Book Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
In this magical collection of short stories, quality takes precedence over quantity.
Genre: Science fiction and magical realism collection of short stories
I’ve never liked short stories. I didn’t think it would be possible to feel a connection to characters that I briefly encounter in touch and go moments. I have always been of the belief that if a short story was actually good, the author would have fleshed out a whole book.
Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, however, have proven me completely wrong.
This collection of short stories combine science fiction and magical realism, celebrating the wonders of our everyday life with sprinkles of magic.
As each story was similar in themes, I found it easy to transition from one story to another which is a struggle I faced while reading other collections of short stories. Every single story was extremely unique in its plot and ideas, and it is rare to find such a strong collection.
I was immediately drawn from the first story: The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species, which details the creative and ingenious ways that other fictional species read and pass on stories. It leaves the reader in awe of the magic of reading, celebrating the universality of the experience of reading.
I greatly enjoyed the immense influence of Chinese culture that was prevalent in almost every story, such as the introduction of literomancy that details the history and beauty of the Chinese language in The Literomancer.
One of my personal favourites is Good Hunting which mourns the loss of magic and culture in the face of colonisation and urbanisation in China. In spite of the adversities faced, Liu celebrates the ability of the Chinese to adapt and overcome, in which our narrator adopts the newly-introduced mechanism of the steam engine to develop a new kind of magic.
In The Litigation Master and the Monkey King, Liu draws on the popular chinese character “Sun Wukong” as an imaginary companion of a litigator who makes a brave choice. Liu also retells Chinese folklore such as the story of Guan Yu, the popular Chinese military general, in All the Flavours. I greatly enjoyed the retelling of these stories that I have personally never heard of in this celebration of Chinese culture.
The titular The Paper Menagerie is Liu’s magnum opus. An award-winning, record-setting short story, it holds the title of the first work of fiction to win the Nebula, the Hugo and the World Fantasy Award. Despite being less than 20 pages, it left me in a puddle of tears. This is a heart-wrenching tale of the age-old struggle that second-generation immigrants face while assimilating into the US, and the inevitable hurt caused to their loved ones.
The development of technology is also largely discussed in several stories. The Perfect Match felt like reading a black mirror episode, where technology and artificial intelligence has irreparably seeped into our daily lives. Scarily enough, it did not feel too far from our current reality.
Another favourite is The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary, which is a short story written in the form of a documentary. This is science fiction that doesn’t stray too far from our reality, as Liu explains the physics behind the magic of time-travel in a manner that is believable. I enjoy how Liu sheds light on historical events such as Unit 731 which was swept under the carpet by Japan and the USA after world-war 2, and readers are able to learn about history while exploring this world of magical realism.
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is the most brilliant collection of short stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Liu writes with brilliant skill and finesse, deftly building a magical world and delivering a gut punch of an ending in a few short pages and I greatly enjoyed this read.