I’ve obviously known a little about the wonderful translations that Ken Liu has done and his own fantasy work The Grace of Kings has been on my radar for a while, but I never planned on reading any of them soon. But when our Stars and Sorcery book club chose the award winning Paper Menagerie short story as our final pick of 2019, I thought why not read the whole collection. And wow was that a great decision on my part.
I really don’t have enough words to describe the beauty of this book. The stories are fascinating but brutal, the worlds are unique, the writing is sublime and emotional, and the author weaves so many important themes in so few words. And as an Asian immigrant myself, there were many stories here that felt deeply personal and really resonated with me. There is a reason why so many of these stories have been nominated or won awards, and I highly recommend anyone who loves speculative fiction, particularly hard sci-fi, to give this collection a try.
Below are my individual reviews for the stories:
The Bookmaking Aspects of Select Species
By telling us how every different species has it’s own way of reading, writing and interpretation, the author weaves a lovely tale about the beauty of books, albeit in their various forms.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️
I really don’t know how to explain this story without spoiling it, so I’ll just say it was an interesting way of asking us all to try to live life to the fullest and not feel limited by the boundaries that have been created for us.
The Perfect Match
This was terrifyingly prophetic and probably gave a glimpse of what our lives might become in the future, every step being controlled or manipulated by algorithms and all of us just falling into the trap of living in an echo chamber and believing we are happy. But it also felt very inevitable and left me feeling a bit hopeless.
This is at once a cautionary tale about how technological advances can be both good and bad, replacing ancient traditions with more material comforts; but also increase the wealth gap. It’s also ultimately a tale of ingenuity and survival and hope and I loved it.
CW: racial slurs and graphic torture
What started off as an innocent tale of friendship and the magic of language turned into one full of brutality. This is a story that brought to light the utter havoc that war wreaks on ordinary people. I couldn’t stop crying and wish I hadn’t read something so painful.
A very compelling futuristic tale which has commentary about the pros and cons of capturing human memories in an AI like device to always carry with us; but at its heart, it’s the story of a father and daughter who are stuck in their relationship because no one is ready to understand how the other has changed and evolved over the years.
I can’t really explain this story properly except that it’s a murder mystery but also a very interesting commentary on the perils of using advanced technology that make us entirely dependent on them. This would make a wonderful full length novel too.
The Paper Menagerie
This one left me sobbing and now I totally understand why it’s won so many accolades. A beautiful but sad story of empathy, belonging, and a mother’s love for her son, even when the son is unable to find a connection to her.
An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition
This story definitely had too much of science and jargon, so I can’t say I understood a lot of it. But ultimately it’s message is that there are lots of ways to love someone, and we shouldn’t really expect anyone to change their passion for our sake.
This story takes from many creation myths that we know and weaves it’s own creation story, albeit a more highly advanced and futuristic one. Quite fascinating with its discussions about what defines humanity and death. I liked reading it but I can’t say I understood it fully.
Mono No Aware
Set in a post apocalyptic future and using the game Go as a metaphor, this is an absolutely wonderful story about the importance of being selfless and doing what’s right for the whole community, not just us as an individual. It also really demonstrates the stark difference between the cultures of America and Japan, and what it means to carry forward your heritage.
All the Flavors
Based on the Chinese gold rush of the 19th century in Idaho, this is a tale of the resilience of Chinese men who came here to live better lives, and who in turn touched the hearts of the communities where they lived in, before all the anti-Chinese sentiment took hold in the country. A very beautiful tale of bravery, grit, loyalty and unlikely friendships.
A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel
Set in an alternative history timeline where WWII never happened but there was a cooperative agreement between the Western Powers and Imperial Japan, on surface this feels like a story of human ingenuity but when we dig deeper, it’s about labor exploitation and how much the glorious technological advances have been made on the backs of workers who had no choice.
The Litigation Master and the Monkey King
While bringing some light upon the Yangzhou Massacre, this is a story about how ordinary people sometimes have to do extraordinary things, just because it’s right even though they may never see the consequences of their actions. A true tale of bravery.
The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary
CW: graphic descriptions of rape, torture and human experimentation
Told with a time travel backdrop and in the form of a documentary, this is the story of Unit 731 of Imperial Japan during WWII and the inhumane human experiments that were conducted on Chinese and Allied prisoners and people. I was horrified that I had no idea about this part of Asian history despite being so familiar with the Holocaust which occurred at the same time. I would definitely ask everyone to read more about the history of Unit 731 after you are done with this story.
This novella raises some very important questions for which there are no easy answers – should we forget wartime atrocities so that people can move on? Is asking the states that committed such crimes against humanity to apologize not valid? How much culpability do other countries bear when they cover up such crimes for their own selfish goals? How important is it for the people in the present to feel a connection to their past and process that trauma? There are many such thought provoking questions that come to mind while reading this story and it’s left to us find our own answers. I couldn’t imagine another brilliant way to end this excellent book.