Michael Finocchiaro's Reviews > The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
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Jul 14, 2017

it was amazing
bookshelves: american-21st-c, short-stories, fiction, favorites
Read from July 12 to 14, 2017 , read count: 1

Absolutely stunning collection of short stories which teach and entertain in equal measure. Ken Liu has an incredible imagination and these stories are all so different and yet all so amazing. I, like many others, come to Ken Liu after his superb translations of Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem and Death's End and I can see that he was the perfect choice because his love of language and culture echoes that of Cixin Liu in many, many ways. I also saw some commonality in some of their sci fi ideas. But, it is the realistic depiction of his characters and the innate poetry of the prose that helped me plunge into each story. I loved each one and found that each asked fundamental questions:

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species - this one reminded me a lot of Italo Calvino. Questions asked: What is literature? How is it transmitted and interpreted?
State Change - fantastic compact story with lovely vignettes about TS Elliott, Joan of Arc, etc. Questions asked: What is the soul? What is our capacity for change?
Perfect Match - loved the reference to Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in C Minor, haunting dystopia where Google and Amazon Alexa rule the world. Questions asked: What is free choice? How much are we willing to compromise on privacy before our lives become completely passive?
Good Hunting - love story with magic, steampunk, transformation. Questions asked: How big a cultural price are we willing to pay for technological progress?
The Literomancer - gorgeous, painful, amazing. Love the idea of word magic, poetic. Questions asked: How does language, our choice of works, express identity?
Simulacrum - spooky. Questions asked: Where do we draw the line in reality between the real and the simulated? Once love is objectified, is it still love?
The Regulator - great murder mystery - idea of emotion suppressor is great, but open wifi is terrifying. Are emotions an impediment or a tool in a critical situation? Can we be redeemed?
The Paper Menagerie - beautiful and magical story. What is memory? How do we see keep a sense of wonder as we grow older? Does magic exist?
An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition (previously unpublished) - similar to first story but on communication, chocolate analogy. What is thought? How do we learn? Can electric sheep dream?
The Waves - solar sails, greek mythology, russian doll stort stacking, seafoam was a beautiful image. Would immortality be a paradise or a hell? Is death a release or an end? Where is the boundary between machine and consciousness?
Mono no aware - lovely - go and poetry and web of others eyes, kitten's tongue. How do we love? How do we express love?
All the Flavors - western, Idaho City fire 1865 - awesome story about Chinese Immigrants for the railroad that end up mining and classic Chinese myths. How do we set aside preconceived ideas and open up to other cultures? Must the meeting of two disparate cultures always end in tears and bloodshed, or can it be harmonious?
A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel - sci fi dystopia racism formosan. Can one redeem oneself from the unforgivable? What are the limits to human adaptability?
The Litigation Master and the Monkey King - great story from Qinglong dynasty. How do we liberate history from willful forgetfulness? What is a hero?
The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary -devastating but amazing.
See this article to see that the Chinese are making swift progress with quantum entanglement in our era already. As for the atrocities discussed (Nanjing Massacre and especially Unit 731 in Pingfang, China) and the debate around their historicity and the guilt of the perpetrators, this is all very, very real. Note that the US is not innocent here either:
"MacArthur struck a deal with Japanese informants—he secretly granted immunity to the physicians of Unit 731, including their leader, in exchange for providing America, but not the other wartime allies, with their research on biological warfare and data from human experimentation."
From Wikipedia article quoting Unit 731 Testimony by Hal Gold (2011)
Questions asked: What are the relative values to subjective and objective perception? What boundaries define history and ownership of history? How do we deal with acts of extreme depravity without becoming deranged or depraved ourselves? Does every act of preservation necessary involve and act of destruction? How do we assign guilt when the victims are dead, their names and remains vaporized and the perpetrators neatly all dead? How do we validate history? What is truth? What is justice? Yeah, this one opens up a LOT of questions for the reader!

I hope that wasn't too hard to read. Some things I infer about Ken Liu from these stories that may or may not be true:
1/ he has lived in New England and Idaho
2/ he is an incredible linguist with fluency in at least English, Chinese and Japanese
3/ he is extremely well-read
4/ his major social concerns are around cultural preservation, the indelible value of memory, the persistence of love
5/ it would be absolutely fascinating to have a conversation with him over beers, whiskey or wine :-)

Read these stories and be transported to different times and different worlds. Question everything. Lastly remember Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living.

Nota bene: I listened to this on Amazon Audible and found the dual narrators great - especially in pronouncing the Chinese names. But honestly, this is a book that I think I will purchase on paper because I want to see if the ideogram analysis he performs in The Literomancer and All the Flavors is illustrated with the Chinese characters he mentions.
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Reading Progress

05/31 marked as: to-read
07/12 marked as: currently-reading
07/12 page 40
8.0% "Wow, Ken writes awesome! Amazing stories!"
07/13
60.0% "Excellent!!!" 1 comment
07/13
75.0% "FANTASTIC STORIES!!! Love this book!" 3 comments
07/14 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by William (new) - added it

William Wow, nice review of the stories inside! Thank you!


Michael Finocchiaro You're welcome. It was splendid.


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