Review: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
The short stories in this 450 page collection by Ken Liu (The Grace of Kings) span historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. They include:
the story of a woman living in a world in which souls are real, and represented by physical objects we carry around with us (the protagonist’s inconveniently manifests as an ice cube);
the story of an American girl in 1960s Taiwan who befriends a Chinese practitioner of the divination practice known as literomancy, and whose friendship gets caught up in the Cold War;
the story of a couple of who invent a method of witnessing (but not altering) historical events as they occurred, and who use it to produce modern eyewitness accounts of crimes against humanity committed by the notorious Unit 731 in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).
Themes that run through many of the stories featured here include the pursuit of personal and historical truth; the balance of self-interest and societal interest; the transmission of culture and tradition through migration and trade.
Liu, who was born in China but whose parents moved the family to the United States when he was 11 years old, has done much to make Chinese speculative fiction available to Western audiences. Most notably, he translated the best-selling The Three-Body Problem into English, and has curated two anthologies of Chinese sci-fi (Invisible Planets and Broken Stars).
Many of his short stories incorporate elements of Chinese history and folklore. This makes them great jumping off points for further exploration. For example, one story about a group of Chinese gold miners coming to a town in 19th century Idaho explores the fascinating mythology surrounding Guan Yu (a general in ancient China).
Above all, I admired Ken Liu’s willingness to confront difficult themes unflinchingly. Many of the stories featured here pack quite an emotional punch, and often expose us to humanity at its worst and and its best in the same story.
While I would rate some individual stories in this volume as low as 3 stars, the best ones (including the title-giving The Paper Menagerie) are so exceptionally good that I would recommend the collection as a whole highly to any fan of speculative fiction.