Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016)

The Paper Menagerie

Author: Ken Liu

Title: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 453

Series: –

Ken Liu has been known as the translator to Cixin Liu’s critically acclaimed Hugo award winner, The Three-Body Problem. He is also known as the author of a “silkpunk” epic fantasy book, The Grace of Kings. But the readers of short stories know him predominantly as a talented SFF author with his own unique voice and unerring focus on humanity’s past and future, cultural diversity and a peculiar vision of transhumanism. His works won multiple awards, Nebula, Hugo, Locus and World Fantasy Award among them, and I must say that, at least with regards to the collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, he deserves quite a lot of the praise 😉.

This review will vary slightly from my usual posts; as each story or novelette forms a separate whole, I will review each in turn and give score to each separately in short paragraphs.

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species 5,5/10

Not a great start to the collection; a showcase of interesting ideas, but nothing really stands out in this fanciful enumeration of how various species in the universe might create/perceive books. It’s a fun exercise, and an invitation to the readers to think about the idea of a book, but nothing more.

State Change 10/10

One of two best stories in the compilation, based on an outlandish and very compelling idea that every person is born with their soul manifested as a concrete, tangible item – and that the form of that item directly affects their personality. A really sweet, light, yet thought-provoking story on how we create our own limits and then learn to transcend them.

The Perfect Match 5/10

Eh meh. Evil corporations and their little AI programs interfering with our lives to the point of managing us and creating our own needs and worldviews. A revised and abbreviated version of Orwell’s 1984, and, unfortunately, significantly worse than the original.

Good Hunting 8/10

A wonderfully crazy steampunk-ish fantasy seamlessly merging East Asian mythology with echoes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Huli jing, or kitsune, or kumiho, is a fox spirit able to take form of a beautiful young woman. That mythical creature from Asian folklore has become increasingly popular also in Western culture thanks to many East Asian-inspired SFF works, Ninefox Gambit among them. Here, a strange tale of change and adaptation weaves disparate strands – from myths to colonialism to industrial revolution – into an original, intriguing tapestry.

fox spirits 1853

Good Hunting gives the first hints of Liu’s beliefs in the immutability and independence of human consciousness from different bodily forms it can attain, and further on – on transhumanism as a way to retain one’s personality in a vastly changed environment. While I disagree with this notion, which I consider naïve and too Platonic for my tastes, here, in this steampunkish fairy tale, I didn’t mind it that much.

The Literomancer 5/10

A guilt trip for the American consciousness and the role of the USA in the Cold War’s proxy wars in Asia. Not that’s unneeded, on the contrary, but here a promising premise turns quickly into a blame game and all the good intentions can’t save it from drowning in accusatory, didactic triviality.

Simulacrum 6,5/10

An interesting form and some thought-provoking concepts. Seems underdeveloped, however, with the key elements only depicted in broad strokes. A seemingly generational conflict between a father and a daughter turns into something more fundamental with onset of new technologies. Where do we end?

The Regular 8,5/10

A SF crime story set in near-future Boston – gripping, slick, psychologically realistic. Very good, even if a tad predictable psychological journey of a burned-out private detective on the hunt for a serial killer. High-tech implants, blackmail, trauma from the past – this one has it all.

The Paper Menagerie 8/10

A story that garnered Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards is an intimate portrait of a culturally mixed family and the difficulties of fitting into a culturally monolithic society. While not autobiographical, it reads in a deeply personal way; the teenage anger and the overwhelming need of belonging, the scorn for the odd parent out feel ruthlessly true. Add to it a tad of magical realism in the form of animated (from Latin anima – breath, soul) origami animals, and the story’s complete. If I have a quibble with this story it’s with the tear-jerker factor of the conclusion.

An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition 9/10

A family drama exquisitely hidden beneath lovingly detailed fictional scientific excerpts. Don’t want to spoil that one, so think Sagan’s Contact x Gravity. A very good story.

The Waves 5/10

Transhumanism in all its glory. The consciousness of the protagonists stays the same despite multiple changes of forms and the passing eons. Hive mind doesn’t affect the boundaries of self either, and on the other side of the galaxy the post-humans emerge as compassionate gods. A well-written, surprisingly naïve experiment in wishful thinking.

