Review of ‘The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories’ by Ken Liu

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a collection of short stories from Chinese-American author Ken Liu. I’ve never really been a fan of short stories in general, because I find they often lack enough content to really tell a compelling story. Ken Liu however, has proven that true artistry is possible in any length of fiction. For an author who has almost exclusively published in only the last five or six years, to be able to put together a short story collection of only major award winning and finalist stories is pretty remarkable. His debut full-length novel The Grace of Kings reviewed here, was my top book of 2015, and several of the stories within The Paper Menagerie were equally fantastic. Utterly unsurprised that Liu has won so many awards for his short fiction, and I really have nothing bad to say about this collection. Wonderful.

With his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, taking the literary world by storm, Ken Liu now shares his finest short fiction in The Paper Menagerie. This mesmerizing collection features all of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).

A must-have for every science fiction and fantasy fan, this beautiful book is an anthology to savor.

I’m never really sure how to review collections of short fiction. Even a paragraph dedicated to each piece makes for a very long and wordy review, and general thoughts rarely can encompass the whole of a piece of work. Ken Liu makes this simpler by just being so consistently excellent that I can just tell you how great this collection was without needing to qualify it with any exceptions that stunk. Still, a few stood out among the others, so I’ll touch on a few of those.

State Change is the second entry in the collection, and was, bar none, the most interesting concept I think I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a heck of a lot. The concept that each person’s soul was an object, one that would influence their life and personality and kind of person they were, and which would also, if expended, result in their death just has so much depth to it, it took me a few minutes of just sitting there pondering to really get my head around the implications. Knowing that you could, any time you wanted, just live the quintessence of yourself, but in so doing, shortened your life, it just changes everything about how you’d think about the world. Phenomenal stuff.

The Paper Menagerie is the eighth entry and also the one for which the collection is named. As the only piece of fiction to ever sweep the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards, it is exactly as good as you would expect. Expertly capturing the struggle of mixed-race families and the cruelty of children to anybody who is different, and the difficulty for kids who feel like they don’t fit in. The scene of Jack’s rejection of his mother was absolutely gut-wrenching. A meditation on the subject of the power of love, and the enduring nature of a mother’s dedication to her son, it was the kind of story I’d expect to be told across a full-length novel, distilled down into it’s most effective essence. Along with the next story I’m going to talk about, The Paper Menagerie is what completely cements this collection as a truly remarkable set of stories. It deserved every bit of the acclaim it got.

Mono No Aware is the eleventh story in the collection, and was a Hugo winner and Locus finalist. To say that I enjoyed or liked this story is both insufficient and can imply that it was a happy or enjoyable story. Among other things, it provided a very stark example of the difference between the cultures of Japan and America. One can generally divide cultures into two categories, ‘glory’ cultures and ‘shame’ cultures, by what is the primary motivator for their actions. In a glory culture, the primary goal is self-advancement, and earning accolades and praise for the individual based on their exceptionalities, whether real or imagined. In a shame culture, the primary goal is the overall advancement of the group, and fulfilling one’s obligations out of a desire to be fulfilling one’s obligations and doing one’s job to the best of their ability. The fact that ‘shame culture’ sounds like a horrible criticism just highlights how heavily influenced western culture is by the idea that glory is the best thing, even though I feel like most rational people would prefer the other if they really stopped to think about it.

A very early scene in this story involves the main character Hiroto teaching a child how to play Go, and young Bobby thinks it is a boring game because all the pieces are the same, and there’s not an obvious single goal to achieve. When asked what game he likes more, he picks Chess because he likes the queen, saying “She’s powerful and different from everyone else. She’s a hero.” The idea that there are no heros in Go is resonant throughout the story, especially if you take ‘hero’ to mean ‘anybody acting for their own self-aggrandizement and glory’. As the story touches on an evacuation from Earth, western societies are rioting and looting, while after discovering there is not going to be enough space to evacuate everybody, the Japanese in Hiroto’s home town just calmly return to their homes. Group over the individual. Even when something we could only characterize as heroism occurs, the person in question has just accepted that it is their duty, and does it without complaint or a need for praise. It’s just what needed to be done, so it is done. I might have cried.

These are just three stories among fifteen excellent pieces of short fiction. Ken Liu even after only one novel, was steadily moving up the list of ‘authors I need people to have read if they want to get into SFF’ and these short stories catapulted him even higher up the list. These stories are great and you need to read them. Ken Liu is great and you need to read him too.

Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from Saga Press via NetGalley

Liked this review? Want to support the creation of more content? Consider supporting my Patreon, even 1 dollar per review can make a huge difference!

Author: Dan Ruffolo

Leave a Reply