Book review: The Paper Menagerie has rightly swept the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards

Chinese American writer’s collection is a triumph of speculative fiction

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 April, 2016, 4:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 April, 2016, 5:03pm

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

by Ken Liu

Saga Press

5 stars

To borrow one of his titles, Ken Liu stirs All the Flavors into The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories: crunchy hard sci-fi extrapolation, ages-old fantasy, sweet romance, bitter tyranny and trickster surprises.

To call his book one of the best collections of speculative fiction I’ve ever read is simply to begin my praise. Other sci-fi/fantasy story collections in my personal hall of fame, such as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Cordwainer Smith’s The Rediscovery of Man, are made up largely of brilliant stories written in a single style or mode. Liu’s book compiles brilliant stories written in several different, overlapping modes, a technically dazzling collection of compulsively readable narratives, presenting characters with agonising moral dilemmas and never forgetting the heart.

Take, for example, The Waves, which begins with the creation fable of Nü Wa on a bank of the Yellow River, easing her loneliness by fashioning a human out of mud, then opens up into a story about a generation ship fleeing a dying Earth, then an agonising choice to accept or decline possible immortality – and then several stunning transformations that change nearly everything about what it means to be human except the need for and power of telling stories about being human.

Born in China, Liu moved to the United States at age 11, studied English at Harvard and worked in technology before becoming a lawyer. He draws from every bit of that varied background in his stories. He has also translated Liu Cixin’s magnificent novel The Three-Body Problem into English.

The title story, The Paper Menagerie, is the first work of fiction to sweep the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards, and with good reason.

A boy in Connecticut has a Chinese mother who speaks little English and makes amazing origami animals for him. “I didn’t know this at the time, but Mom’s kind was special. She breathed into them so that they shared her breath, and thus moved with her life. This was her magic,” he remembers. But as he grows older, he wants to fit in with his American peers, so he rejects her origami and her old-world ways. He’s an adult now, and she’s gone, but he discovers that she left him one more surprise.

You might want tissues nearby when you read this story, especially if your mother is deceased.

The Literomancer also depicts a culture clash between American and Chinese values. Lilly, a Kennedy-era American girl, is lonely living in Taiwan and snubbed by other American base kids, until she strikes up a friendship with an elderly Chinese man who tells fortunes based on the characters in their names and other words. Unfortunately, the sweetness of their connection attracts unwanted attention.

In the picaresque All the Flavors, another American girl, Lily, makes friends with Chinese gold miners who have arrived in their 19th-century Idaho town. She hears their wonderful tales; through their industry and cleverness, they defeat prejudice and evil at every turn. Liu adds a brief epilogue to this and many other stories, citing the real-world documents and sources that feed his fiction.

In the love story State Change, Liu imagines that everyone is born with a soul in the form of an object that must be preciously guarded. The soul of Rina, our heroine, is an ice cube. Cicero’s, a pebble; T.S. Eliot’s, a tin of coffee. (Amy) “was the only person Rina ever pitied. Amy’s soul was a pack of cigarettes.”

Several stories invoke the pain of and atrocities committed during the Japanese occupation of parts of China in 1930s, none more poignantly than The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary. Following the discovery of pairs of subatomic particles that are quantum-entangled, physicist Akemi Kirino and historian Evan Wei devise a way to eyewitness the past – but each instance of doing so destroys the possibility of others observing those moments. Liu dedicates this story to the late Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.

Tribune News Service