Mono No Aware 7/10

A story of duty, memory, and love in a distinctly Japanese flavor. It’s very well-written and interesting, but I can’t shake the feeling that it perpetuates national stereotypes when we need them the least.

All the Flavors 10/10

The other of my favorite stories in this collection. A possible Chinese god of war in Idaho during gold rush. A tribute to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer (which is one of my favorite children books), this novella is just perfect. Plus, I learned a lot about the history of the early American-Chinese relations.

A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel 6/10

Again, this story has a lot going on in its favor. A stunning idea, well executed, with alternative history playing out on both sides of the Pacific. An individual perspective on the historic events gives the story the emotional impact it needs to grow from an abstract thought experiment to something more wholesome and engaging. But the didactic penchant wins once again, so despite the dramatically altered socio-economic landscape of the alternate US and Japan we still have here the story of nasty imperial racism rampant on both sides of the Pacific, playing out exactly as it did in our world.

The Litigation Master and the Monkey King 7,5/10

A story of genocide hidden in a fable. Elaborate, intriguing, educational and gory. If not for the goriness, which I found excessive (and yes, I did read Grimm fairy tales, and they don’t stand a chance with the lovingly detailed descriptions of Chinese tortures Liu engages in here), I’d easily give it 8/10.

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary 9/10

In the author’s note at the end Liu wrote that the unusual form of this story was inspired by a similarly structured work of Ted Chiang. I read Chiang’s story, and Liu’s much better. It deals with many important topics; important in general, but also in particular, to me 😉 – individual and social memory, history – specifically the political aspects of history, the politics of denial, the idea of historical responsibility. The SF element of this story doesn’t really work for me, but the rest packs a punch.

I loved the multilayered nature of this narrative, the many points of view, the aim at intersubjectivity and the invitation to the reader to form their own opinion. It’s very emotional and informative without being preachy, and it will stay with me a long time. This one needs a trigger warning, though – it deals with concentration camps and medical experiments conducted by the Japanese military on Chinese and Allied civilians during WWII.

Both of the stories dealing with genocide are infinitely more mature, in my opinion, than a similar attempt by Rebecca F. Kuang in The Poppy War. No vengeful fantasies but facts speak the loudest. Or, at least, that’s my wishful thinking ;).

All in all, I recommend The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. While the quality of the stories in this collection may vary, they are all refreshingly diverse, intriguing, and well-written, and I believe everyone can find here something just right for them.

Final score: 8/10

57 thoughts on “Ken Liu, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016)

  1. The thing I notice about many compilation works like this is that the quality can vary wildly. Oftentimes, there will be a few works that pull the weight of the entire work by themselves. That said, this book certainly seems like it has great ideas throughout, though the high points seem especially intriguing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, that’s probably the allure and the flaw of compilations as a category – you never know what you’ll get. And like with a box of chocolates, to borrow the metaphor from Forrest Gump, you rarely like all of the contents equally – but this is your opportunity to try them all 😄
      Some of the stories will stay with me for a long time, giving food for thought, and that’s the most I can ask from literature 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  2. So, very hit and miss. Pretty much how I find all novella/vignette/whatnot omnibuses. Not a fan of transhumanism, eh? I’m… well, I quite enjoy the genre, especially where it crosses over into posthumanism or cyberpunk.

    Classical Chinese folktales are quite graphic when it comes to torture and mutilation. Like, really, creatively graphic. It’s… both inspiring and disturbing. So, it appears Liu has learnt from the best 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’ll, I still recommend it, there are some truly great stories I would probably not read otherwise, so it’s a win 😀

      I’m not against transhumanism per se; I just don’t like that religiously utopian beliefs that accompanies so many of the stories. If we’re not perfect now, what in the world possess anyone to believe we’ll become perfect when given more power?

