Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” (Review)

The Paper MenagerieBook: The Paper Menagerie

Author: Ken Liu

Published: March 8, 2016

Publisher: Saga Press

In the wake of the US election of a man whose rise to power was heralded by white supremacist groups, racists, sexists, bigots, and homophobic politicians, whose hateful rhetoric drove a deeper, manipulative wedge between the disenfranchised and the bourgeois of America , a coworker said something that surprised me: “What we need now is art.”

I’d imagined the sentence ending with “revolution” or “meaningful protest” or “Canadian citizenship.” Even as a writer, someone who ostensibly believes that art can make a difference, I wasn’t ready to hear that what we needed was “art.” I also wasn’t ready to go create works that would nudge the giant pendulum swinging from tense acceptance to open hatred to swing a little further into acceptance. I believe writing can do that. If I didn’t, why bother? That hope is why I spend my free time reading submissions for Spectators and Spooks, trying to find that perfect piece, a ghost story that illuminates a world view different from my own white-passing, straight cis-male perspective that can move me to understand and love a character from a different background and space and time that has been overlooked and dishonored.

While Ken Liu doesn’t do much by the way of ghosts – not in the supernatural sense at any rate – in Paper Menagerie he works to move that pendulum of otherness, that weight that I am yet unsure of how to move for myself or others. He moves. He moves me. He presses his words together into fantastical stories while not shying away from tackling political themes. Some readers and writers alike insist that the political has no place in fiction. They’re wrong. Writers—whether they be poets, philosophers, journalists, or anyone who embellishes words onto blank pages—should be the consciences of the societies that produce them. Ken Liu shows us both future and past wrongs  of how society treats the other and how the other is to view themselves in his short story collection, The Paper Menagerie.

In “Literomancer” and “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel,” Liu shows readers a past and present woe: the cost of colonialism on the society being colonized. These stories both show the gritty details and state-mandated murders that take place in colonized lands to sickening effect. But the colonial story that surprised and amazed me was “All the Flavor.” Liu shows the potential strength of globalism, depicting Chinese settlers who fled the indentured railroad contracts and settled in a cowboy filled Idaho City. The Chinese men introduce Chinese New Year, dumplings, and the Chinese god of war to the Americans and as the Chinese become Americanized they better the Americans by teaching them Chinese traditions. The story has a  mythic tone, depicting the adventures of the Chinese men, portraying them as tricksters adjusting to, then manipulating their new home. Liu does this while drawing parallels between the Chinese and American settlers who moved to this new place for the same new beginning. The exchange of ideas leaves both groups better-off than they were. Some may criticize the story, claiming that the Chinese characters are depicted without faults, and that’s true. I’d argue that these characters have as many faults as Chinese characters in most American Western movies have redeeming characteristics, though I’ll admit, the lack of faults does at a certain point expand to a lack of conflict and a sluggish middle section.

Liu is fond of citing sources, and for good reason. “All the Flavor” ends with a list of historical references. In this one he uses citations to prove that there were in fact Chinese people in the west outside of the railroad, and though the story implies a happy ending, the facts did not. He succinctly, with citation, outlines the future that these men would face as the state legislators banned them from coupling with American women and led to their eventual extinction in the west, and purging from the American popular image of it.

Liu uses the citations to put exclamation points at the end of a few other stories as well. “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” and “The Man Who Ended History” finish the collection, and they end with equally somber notes sections highlighting the real, awful histories Liu is drawing inspiration from. These stories address the theme of remembering the victims of massacres. To read these stories is to remember the victims of these massacres. The brutal acts in both stories are belied by their frames. “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” uses a folklore trickster to bring out the truth of a massacre that was suppressed for 250 years. Rather than open with a staging of the massacre, Liu opens with the Litigation Master having a talk with the Monkey King — who has been drinking for the last few centuries straight — and proceeding to litigate. The scenes are light-hearted too. The interactions feel like something out of a buddy cop movie where the central conflict is still important but so are the characters at play. The amazing thing about Liu is that when he gets to describing the massacre, he shifts from this lightness to utter darkness without jolting the reader mid-read. His prose guide the reader lithely through a potential minefield without exploding.

In “The Man Who Ended History” he uses sci-fi conventions to deliver the reader to a similar place of destruction and recognition. Framed as the transcript of a documentary, this story takes us into a future where time travel is real, but can only be used to go to one moment before that moment can never be visited again. He draws parallels between the way this time travel works with the way archeological excavations destroy the artifacts that they’re uncovering. Once he gets through the frame and the legal debates he gives us another, lesser known historical tragedy: the human experiments performed by Japanese soldiers in Unit 731 on Chinese prisoners. Describing how they’d test whether a prisoner was frostbitten and ready for an experiment or not, one of the guards says, “To make sure that the arms have been frozen solid, we would hit them with a short stick. If we heard a crisp whack, it meant that the arms were frozen all the way through and ready for the experiments. It sounded like whacking against a piece of wood.”

What makes Liu special aside from his championing for the remembrance of massacred peoples is that while the stories described so far can be brutal, he’s also got lighter stories. “State Change” is a story following the life of a woman who was born with her soul outside of her body. If it melts, she’ll die. The story delves into how she negotiates that world. “The Regular” is a noir where a technologically enhanced private investigator hunts down a serial killer in a well-evoked future Boston.

The Paper Menagerie isn’t without its shortcomings though. In the earlier stories especially, Liu has some conceptual stories in the style of Jorge Louis Borges that lack character action and some stories that have the emotion and character action but lack inventiveness. “Perfect Match” creates a world where an A.I. directs everything the protagonist does, but the protagonist is an underdeveloped character and thus his arc doesn’t work. “Good Hunting,” another early story, has an incredible ending that I struggled to get to because the character’s lives were told in too much detail without enough conflict. But as I said, the collection improves as it goes. It’s not until “The Regular,” the sixth story of the collection that he really manages to bring these two strengths together. “Perfect Match” also fell victim to what I think the other weakness of this collection is, the weakness of all failing political stories: it fails to imagine the world with enough complexity. The A.I. in “Perfect Match” is immediately and obviously the conflict of the story because big data is portrayed as bad in almost every work of sci-fi it appears in. Liu doesn’t anticipate a savvy reader, or at least adjust in a way to accommodate them. Instead, he follows through with a protracted awakening and subsequent attempted sabotage and meeting with the company behind the A.I., all the while the reader is getting progressively more bored because they get the point. It’s a lack of nuance that damns bad political stories. It takes the surprise and awe, the fun and the excitement out of the story and sucks the reader dry.

Thankfully, Liu avoids these pitfalls more often than not in his work by his attention to developing strong characters. The title story earned a Hugo and a Nebula award because it combined amazing character work — the touching story of a young man and his relationship with his immigrant mother — with magical realism, the mother breathing life into origami animals. The moment at the end of the story where the son has his mother’s last letter translated to him is the strongest in the collection, and one of the great moments in literature.

Paper Menagerie is a strong story collection, with prose that will send you running for a dictionary but not bounce you out of the story, with a tone that is both whimsical and striking. Liu is already a big name in sci-fi, and with his inventive mix of historical fiction, sci-fi, and magical realism along with his dedication to telling stories that commemorate real tragedies, we hope his audience is only going to grow bigger and bigger.