Fiction Reviews

The Paper Menagerie

(2016) Ken Liu, Head of Zeus, £18.99, hrdbk, ix +450pp, ISBN 978-1-784-97567-8


Many people will have discovered Ken Liu by way of his translating Cixin Liu's novel, The Three-Body Problem which was first published in Chinese in 2008 with the English translation appearing via Tor in 2014: it was nominated for a Nebula that year and won the Hugo in 2015.

For those who have not read Liuís work, or people who want to try something shorter, The Paper Menagerie, a collection of his short stories, is an excellent introduction or continuation of reading.

There is something simple but strong about Liuís writing. The stories of this collection are often set in China, Japan and America with characters who have a different cultural background to an entrenched western readership. When storytelling, Liu bridges this gap easily, just as he bridges the gap when describing characters from a far flung future.

However, there is always meaning and message behind the words and this never feels forced. Liu builds character and plot carefully, behind this deception of ease. Every word, sentence and paragraph has purpose and works hard towards the topic being laid on the table by the writer. After each story, the reader is left to consider the matter through the lens Liuís characters and their circumstances.

'The Perfect Match' recontextualises the purpose of social media, Siri and all matters concerning online presence and data trails when considering relationships. This is a familiar topic for writers looking to project fear about aspects of our technology running out of control, with a cinematic exploration by Spike Jonze in 'Her' and television premise in Charlie Brookerís Black Mirror Episode, 'Be Right Back'. Liu brings his own twist to this premise, focusing on the eternal question people have to find a partner and how artificial intelligence can anticipate our needs, ultimately allowing that intelligence to compensate for our inability to live in a society that does not listen to our individual wants and unfulfilled desires. Liu also considers the personal temptations of her characters and offers up their decisions for the reader to judge.

Liu mixes up the genres, introducing a little Fantasy with 'State Change', The Literomancer', 'Good Hunting', and more. The title story, 'The Paper Menagerie', is also an example of this, using a small expression of magic to tell a story about love, loss and the value of things. The same technique is used with the Hugo and Nebula shortlisted tale, 'The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary', but this time, the novum is non-repeatable time travel.

In each instance, Liu uses the story to make us consider the humanity of his characters and how we might react in these contexts. There is social comment on our present society, but also on us as individuals. The characters make their choices, some are noble, others self-serving. Would we make the same choices or would we make different ones? This reflection is rarely presented as a binary, instead the subtle simplicity of the prose masks a complex presentation of ethics, morality and life changing decisions. These require contemplation and reflection as all the best stories do.

'The Waves' is a fascinating story of change. Here, Liu blends the intimate and personal with a vast context spanning millennia and incomprehensible distance to tell a story about familiarity and embracing new things. The dichotomy in each character reveals something new about them and relates directly to our own need for constants in our lives even as we seek to alter, improve and enhance.

Another prevalent theme explored in the writing is the way characters learn to accept the damage they have experienced or done to themselves. Liu acknowledges the legacy and controversies of many incidents, some real, such as Unit 731 during the Second World War depicted in 'The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary', the treatment of immigrant Chinese in America in 'All The Flavors' and some invented, such as the prison workforce described in 'A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel'. All are relevant, particularly within the invented context as Liu uses personal guilt of his characters to project the incident as analogous to other real events.

These comments only touch on some of the qualities of this anthology. The Paper Menagerie is an exquisite collection of work. More layers of meaning await its readers who canít fail to find something moving and intelligent in the writing of Ken Liu.

Allen Stroud

See also Mark's take on The Paper Menagerie.

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