Monday, August 13, 2018

The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

The first time I saw this book, a stranger was reading it in Japanese. I thought it looked interesting, but didn't give it a second thought. But after enjoying The Three Body Problem (which he translated) and having loved The Grace of Kings (which he wrote), I decided to pick this up. As you can probably guess, I had high expectations for this collection.

The stories in this collection are:

- The Book Making Habits or Select Species: This is just an exploration/worldbuilding piece on how other alien species might read. There isn’t any plot but it’s still a cute piece.

- State Change: I loved this one! It’s about Rina, this girl who’s soul is an ice-cube. Her life revolves around making sure her soul doesn’t melt, until she meets an interesting guy in the office. I felt that this was such a great story because it had a good plot with twist, great characters, and a unique setting.

- The Perfect Match: Think of Google’s ledger, if it came to life. But, the story questions of the huge company running the internet is good or bad, which adds another layer of nuance to this story about preferences, algorithms, and free will. Another story that I loved.

- Good Hunting: A story about hunting hulijing and what happens when Western ‘magic’ invades. An East vs West clash kinda story but very captivating.

- Literomancer: Another East meets West story, but this time of an American girl who moves to Taiwan and meets a Literomancer, a man who divines meanings from words. It adds in politics to turn the charming story into a sad one.

- Simulacrum: Another very strong story that I really enjoyed, centered around a father and daughter, about how holograms, recording memories, and what it means to betray another.

- The Regular: Someone is killing high class prostitutes. Ruth Law is asked to find out why. I almost skipped this because the first section is pretty graphic but it turned out to be a good crime story.

- The Paper Menagerie: About a half-Chinese boy who tries to reject his Chinese half, and his mother who makes living, moving paper animals for him. It’s a good story, but somehow, it didn’t touch me.

- An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition: I did not understand this one.

- The Waves: A story about people on the space ship and the choice between immortality and letting your kid grow up. I felt that it started strong but I lost interest halfway, probably because the ending wasn’t really related to the beginning.

- Mono no Aware: It’s the story of this sole Japanese guy on an American spaceship that managed to escape the destruction of earth. Despite the fact that parts of this took place in Kitakyushu and Kagoshima, I didn’t feel like the characters were there at all (I know this is alternate reality but on some level, it should at least feel like the Kyushu I lived in). Which means that I don’t know why he picked a Japanese main character when any other would do.

- All the Flavours, A Tale of Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, in America: I didn’t think I would like this but I did! It’s about someone who probably is Guan Yu, moving to America to pan for gold, and the little girl he makes friends with. A good story about how different cultures can meld together.

- A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel: An alternate history story where Japan became a world power peacefully and there wasn’t WWII. This story didn’t really engage me for some reason. And I was quite puzzled by these lines:

“ “Hoka no okyakusan ga imasu yo. Nani wo chuumon shimasu ka?” Her Japanese is quite good [...] though she is not using the honorific.”

I didn’t quite understand the “she is not using the honorific” line. The Japanese was in standard Japanese, the kind that is fine for strangers and that I’ve heard in many restaurants. So I don’t get why it’s singled out. If the author is referring to “keigo”, then yeah I get it but I would think that if they were going the five-star service way, there’s no way that she would have said “hoka no okyakusan ga imasu yo”, even in the ultra-polite form.

I feel like if I said that at my former workplace, the managers would have told me off for making the customer uncomfortable because we are not to rush them.

- The Litigation Master and the Monkey King: I loved this historical fiction story. It’s based on the Yangzhou Massacre and asks the question: “is it more important to do what’s right, or to keep yourself alive?”

- The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary: The last story in this anthology, it’s about a Chinese-American and Japanese-American couple that claim they can get people to literally experience history. I’m not sure if it’s because of the narrative form, but I did not get this story and ended up tuning out halfway.

Overall, I thought this was a pretty good collection! There were a few stories that I just didn’t get, but that’s more on my part than the story’s (I can see that the story is well-written, but it just did not resonate with me emotionally). I would definitely recommend it to fans of science fiction and fantasy.


  1. This collection appeals to me. I would like to explore more fantasy and science fiction by authors from other countries.

    1. It was a good read! I enjoyed most of the stories and I think you would too!


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