Review The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
Ken Liu A Book of Short Stories Review
Sometimes, about halfway through a short story collection, I start to get a bit bored. The author begins to repeat the same themes, the same settings, the same (or similar) characters. No one can accuse Ken Liu of this.
In The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Liu offers not only variety, but displays the wide-ranging and far-reaching imagination that has earned him so many accolades.
The title story itself, the first to win the trifecta of big-name speculative fiction awards (Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards), is a heart-wrenching coming-of-age story that poignantly touches on themes of racial assimilation in America, guilt, family history and capital-L Love. It is perhaps the most beautiful story in the collection, and is certainly the most emotionally-charged.
In the collection’s opening story, Liu resembles Jorge Luis Borges or even, perhaps, Lydia Davis with the wonderfully imaginative, but almost academic, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species.” If you were to only read this story, you probably wouldn’t expect Liu to be capable of the mystical, spiritual piece, “The Waves,” which comes in the middle of the collection, spans hundreds of years and is epic in its scope, or, “State Change,” a story with the wonderful conceit that people’s souls are trapped in inanimate objects that they must keep close to them– which ultimately becomes a tale about how to live a fulfilling life.
Then there’s the novelette-length sci-fi mystery, “The Regular,” complete with a detective, Ruth, who struggles with her tragic past and can only handle her day-to-day life by engaging with a bit of technology called “The Regulator,” which flattens her emotions and allows her to focus on her work. There’s murder, there’s international intrigue, and there’s plenty of futuristic technology that allows for the villain to pull off surprising schemes.
If there’s a “page-turner,” in this collection, “The Regular” is it, and it is almost light reading compared to pieces like “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition,” a poetic, philosophical musing on types of alien cognition which, though interesting, is thankfully one of the shortest pieces in the book–any longer and the reader might be crushed by its weight. Still, it, like all of the stories in this collection, is a welcome glimpse into the mind of a young writer with seemingly endless imaginative capabilities.
With novels like The Grace of Kings and the upcoming The Wall of Storms (October 4, 2016), as well as Liu’s translation work in The Three-Body Problem, Liu has begun to focus more on novels. But let’s hope not completely–the world can use more perfectly rendered gems like those on display in The Paper Menagerie, for the stories in this collection achieve what we hope for in any great works of art.
Readers who take the time to explore Liu’s universes cannot help but shed some light on their own.
By L.M. Alder