The Paper Menagerie

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you will know that I loved Ken Liu’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings. I found it a highly enjoyable read, by turns comic, sweeping, epic, tragic, but always with that element of wonder that makes fantasy the incredible genre that it is, taking you outside reality but also giving you a new, sometimes literally more magical vantage point from which to view the world and your place within it. I greatly admired Liu’s light, deft way with words, that spun this complex, engaging world into existence, and am looking forward to coming back to Dara and its denizens, later this year.

Paper-Menagerie-his-rezWith his new book, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Liu shows that he is capable of vast range. Sure, in some of the stories you see the comic master who orchestrated coups and wondrous escapes in Dara, in others you see a thoughtful, poignant writer, who asks tough questions and leaves you with no certain answers. Many of these stories, such the one that gives the collection its title, ‘The Paper Menagerie’, have been published, read and loved before, and this book brings them together, to give it what Liu calls ‘the flavour of a retrospective’, a brief look at his career as a short story writer. Indeed, the idea of memory, and memory as a source of conflict and confluence in communication, seems a running theme in many of these narratives, most powerfully in the last story of the collection, ‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’.

Though many stories are indeed stitched around the common theme of memory, recording, and how we retell stories, what I can say about Liu’s work is this: it is remarkably wide ranging. From the space-opera-like ‘The Waves’ to  ‘All the Flavors’, the magical-realist novella set in early twentieth century Idaho, Liu presents a vast range of readerly experiences. The stories slip between science fiction and fantasy, and indeed, Liu confesses at the start that he doesn’t ‘pay much attention’ to the distinction between the two genres. He builds worlds that contain elements of both: for instance, in ‘Good Hunting’ (a story that reminded me inexplicably of Gaiman’s work) a young demon hunter meets a hulijing, a spirit who tests his ideas of good and bad. As the world changes around them, he adapts to it with the help of science, learning new principles of engineering and physics, while others, most notably his father, struggle to find a new place in this world without mystery, seemingly without magic. What results is a beautiful blend of the best elements of myth, fantasy and science fiction, the author moving us seamlessly between all three.

What I really like about Liu’s work is the seeming effortlessness of his writing, of being able to introduce a whole new section of readers to worlds and mythologies that have remained ‘outside’ the Western canon for a long time. ‘I’ve never consciously put myself forth as a minority in my work,’ Liu told me in an interview, and that filters through. Rather than explaining painstakingly any references to a non-Western/non-white culture, or consciously building himself up to a ‘representative’ of anything, Liu works these elements into his stories and allows readers to either learn more about them from the context, or look them up online in they’re really interested. For me personally, this is an extremely welcome and emulation-worthy style. Coming from a culture (or cultures, I should say) that is not as well-known to readers of epic fantasy as say, medieval England, it’s sometimes hard to know when to draw the line between fantasising and exoticising. Liu never makes that mistake. When he narrates martial exploits of soldiers from the many now-Chinese kingdoms, or even talks of the encounters between East and West, whether in the gold-springs of the Midwest or the paddy fields of US-held Taiwan, Liu never seems to consciously present one side as more or less ‘real’ or ‘normal’ than the other. ‘…the individual is the intersection of multiple spheres of identity,’ he had said in the same interview, and he bears that out in his writing. His characters, whether they hail to pasts far distant, or futures beyond our imagining, are all composites of multiple cultures, influences, tastes.

The stories in this volume moved me, none more so than the last, ‘The Man Who Ended History’. I feel it is an especially important story for the time we live in, the sort of conflicts over ‘ownership’, nation and culture that rage around us. Again, perhaps because of where I come from, where these questions have gained even more immediacy, I felt drawn to this story more than any other in his collection. Liu uses the structure of a transcribed documentary to tell the story of a man who, with the help of his physicist wife, builds a time machine, that takes people back to the past, literally, and allows them to observe it for themselves. The period he selects is a controversial, horrifying one in Manchu, China during the Second World War. The conflicts the testimonials give rise to, and the old wounds they dredge up, bring the two countries, China and Japan, and belatedly the US, to the brink of another battle, and I can honestly say that the story definitely kept me on the edge of my seat, and made me think a lot about how we deal with the past, who it can be said to belong to, if anyone at all.

To sum up, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a brilliant read. Savour it, sink into Liu’s words, and allow yourself to be carried away by a master storyteller. He is definitely one of my favourite fantasy authors working today, and inspires me as few others do.

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