Speculative fiction, as the name suggests, is designed to take the world we know and put it under the imaginative microscope. What if you could travel back in time, if only for a moment? What if paper tigers could come to life? What does it mean to be human?
Often times, these questions lead to lengthy, immersive worlds. Fantastical plots and characters underlined by traces of real life themes, keeping us enthralled as readers. But in the case of Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, this is not what we receive.
Instead, through intelligent, imaginative prose, and masterful craftsmanship over the Short Story form, Ken Liu creates a collection of rich and deeply thought provoking tales. Spanning across multiple sub-genres of Speculative Fiction, from Fantasy to Sci-fi to Magic Realism, each of the 15 stories opens like a small pocket universe to the reader. Worlds unto themselves, full of the strange and bizarre, the heartbreaking and the joyful, yet still intensely relatable to the world which we live in.
I can tell you right now that if you love short stories, and you love this genre, then I highly recommend this collection to you.
Yet the question must be asked. What were my favourite stories? And what were my not-so-favourite stories?
THE PERFECT MATCH
One of the most poignant sci-fi short stories I have read in a long, long time. This story took the issue of technology – specifically how much encroaches upon our lives, dictating what we do and how we act – and showcased it with a dexterous, narratively driven hand. While the protagonist, perhaps, can feel a little flat at times, being more of an observer to the events at hand, it only helps to drive home the sense of hopelessness we feel in the grips of technology.
Do we decide our fate? Or has technology advanced to craft our fates for us? If you like the sound of that, then you’ll definitely love this story.
Much like the characters in this story, Good Hunting is more that it first appearances lead you to believe. It begins in a fantasy dripping with atmosphere, yokai and demon hunters, and ending with neon signs, cyborgs and one man’s attempt to find meaning in an ever changing work.
This story captivated me upon first reading and still baffles me upon subsequent re-readings. How on Earth did we start in a fantasy and end in a sci-fi? And to do it in a way that feels natural?
The description and pacing in this particular story is stunning. Within 22 pages, Liu not only paints the changes to the narrative’s world with beautiful, well-constructed prose, but he also allows us to experience the effect of these changes within the protagonist.
By the end, you feel as though you’ve grown up beside our main character – you’ve been with him as the wonders of his youth are taken away, replaced with the cold, unfeeling world of industry, technology and colonisation.
There’s really only one word to describe this story: gorgeous.
ALL THE FLAVOURS
One of the few criticisms I have with The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is that the last tales within the book are weaker than the others. Not to say that they are bad or not worth reading, but they don’t inspire a memorable sense of wonder or dread like the other stories in the collection. And nowhere is this more poignant than in All the Flavours.
To give this story credit, it enlightened me about a period of American history that I was not aware of. And, more importantly, it highlighted the treatment of Asian communities within this era which is a subject that, as an English born-and-raised girl, I was completely ignorant of. It painted the setting beautifully, and the descriptions of Asian cuisine were particularly mouth watering.
But for me, the characters in this story fell really flat. The main character, especially, I found rather hard to get attached too. I never felt like she went through an arc – or if she did, it went by so slowly that I had lost much interest in the character to care.
While it is important to paint the Asian community as strange and exotic through the main protagonist’s eyes, as to reflect that period of time, I sometimes felt that it obstructed my interest in the protagonist themselves. I often found myself saying: “Her again? I want to be with the cool Chinese guys, not this little girl!”
The plot – while well-told – felt like a very slow burn. I often found myself wanting something to happen – something completely unexpected, that would push the story’s pace. Compared to the more fantastical stories in the collection, with their intriguing scenarios, characters and imagery, this story felt too sepia for my taste.
Now, on its own, this is a fantastic sci-fi noir. It deals with the typical tropes of a police procedural – catching an unknown killer, detective trying to keep their personal issues out of their work, good action scenes – and adds a clever dash of Ghost in the Shell and Psycho-Pass elements for good measure.
So, the problem? I completely forgot about this story.
Almost all of the stories in this collection, I remember something distinct about them. Be it a character, a symbol, or even the premise, I walked away from the book with echoes of their stories in my mind. But whilst looking back over the book for this review, this story completely passed me by.
I am not sure why this was the case. Perhaps it played too close to the tropes for my liking – thereby submersing it to the various other detective stories I’ve read in the past. Perhaps the climax, while action packed, failed to hold any deeper weight with me than any of the other stories. But one thing is for sure: for me, the best stories leave an impression in my mind long after I have read them. And this one failed to do that.
Have you read Paper Menagerie? Or perhaps a short story collection that grabbed you right from the start? Let me know in the comments below, or tweet me @ERHollands. I’d love to hear what stories you have enjoyed!