      I’m forewarned, then! Thanks for the explanation, it fits perfectly with what Liu achieved here 😉

      Liked by 1 person

        1. 🤣🤣🤣 I think you can appropriate this as your family motto! 😄

          As for transhumanism, if you’re interested I can send you a bit different short story – I would need your email, though 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  3. You came to nearly the same assessment of the stories! With Will‘s comment on „hit&miss“: that’s the essence of every anthology or collection I‘ve found, so far. But take a random 20 pages out of a novel and assess that one – even for a five star novel, the snippet might end with only one star. So, short stories need a different reading mood.
    Here‘s my review, just as a comparison:

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Andreas, for recommending this collection to me – I really enjoyed it and some of the stories will stay with me for a long time, and that’s the mark of great literature 🙂

      Yes, our scores are pretty similar! I wonder if it’s a matter of the quality of the stories themselves, or rather the similarity of our tastes? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I came away from reading and reviewing this collection feeling that it was a bit of a disappointment, however, I’ve just looked back over my review and it’s much more complimentary. I suppose the trouble with anthologies is that you don’t always remember or take away those stories that you enjoyed the most; you’re just as likely to remember the ones you didn’t enjoy at all!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Very true! For me a lot also depends on how quickly I go through the stories and whether they have a common motif; for this one I chose a measured approach, a story or two a day, and it worked very well, giving me time to think about them and a bit of breathing room. Which was your favorite/least favorite story?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My least favourite appears to have been All The Flavours – which is one of your favourites! I do caveat it in the comments saying it is actually very good too. I’m not sure which one is my favourite but the one I remember most is The Regular!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay! 😀
      Plus, it has also the benefit of choice – you’ll be able to read a story to suit your mood, and if it doesn’t, you can either pick a different story or put away the book for another day! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve read a few Ken Liu stories in the past few years, and always enjoyed them, including the one that gives the title to this collection, but never tackled the collection itself: as this kind of book goes, not all stories can meet our tastes, but I guess there is enough here to get a good grasp of this author’s style and themes.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 😀
      Yes, absolutely. There are some really valuable gems in this collection, as well as a few that just didn’t suit my tastes. But all in all, it gives an impressive account of Liu’s breadth of vision and his favorite themes, and it’s definitely worth reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I like that in your review you give just as much as needs to be said to give a flavour of each story, while also being more specific in what you dedinitely didn’t like. It’s the general impression of the collection which I’ll retain from your review should I ever get round to this title, Ola, so thanks for such a balanced overview.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Chris! 😀
      I know it’s not your usual fare, but if you’re in a mood to try something different, several of Liu’s stories offer a unique take on Chinese folklore and fairy tales that might interest you :). The good thing about short story collections is that you don’t have to read all their contents, and you can choose whatever suits you best! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. A cube of ice, grains of salt, a pack of cigarettes, a candle… This story is mind-bending in its simplicity and potential! 😀
      I know that feeling. Currently I read almost only new stuff, and feel I should grab a few classics to round it up. That Mailer looks very interesting!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m glad you enjoyed this too! I’ve just reread my own review to compare, and we agree on most stories. We differ mostly on The Literomancer, but I have to say my recollections are too vague to have a meaningful discussion. I think I liked the atmosphere a lot, and as such didn’t mind (or didn’t notice?) the didactism – probably didn’t notice, as usually I’m allergic to that. If you’re interested, take a peak:

    I was very disappointed by The Grace Of Kings though, his debut novel. Somehow, I’m also not really inclined to read his second collection of short stories – I fear it will be just more of the same, but that might be unwarranted. The other fear I have is that I’ve moved on as a reader, and that’s less unwarranted I guess 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We’ve had such similar reactions to these stories it’s eerie! 😀
      I loved the beginning to The Literomancer; the setup to this story, and the little touches of magical realism, were really impressive. But then the twist was at once predictable and unlikely, and the finale of this story turned out to me preachy and sanctimonious.

      I’ve heard so many bad opinions on The Grace of Kings that I never even intended to read it. Andreas reviewed his new collection of short stories recently, and quite liked it. I’m not in a hurry to read it, though, there’s a lot more transhumanism in these new stories and now that I know Liu’s stance on it I’m not too keen to read more of the same 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I agree on Liu’s transhumanism as naive & Platonic, but when I read it, I didn’t even register it as such. On the other hand, the way Greg Egan writes it, I don’t mind at all, it’s even cool & seems intellectually challenging, even though it’s obviously a very naive pipe dream that consciousness is a kind of information cluster, and as pure information could be transmitted, stored, etc. So much of scifi takes that as a given, now that I think of it. Mmmm…. this might severely influence my future reading.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I haven’t read Egan yet, I have his books on my TBR thanks to your recommendation 🙂
          Sorry not sorry I spoiled your reading! 😂😂

