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The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

This entry is part 55 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

Update: This was scheduled to publish on January 1st, but somehow my blog didn’t publish it—I’m not sure why. That’s why it’s appearing now. (But it was the last thing I read in 2022, technically.)

Original Post: As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts get published with some lag. I’m trying to be more punctual, though, and this one’s very recent. This is the last prose book I finished in 2022, though not the last thing I finished reading in 2022. (Look out for one more post in the next couple of days.)

While I’ve read a few of Ken Liu’s short stories here and there over the years, I hadn’t gotten around to his first collection until I noticed that my local library (yes, in Sejong City) had a copy on the shelf. I snapped it up and then… slowly made my way through. Why slowly? Partly it’s just how busy I’ve been, partly that I had to return it and it took a few weeks before I got a chance to borrow it again, and partly it’s just that this is how I tend to read short story collections now.  

It’s a good book! I was surprised at how many of the stories actually are fantasy, though perhaps I shouldn’t be given that I know his novels are in that genre. It’s just that the few short stories of his that I’ve read online were all SF, and I assumed most of his short work was in that genre. There’s a self-conscious foregrounding of history, identity, of the tensions of liminality, and many of these stories very self-consciously explore big questions. I also found the title apt: there’s a meticulous craft to the way the tales twist and turn and fold on themselves, like the zhezhi creatures in the title story, and like the origami tiger on the cover of the Saga Press edition that I read.   

The clarity of voice in these stories is striking, their force remarkable at times, and there is a sadness in a number of them that is difficult to bear. That sadness is, I guess, one of the big deciding factors in how readers respond to it. “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” is especially heartbreaking—as one would expect of a story dedicated to and inspired by the story of Iris Chang (author of The Rape of Nanjing) and to the victims of crimes against humanity. The tale thoughtfully explores the absolute mess of how history during the Japanese colonial era is remembered and politically handled in Northeast Asia—something that, I suspect, Liu’s right in suggesting even literal time travel probably couldn’t resolve, and shouldn’t be expected to resolve. This, by the way, is definitely an indicator as to Liu’s penchant for the serious: some writers can’t resist the joke about users spying on celebrities in the shower, but Liu’s impulse is to use the tech—and the fictionalized response to it—as a way of exploring the politics, ethics, and apparent intractability of historiographic conflict about horrific crimes against humanity committed by the Japanese in Manchuria. 

“State Change” and “The Perfect Match” also really stuck out for me—the former because it felt so much like a Ray Vukcevich story (something I admire), and the latter especially, given the rising panic over AI we’re seeing in public consciousness now. (It asks, “What if AIs really did know you better than you know yourself… and behaved like micromanaging helicopter parents lacking healthy boundaries of any kind?”) “Paper Menagerie” also really hit me hard, as a touching but sad exploration of how what we inherit from our parents isn’t always everything they’d hoped we’d inherit from them—and how what we inherit is a choice, albeit one we make under curious cultural pressure, but which we can also change sometimes. “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is a wild and fascinating alternate-history that I think manages to raise a lot of really uncomfortable questions about how we  evaluate the cost of this or that historical chain of events, versus the outcome said to result from them. (Ends vs. means, except that of course people are rarely honest about the means once the end is achieved, a point that is also made in “The Man Who Ended History.”)

There were moments that also grabbed me personally: “The Literomancer” is another tale that stuck out for me, and not just because it contains a popular (false) folk etymology that I myself struggled with early on 1, but also because of the attentiveness to how a child might perceive or experience racism in others around them, when they cannot fully understand it themselves. “All the Flavors” stood out to me too: Liu’s story of gold miners in the rugged west and their interactions with white locals—racist and otherwise—is so much better than the similar story I once tried to write, set in the Klondike, was so good it was almost discouraging.

Ken Liu’s a thoughtful, cerebral, and dramatic writer, his characters vivid and the situations striking. Over the space of 450 pages, the book was a little bit heavy at times, which isn’t to say I wished he’d gone for lighter topics—it’s just to say you need to be ready for a lot of stories that are quite serious in tone, and you may find pacing yourself with it to work better than trying to read them all at once. I’m eager to check out his more recent collection, when I can get my hands on it.

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  1. Even knowing that its use as a racist slur predated the Korean war, as a white North American, it was difficult for me to get over the aversion to saying the word “gook.” I had to, though: in Korea, 국 can mean “country” or “land” and also “soup”; in both senses, it’s very frequently used here, and you can’t really speak Korean without saying that phoneme crossing your lips.

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