Paper Menagerie is a collection of short fiction by Ken Liu, whose debut novel, Grace of Kings, we reviewed (rather glowingly) last year. It’s a collection which covers a lot of ground – from identity to the nature of history, from murder investigations to the American West. It looks at the best, and worst of humanity, placing big ideas into everyday contexts. In short, it’s an impressive collection.
The worlds presented in this collection are diverse in theme and in concept. There’s the seemingly-near-future of The Regular, where lawkeepers are fitted with a device that keeps their emotions…well, regular, and where ocular implants allow for organic data storage. There’s accents of chrome and desperation. Contrast this with the All the Flavors, where a prospector in Idaho of the 1800;s tells some of the stories of folk hero Guan Yu to a young girl. This story has the red dirt of the west underfoot, in contrast to the jade hills of Guan Yu’s legend. Or consider The Literomancer, which immerses the reader in the near contemporary period of 1960’s Taiwan – but uses the setting as a springboard for discussion of cultural viewpoints, integration, and the human cost of security. And then there’s State Change, a world where everyone’s essence is tied to a physical object – be it a pack of cigarettes, a can of coffee, or an ice cube. The sheer range here is dazzling, and the environment for each story has clearly been lovingly, vividly crafted.
A similar comment can be made about the characters. There’s the closed off, lonely, chilly protagonist of State Change, a gentle contrast to the regretful frustrated lead in The Paper Menagerie. Both are looking to be – or have become – something toher than what they are, and are dealing with their identity, and the way in which it shifts. Then there’s the wild innocence of the child lead in All the Flavors, and the stoic pride of the sole survivor of a nation in Mono No Aware. What they all have in common is the way in which they feel human. You can empathise with the accounts, laugh with them, cry with them, love with them – or in some cases, feel your heart torn from its moorings by their actions. There are, not exactly heroes and villains here – but nuanced, flawed, sometimes horrific, sometimes wonderful people. The author manages to bring them to us across time and space, through cultural divides and fusions, and make them feel like fully rounded individuals.
The plots across the stories obviously vary considerably, from a documentary around the possibilities of time travel, to the exploration of wartime atrocities, or part of the life of a legal expert representing peasantry in the 1740’s. There’s so much versatility on show here, that there’s likely to be something you’ll enjoy. The stories do (largely, at least) share some common themes – there’s issues around identity, and humanity. There’s discussions of what separates and combines cultures and peoples, how we construct our ideas of ourselves. And there’s an unflinching inspection of these ideas through a human lens, through the lovingly crafted characters above. This examination of people, what it means to be people, and how we represent ourselves in our worlds, flows through the narrative stitching of the collection, and makes it an absolute pleasure to read.
Is it worth reading? Absolutely. Ken Liu has put together something special here – using complex, believable characters in marvellously crafted worlds to explore not only their own stories, but to approach big questions about culture, identity, and humanity. With that in mind, I’d say that it is very much worth your time, and is thoroughly recommended.