Hunting, The Literomancer, The Paper Menagerie, All the Flavours, and The Litigation Master and the Monkey King. I enjoyed the concept but not the execution of The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species, The Perfect Match, and The Man Who Ended History. I was indifferent to or skipped Simulacrum, The Regular, An Advanced Readers Picture Book of Comparative Cognition, The Waves, Mono No Aware, and A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel. I’ll be talking a little bit about the ones I liked and talking a little bit about the problems I had with the ones I didn’t love.
For me, there are some pretty obvious threads that connect the stories I enjoyed: many of them were about displacement, most of them (let’s be honest) rang a lot of my bells because of their –– and my –– relationship to Chineseness, and most of them tended to be realistic fiction or fantasy. The strongest thing about these stories were, quite simply, the storytelling. Ken Liu has such a strong imagination and his take on the fantastic is whimsical and brings such a––dare I say quirky?––surprising point of view to even stories I’ve been told from youth. He is able to tie fantasy into displacement and diaspora so well and with such sensitivity that each of these stories felt like a tender world-within-a-world that I just wanted to savour.
In the stories where I felt indifferent or where I liked the execution less than the concept, a lot of it is bogged down in details. I know people are encouraged to add detail––it’s how things seem real –– but I’ve never thought that details were necessary to a story so long as the emotions were true. But in these, all of the emotion felt scattered between exacting description of precisely how and why certain things were happening when I wanted more mystery, more space for wonder and imagination.
The one story I really had a negative reaction to, though, was The Man Who Ended History. I understood the impulse to write it, and I understood the impulse to have it be about Unit 731 and the concept –– the idea and the ethics of being able to go back in time but destroying that part of history once you go back. And, in the author’s notes, Liu mentions that he dedicates the story to Iris Chang, the person who is really credited with bringing the Nanjing Massacre into mainstream attention. Much of the story’s plot points were drawn from Chang’s experience, and the erasure of her person from this narrative really rubbed me the wrong way.
Specifically, the erasure of female scholarship –– the title is The Man Who ended History, after all –– really grated, especially because Iris Chang died because she lost a battle with depression, and this is in a context when Asian American women in particular are much more likely to kill themselves than the population at large. To use her story, to use her pain –– because she underwent so much scrutiny and hatred for her scholarship –– as the basis and the framework for a story she has utterly been erased in really bugged me. It still bugs me.
Overall, I have very mixed feelings. The stories I enjoyed were ones that I loved, and ones that I wouldn’t mind reading again and again. The title story in particular made me especially emotional––to the point of uncontrollable tears, and this is even after I read it many years ago and already knew what to expect. But I was indifferent to the rest of it, largely because it had themes and characters I really couldn’t connect to –– the women especially didn’t feel like fully realised characters in their own right –– particularly in Good Hunting and The Perfect Match –– which is a problem with Liu’s writing at large, it seems –– some of the criticism rightly levelled at his first novel, A Grace of Kings, mention that the novel is very much male-centric, with such a limited female presence. (Oddly enough, he does better with his depiction of girls, as in The Literomancer and All the Flavours.) He has a strong imagination and a clear, unpretentious, unfrilly way with words, and I look forward to more from him. I agree with many of his opinions about Chinese literature and being diaspora and translation, but unfortunately, much of his work is hit-or-miss for me, and this is the epitome of that sentiment.