The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu

There’s a test I like to do when I’m considering buying a book. I open to the first page and start reading. If I automatically turn to the next page, then it’s a winner. I found myself on page 4 of Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories before I managed to pull myself away. Obviously, not every story in the collection was equally enjoyable, but his writing style remains absorbing. This isn’t surprising – several stories in this collection have won awards. The title story, “The Paper Menagerie,” won the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Award.

This collection contains both science fiction and fantasy. So often, writers segregate into one or the other of the speculative genres, but Liu says in the introduction that he doesn’t see a distinction. As someone who enjoys both (though I must admit I gravitate more towards fantasy), it was fun to see how he turned his talents towards each. Of fifteen stories, we have four that take place in space, three alternate near futures, three in the past, and five in the present (or close enough that I couldn’t tell). Several stories deal with Chinese folklore, and those were my favorites, but that’s no surprise; I’ve always loved fiction that deals with folklore, no matter the source.

My sole criticism with this volume is with the order of the stories. Three of the stories about humans going into space are placed one after the other, with the result that the stories blurred together. I suspect they were each excellent individually, but as a chunk I got sick of them, which did them a disservice.

Liu offers his readers a rare gift in the form of notes at the end of many of the stories, in which he cites the scientific research or historical event that inspired him. I loved that glimpse into his mind and inspiration. He cites some cutting-edge science articles, but the notes that I found most compelling were the historical citations (no surprise there). I learned more about some ugly moments in Chinese and American relations from this book than I am comfortable admitting. “The Literomancer” (a beautiful and hearth-breaking story, and another one of my favorites) was particularly devastating. In it, an American girl moves to China during the Cold War for her father’s job, and has trouble fitting in with the other Americans at school. She bonds with a Chinese boy and his adoptive grandfather, but when she tells her parents about her new friends, the outcome had me closing the book to regroup before I could continue reading.

This collection make me tear up on the bus ride home from work more than once, for which I probably shouldn’t thank Mr. Liu, but I will anyway. These aren’t comfortable stories. He doesn’t shy away from realities of the human experience, particularly those of immigrants and their children. The title story, “The Paper Menagerie,” is a particularly poignant portrait of the pain and loss that assimilation can cause. The narrator never demonized the son who wishes to fit it, but shows the repercussions with stark clarity.

One of the themes that weaves through many, if not all, of Liu’s stories is the continued impact of history. In “Mono no aware,” Liu explores how our history on earth would impact our travel into space: specifically, how the lone survivor of what was once a country on earth might take his culture with him. “Good Hunting” shows figures from Chinese mythology (specifically a hulijing, or fox spirit, and the son of a ghost hunter) adapting to a world with new technology and a loss of magic due to colonizing influences. “All the Flavors,” more of a novella than a short story, shows how stories from home might have provided inspiration and sustenance to Chinese laborers brought over to work on the railroads.

I loved these stories and this collection. Everything in it is beautifully written. Ken Liu understands the potential of the English language, and walks the line between simplicity and lyricism. But more than that, these stories have an amazing amount of humanity in them. His characters are real – they have flaws, they hurt, they bleed, they dream, and they take the reader with them. These stories took me to worlds that I could never visit, and not just because they are science fiction and fantasy. This is a book that stretches your empathy muscle, and that is the greatest gift literature has to offer.