The Paper Menagerie Is a Transcendent Short Fiction Collection from a Master of the Form

paperThere’s something special about a Ken Liu story. After just a few paragraphs, you get sucked into a vivid, fascinating tale that takes you to unexpected places. Since beginning his career as a short fiction author, Liu has published over a hundred outstanding stories, ranging from flash fiction, all the way up to novella length (and beyond). Finally, you can get a sense of the breadth and depth of his formidable body of work without hunting it down on scattered websites and across disparate anthologies: Saga Press has published the best of his best stories in a stunning collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories.

(Before I go on, a disclaimer: I edited a story from Ken Liu for my own anthology, War Stories: New Military Science Fiction.)

This is a brilliant, substantial, yet somehow still all-too-short collection of stories and novellas. These 15 pieces offer engaging tales that catch you by surprise, pulling you off in different directions with each rereading. It isn’t a collection of strictly fantasy or strictly science fiction–often, Liu’s tales exist in-between those easy labels, mixing and matching elements, tropes, and histories. Each is entirely worth the journey.

What struck me the most is how focused a sampling it is. I’ve always thought of a short fiction collection as the equivalent of stand up comedians making the most of a television special, showcasing their best work for a major audience. This collection isn’t just Liu’s best; it’s an assemblage of stories that focus on transformation and transitions, concepts that are the beating heart of much of the best speculative fiction. These stories deal with change, whether it’s trying to adapt to a new worldview (“The Perfect Match”), learning to exist within two cultures (“The Paper Menagerie”), the transformation of one’s country and life (“Good Hunting”), shedding a body in favor of a mechanical replacement (“The Wave”), or building a trans-pacific tunnel (“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel”). Liu plants tiny seeds of a personal story within each, and they blossom into narratives with much deeper ramifications.

All of these stories work on deeply personal and emotional levels for their characters, and reading them in quick succession demonstrates’ Liu’s mastery of the craft. The titular story is renowned, not only for the litany of awards it scooped up, but as a truly emotional, devastating tale. If none of Liu’s other stories hit that same level (it’s an impossible bar to clear, I think), many come damn close. “The Waves” introduces us to a family as they make the difficult decision to become immortal, die, or remain children. “Mono No Aware” follows an astronaut who faces an impossible choice that could to save humanity. “State Change” is about learning how to mature and retain your soul throughout life. A daughter comes to terms with her father’s indiscretions in “Simulacrum.”

Yet some of these stories are also intriguing thought experiments: “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” and “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition” (original to this collection) consider how consciousness exists in the universe, and how individual species conceive of, and tell, stories. “A Brief History of The Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is an intriguing alternate history in which a tunnel is built under the Pacific Ocean between Asia and North America, but at a high cost for those people who constructed it.

Collections can be a hard sell for authors and publishers alike. Often, they’re relegated to completist fans and close-knit genre circles. This isn’t one of those books. It’s bursting with stories yearning to be told to everyone, and it’s a volume that absolutely everyone should read.

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