Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review of The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

A long time coming doesn’t seem to quite sum it up.  His first short story appearing in 2002, fourteen years and more than eighty stories later, Ken Liu’s first collection finally hits shelves in 2016.  The delay is to the point that when things were finally settled, editors were able to compile a collection of which two-thirds is either an award winner or nominee.  More a best-of than a representative sample of a certain period of work, for those waiting and waiting for Liu’s lauded short works to appear in one place, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (Saga Press) is finally here.

The short stories collected in The Paper Menagerie trace many lines, from exercises in imagination to pure science fiction, sensationalism to didacticism, but most often cling to Liu’s cultural heritage, Chinese, and most often Chinese culture in the context of other culture or cultures.  The title story “The Paper Menagerie” finds Liu playing the pity card on the last hand, but playing it with respect, or at least a real world correlation.  The story of a boy born to an American man and Chinese woman, the resulting culture tension plays itself out in poignant, and at least initially playful terms, toward its emotional if not manipulative conclusion.  “Good Hunting” is a story set at the turn of the 20 th century.  A time when China too was transitioning into the industrial age, it tells of a traditional Chinese ghost hunter and the evolution he witnesses and undergoes in technology around him.  Another morally simplistic story, this one moves in unexpected, steampunkish directions.

There is a lot of bad blood between the Chinese and Japanese, and Liu does not waste the opportunity to plug Chinese interests in the matter.  Having successfully played the pity card in “The Paper Menagerie,” Liu applies the same tactic in “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel.”  A story about a transportation tunnel being built beneath the Pacific, for as lucidly as it is written, it nevertheless reopens old wounds.  The final handful of pages an obvious ploy for justice, it does little to progress relations between the two sides.  That being said, it could be construed as raising awareness for an atrocity that is not well known in the West.  “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” uses the same Japanese atrocities as foundational story material, but presents a wider variety of perspectives.  A device invented that allows people to re-live moments of the past, Liu uses it to give modern people the chance to view Japanese actions in China during WWII.  The story more didacticism, it does, however, do a better job of representing the differing views, even if the underlying sentiment remains one-sided.  Perhaps the most thought-provoking piece in the entire collection, see here for a longer review.

Setting aside cultural interests (but not the simplistic approach), scattered throughout the collection are a handful of stories less historical and more futuristic, science fictional as it were.  Black and white storytelling that gives a moment’s pause thinking how deep google has infiltrated our lives and could in the future, “The Perfect Match” is the story of Sai and his computer assistant Tilly.  Unable to do anything without her voice in his ear guiding him, Sai learns some hard lessons after turning his life over to a data network.   Not the most profound of stories, it nevertheless retains its relevancy. Something of PKD in the story, “Simulacram” tells of the inventor of simulacrams.  The next phase in photography and video, it captures 3D renderings of people and things, and is able to inject the simple essence of the real person or thing into the reproduction.  A cautionary tale a la Ted Chiang, the story exposes the dark side of the inventor’s mind, juxtaposing it against his daughter’s reaction.  (Robert Charles Wilson’s “The Cartesian Theater” remains the superior story in the simulacra vein.)  “The Regular” is about a private eye investigating a dead prostitute and the serial killer who murdered her.  Though lucidly described, contrived scenes move the story away from original and toward conventional—save the real world bit of modern science that ‘breaks the case’.  And finally is “Mono no aware.”  A story that presents an interesting view to American culture (“Then we’ll improvise,” Mindy says. “We’re Americans, damn it.  We never just give up.”) that hinges upon a heroic act.  Telling of a space mission gone wrong, the cultural heritage of the main character, and how it plays into said heroic act, the import of the story seems more Hollywood than refined (hence the awards?).

At some point in The Paper Menagerie, the reader senses a pattern forming: build a sympathetic character, then chop them off at the knees—figuratively or literally—for dramatic effect.  After reading the opening pages of “All the Flavors,” it’s possible to guess that the main character will be wronged in some violent fashion before the end.  Liu does not disappoint.  A partially successful splicing of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, western pulps, and American history, the ending does not quite have the tenor sought—despite the likable character and “knee-chopping.”  Likewise with “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King,” the reader may guess the personable village lawyer who enjoys playing games with the local magistrate will eventually meet his match.  Again, Liu does not break formula.  While it’s possible to appreciate the placement of Chinese history into the crosshairs of criticism (in the context of the collection), the appreciation is offset by the fact the reader knows what is going to happen to the main character beforehand.  Good man trod by the system, going down with righteous words…  

In perhaps the most purely fictional aspect of The Paper Menagerie, there are a small number of stories that show Liu’s flights of imaginative fancy.  Stanislaw Lem observing on the wings, the collection opens with “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species.”  Pointing indirectly at the manner in which humans transpose ideas into written form, it is as much interesting commentary as it is an abstract example of writing in itself.   Again working with thought, “An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” is another exercise in imagination intended to shed light on the human condition.  In this previously unpublished story (the only in the collection), Liu achieves a relatively unique vision describing alien modes of sentience, but with less synergy than “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species.”

In the end, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a solid yet simplistic collection that plays itself into the hands of mainstream genre readers.  I personally have several hang ups regarding the lack of a conciliatory approach in some of the stories’ reflection of Japanese-Chinese relations (the tone more victim/justice oriented than progressive/forgiving), they are nevertheless very readable, even stimulating, for the reaction they induce.  For this, it would seem Liu in long form, e.g. The Grace of Kings, has the space he needs to properly build and locate profound ideas.)  Thus, while most of the stories are less sophisticated morally and culturally than what some of Liu’s peers are producing these days, there is no denying their appeal—as contrived and manipulative as they can be.  After all, that so many of the stories are award winners and nominees is indicative of their popularity beyond my miniscule corner of the web.

The following are the fifteen stories included in The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories:

Preface (by Ken Liu)
The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species
State Change
The Perfect Match
Good Hunting
The Literomancer
The Regular
The Paper Menagerie
An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition (unpublished)
The Waves
Mono no aware
All the Flavors
A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel
The Litigation Master and the Monkey King
The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary

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