          Actually, I’d like to send you a short story, if you’re interested – if so, send me your email address 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

  8. I have The Grace of Kings waiting for me on my shelves, and I hope to get to it soon, but I never took this book under consideration because I am not a big fan of anthologies and similar, but this one seems quite interesting and full of interesting ideas!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. He indeed does sound like an author that deserves his own set of praise for his skills beyond translating a highly-praised Chinese trilogy. I think I’ve read one short story from him in The Book of Swords collection? Your appreciation of this collection does make me want to try out his stuff though. How rare is it to impress Ola, after all? 😀 I really love how you’re always able to pinpoint the “original” stories that these later ones are usually based on with so much accuracy. Besides 1984, I don’t know how I’d be able to tell myself hahaha Shows that you have an insanely huge knowledge of “groundbreaking” novels! 😉 Great review, Ola. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup, I actually really enjoy reading short stories – they can give you a nice perspective on an author’s skill set and the breadth of his imagination and variety of topics that interest them. I love Zelazny’s short stories, and Le Guin’s, so I’m probably a bit spoiled in that regard 😉 But Liu’s stories are very interesting and thought-provoking, even if not uniformly good.

      I will accept that little jab as a compliment, Lashaan! 😛 And yes, I do enjoy looking for common threads and patterns, and tracing them back to their origins – I heartily agree with Bernard of Chartres, that we all stand on the shoulders of giants! 😀

      Thanks! 😀 I hope I convinced you to try some of Liu’s stories out! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t get that “weird first story in the collection” policy. But maybe it’s like “take it or leave it” strategy – if you are not deterred by it, you’re in for a treat, because it will only get better from here on 😂

      I did enjoy Liu’s collection indeed, despite the unevenness of quality. It’s thought-provoking and intriguing, so if you want something to make you think you could do much worse than The Paper Menagerie 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I rarely read a collection unless it’s an ARC that intrigues me or an author/based on a universe I already love.

        That being said, I have typically came away from every collection I’ve read absolutely thrilled to have discovered a couple of hidden gems.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Exactly! Somehow it gives collections a better chance at giving more reading satisfaction – at least for me 😉 If a novel is bad, it’s bad, end of story. But in a collection you can always find something cool or just right for you 🙂 …though the problem of finding it remains and you need to read through it all, good and bad 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  10. This sounds interesting, thank you for the pointer to yet another writer I might have otherwise missed. I’ve added him to the list – squeezed him in between two others in the top section. I’ll repeat what several other people have already mentioned, and say I really like that you’ve provided a taste of each without giving the game away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Cath! 🙂
      I do hope you’ll enjoy the collection, and that you’ll find it at least as thought-provoking, inviting to discussion and, ultimately, satisfying, as I did! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I had a similar experience while reading Liu’s The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. Some were perfect and others didn’t agree with me at all. Still- glad you enjoyed it more than not! Great review.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Sarah! 😀

      Yeah, I think that’s the problem – or maybe the advantage – of all short story collections. Uneven quality, but next to bad stories you can almost always find something great 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. buriedinprint

    I’ve read some of Ted Chiang’s stories, but none of Ken Liu’s. When it comes to short stories, I find I often have to reread to really capture some of the details and even though I do post about single stories (Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are two of my favourite writers) I relate to the challenge you face in having dramatically different reactions/attachments to specific tales. There are always a couple in each collection which really grab me, it seems!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You have really interested me in Mavis Gallant stories! Your reviews of them are very detailed and thoughtful and I’ve been looking around for a collection to read 🙂

      Yes, the great thing about collections is that there’s always a good story somewhere in there, waiting just for you! 😄

      Liked by 2 people

      1. buriedinprint

        Thank you, that’s very kind. I hope you can find a collection. (If you’re in a position to purchase new, Open Road Media has reissued many of her books. No, I don’t get a commission. LOL)

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I always have trouble commenting on your posts – it seems I can read and “like” them through WP, but can’t comment; and I can comment through your site, but can’t “like” them 😉 But I really love the depth of your reviews, they make me think of what I would find in the stories you read – so yes, I’ll be looking for Mavis Gallant stories 🙂 Thanks for the tip on new editions – I’ll take a look at them, too!

          Liked by 1 person

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