In the last couple of years, the science fiction and fantasy community have bestowed multiple awards on Ken Liu’s penetrating and intelligent short fiction, and fifteen of those pieces comprise this powerful collection. In fact, “The Paper Menagerie,” in which a young man rediscovers his Chinese heritage by way of the magical origami animals he played with as a child, is the first work of fiction to win the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Award in the same year.
Like most science fiction, Liu’s stories each revolve around a specific concept, but the heart of the story explores of the implications on the individual. You will feel a lot of feelings reading this collection. Human attachment is full of love and pain, and history is full of people with normal moral compasses who perform terrible acts of cruelty, but still we endure. Most scifi uses itself as a metaphor to explore the human condition; but the best of Liu’s work do not imply – they bare the truth readily, which can make for an intense reading experience.
Easily two-thirds of the collection are 5-star works, but my absolute favorites can be collated into three categories:
The highly imaginative and conceptual —
- “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Select Species”, a lighthearted introdution to the collection in which the unique writing and reading styles are compared for five fictional alien species.
- “State Change”, in which a girl is born with an ice cube for a soul, and lives a cautious life to keep it from melting.
The stories that bring myth to life, whether through the future or the past —
- “The Waves”, in which a young captain tells creation myths on a generation spaceship, and a transmission from Earth gains them the ability to become immortal.
- “All the Flavours”, in which a group of Chinese immigrants attempt to integrate into 1870’s Idaho and one of them, who might be the red-faced god of war, tells his stories to a little girl.
The highly literary historical works that are beautiful and tragic and heavy —
- “Literomancer”, in which a little girl from Texas befriends a Chinese man while her parents are living in 1960s Taiwan fighting the communist threat. The old man practices literomancy, the art of telling fortunes in names, but the parents soon become suspicious of the man’s motivations.
- “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary”, in which a physicist develops a method to directly observe the past through quantum entanglement, shedding light on the human experimental trials of Unit 731 in Japan during WWII.
As with all great short fiction, you will hunger for more at the end of each story, and here Liu provides once again. I love that I want to know more of the backstory and inspiration, and I love that the reference material provided is from a wide range of scientific and historical peer-reviewed academic journals.
Highly recommended as an example of some of the best contemporary speculative fiction today!
“There is no definitive census of all the intelligent species in the universe. Not only are there perennial arguments about what qualifies as intelligence, but each moment and everywhere, civilizations rise and fall, much as the stars are born and die. Time devours all. Yet every species has its unique way of passing on its wisdom through the ages, its way of making thoughts visible, tangible, frozen for a moment like a bulwark against the irresistible tide of time. Everyone makes books.”