I think part of why I enjoyed Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories so much is that his collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories isn’t just about technological and magical wizardry (although there’s plenty of both). The true throughlines are the related themes of identity and memory.
Liu alludes to this in the preface by suggesting that “We spend our entire lives trying to tell stories about ourselves—they’re the essence of memory. It is how we make living in this unfeeling, accidental universe tolerable. That we call such a tendency ‘the narrative fallacy’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t also touch upon some aspect of the truth. Some stories simply literalize their metaphors a bit more explicitly.” The rest of his foreword borders on being overwrought, but the ensuing tales—and the metaphors he brings to life in them—make his point more eloquently.
The first selection, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” deals with memory by describing how various alien races write their books. More a series of encyclopedia entries than a true story, this brief piece held my attention through sheer inventiveness. Liu adopts a similar technique in “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” to relate how other alien races remember the past, but he intersperses these mini-lectures with a compelling plot. “Simulacrum” plays with the consequences of creating physical manifestations of intimate moments.
Liu weaves in a fair amount of actual history as well. “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” features a lawyer for the poor—a “litigating hooligan”—helping to preserve a suppressed record of the 1645 Yangzhou Massacre. “All the Flavors” speculates about how Guan Yu, the Chinese God of War, might have adapted to life in 19th-century Idaho. “The Literomancer” looks at the power of words while giving us a glimpse of Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War. And the titular “Paper Menagerie” uses origami to touch on the tragedies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Inevitably, these stories grapple with identity too, but “State Change” foregrounds the concept with its exploration of what might happen if our souls were embodied in (and represented by) physical objects. In “The Perfect Match,” Liu examines how our data-driven lifestyles are creating new versions of ourselves. “We are now a race of cyborgs,” a skeptic says. “We long ago began to spread our minds into the electronic realm, and it is no longer possible to squeeze all of ourselves back into our brains. The electronic copies of yourselves that you wanted to destroy are, in a literal sense, actually you.” In contrast, “Good Hunting” follows a fox spirit who adapts to a steampunk version of Hong Kong by employing technology to regain her lost magic.
The final story, “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” ties these threads together by debating the implications of a destructive form of time travel. The focus is on Pingfang, the “Asian Auschwitz” where “Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army performed gruesome experiments on thousands of Chinese and Allied prisoners throughout” World War II “as part of Japan’s effort to develop biological weapons and to conduct research into the limits of human endurance.” But the Kirino Process—a technique that allows a single witness to see a particular moment in history before erasing that vantage forever—leads to international arguments about who owns the past when controlling it becomes “a literal, rather than merely a metaphorical, issue.”
I didn’t love every piece in this collection. And it wasn’t a quick read, especially when I was in the cluster of stories about humans journeying to new worlds—I could have done with one less of those. But they all made me think. I also appreciated how personal Liu’s selections felt. Born in China, he immigrated to the United States when he was 11. Defining his own identity must have been (and probably still is) a complicated process. It certainly made for some excellent fiction.