The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

The Paper Menagerie

Hardcover, 450 pages
Published March 8th 2016 by Saga Press
Source: Publisher

“Who can say if the thoughts you have in your mind as you read these words are the same thoughts I had in my mind as I typed them? We are different, you and I, and the qualia of our consciousnesses are as divergent as two stars at the ends of the universe.

And yet, whatever has been lost in translation in the long journey of my thoughts through the maze of civilization to your mind, I think you do understand me, and you think you do understand me. Our minds managed to touch, if but briefly and imperfectly.

Does that thought not make the universe seem just a bit kinder, a bit brighter, a bit warmer and more human?

We live for such miracles.”

Let me preface this review by saying that I have a cold and have self-medicated so anything that comes out can and will be blamed on the medicine.

(Tylenol if you are curious.)

So I read this book and it took me a very, very long time. For that, I apologize to Jackie from Simon & Schuster who very kindly sent me a review copy. The reason it took me so long is that Ken Liu took my heart and did something like this to it:

Hulk Smash Loki

I wish I was joking.

I mean, we started off pretty tamely with “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” which was wonderfully crafted and gave a glimpse of Liu’s creativity and complexity but wasn’t really something that blew my mind. Then we moved on to “State Change” which did blow my mind.

The story is about a woman who lives in world where souls are material objects. Hers is an ice cube. Can you imagine how inconvenient it would be to have an ice cube for a soul? Well, it’s a great story and I won’t say much about it except that you should read it.

The Perfect Match” is about the invasive nature of technology, how pervasively and insidiously it sneaks into your life and holds your comfort hostage so that to regain a pleasant everyday existence you have to sacrifice things like privacy. The story certainly gave me much to think about.

Good Hunting” was amazing and employed lots of tropes that I would have loved to see in a longer work. Chinese mythology with an infusion of steampunk. The story, in just a few pages, manages to create a world populated with vibrant characters that discourse on currently relevant themes such as post-colonialism and the divide between human and Other.

Then came “The Litromancer” that gave my heart a jolt. The story is about a girl who unwittingly leads her only friends to persecution by the colonizing forces. It’s told softly, with a masterful subtlety that doesn’t shy away from the statement of the more brutal facts.

Simulacrum” is a beautiful (and sad, notice how this is becoming a theme?) story about a father and a daughter and how their perspectives differ so much that it affects their entire relationship to the point they’re estranged. Liu first presents the story from a distance and the reader is welcome to make swift judgments about the characters but then he zooms in and the reader has to re-evaluate each character because a closer look reveals a deeper and more complex being. This may sound obvious to you but it is difficult to do with any finesse in fiction. Liu, of course, is a master at it.

The Regular” I didn’t like so much because it does read like an episode of a crime show where violent crimes against women are par for the course. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the detective is female but I no longer find stories about women being murdered and often mutilated entertaining. It was well written but it didn’t speak to me in the same way the other stories did.

Then came “The Paper Menagerie” and it destroyed me. Like literally made me so sad that I just lay in bed and wept. It’s that sad and I don’t do sad books too well. I can’t even talk about it. I really can’t. Think about the saddest thing in your life and this just may be sadder. Gahhh. My eyes well up every time I even think of the story.

And then things become sadder. Liu goes many places in the stories in his collection and many of these places are dark ones where humanity has failed itself over and over again. Stories of unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity committed by people to people–reality dressed as fiction for the purpose of this collection–makes you view history in different ways.

I really enjoyed and appreciated Liu’s commentary that is included after some of the stories because they add context and give each story a depth that I would not necessarily grasp.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a masterful anthology and a brutal one. It will make you laugh and it will make you cry. It will make you sad and it will make you feel all emotions in between. The book may take you a while to read as it did me but you should definitely give it a try.

It’s totally worth the tears, I promise.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to be in this corner. Weeping.