“Paper Menagerie” by Ken LiuMay 25, 2012 at 11:27 am | Posted in Short Stories | 4 Comments
Tags: Hugo Awards, Ken Liu
This is the fourth of the five Hugo-nominated short stories. It was originally published by F&SF and is available online (PDF).
This is obviously a fantasy story, but I’d rather think of it as an exercise in meta-science fiction, because it seems like an excellent argument that someday human authors will go the way of Kasparov and Jennings and end up outclassed by artificial intelligence. No one likes to hear the talk, popular in screenwriting circles, that there are only 10 plots, or 11 characters, or any other quantification of story. Stories capture the human experience, and if they can be circumscribed by formula, so can our minds. Any time someone talks about story patterns that “work” or “don’t work” (I can speak from personal experience on this score) they can expect to hear from people telling them about this or that great work that doesn’t follow the rule in question, or even that all taste is subjective and thus there is no good or bad literature, just stuff one person likes and stuff that person doesn’t like. This is art, not science, they say. The artist doesn’t maximize a value function, they express their inner soul.
To those who feel this way, I would point you at this story. In a world where hundreds of thousands of stories are written every year, I’m sure at least a few of them were more calculated and emotionally manipulative (perhaps I should say more successfully calculated and manipulative, for even elewhere on this year’s ballot, both “Homecoming” and “Movement” wanted to be as emotionally manipulative, they just weren’t as successful). I suppose it sounds like I don’t like the story, because in our society “calculated” and “emotionally manipulative” are things you say about stories you don’t like. If you like the story, and I do like this story, then you’re supposed to describe the exact same attributes by calling it “effective”, “tragic”, “poignant”, and perhaps even “haunting”.
An obvious criticism of this story, especially in the context of the Hugo awards, is that the fantasy element is not very important. In fact, I would go so far as to call it completely unnecessary. Not only do I think the story would be just as a good if the magic was stripped out, I will go farther and say I think it would be better. While reading the story I spent at least a little time trying to work out the specifics of the origami magic system, and I think every moment not spent thinking about the central emotional conflict lessened, however minutely, its impact (but there I go talking about what works and doesn’t work again).
It’s the manner in which the details of the story seem strictly decoration for its emotional structure that made me think of artificial intelligence. The details of the mother’s difficulties assimilating into America and her son’s experience in school are far more important to the story than the magic paper, in that if they were removed they would definitely have to be replaced by something, but still it seems as though a completely different set of details could be swapped in and the story would function more or less as before, like new tires on a car or new lyrics to a song. It’s those details about the mother and son’s lives that are the recognizably human part of this story, the part that the idealist would say comes from the soul of Ken Liu, even if there’s absolutely no autobiography present. But this story, precisely because it is so effective, lets us glimpse something beneath those details that looks like a formula: a mother whose only real emotional connection in life is to son, her estrangement from that son through no fault of her own and plenty of his, and the son’s tragic realization of the error in his ways their eventual reconciliation that comes too late. Is the mother/son relationship even necessary, or can we further generalize this to an acquaintance with an emotional connection to the protagonist and so on?
I find that an interesting question, but I doubt many people reading this will, so I’ll move on. Sometimes, once your attention is drawn away from the art and to the craft, the attraction is gone. After we learn the clever trick behind a magician’s illusion, the act becomes boring. I don’t think that’s the case with “Paper Menagerie”. Yes, the author clearly worked very hard to manipulate the reader’s emotions. That strikes the modern mind as false, for authors are supposed to be expressing themselves, not manipulating their audience. Yet the story is effective, so effective that it easily overcomes the obstacle posed by the reader’s awareness of its artifice, because of the truth it contains. The circumstances might be contrived to heighten everything to an improbable degree, but nevertheless the problems faced by the mother and her son in “Paper Menagerie” are real problems we recognize from our own lives and the lives of those we know. I haven’t decided if it’s the best story on the ballot, but I think it simultaneously has the most artifice as well as the most truth.
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Posted on February 3, 2017
5. ‘The Paper Menagerie’ by Ken Liu
The Paper Menagerie is a collection of sci-fi/fantasy short stories by prizewinner Ken Liu. I’ve already talked about this book, about a week ago when the first couple of stories blew my mind so hard I had to stop reading. The rest of the book proved to be almost as good as that incredible opening.
This is a pretty long book for a collection of short stories, and a couple of the stories are more like novellas. There is a really eclectic mix of different styles in here – from futuristic crime to magical realism to straight-up sci-fi – but there are some major themes that run throughout the entire collection. Liu seems to be particularly preoccupied with how technological advancements affect what it means to be human (particularly in the form of body modifications and ‘cyborg-ism’); and a lot of stories revolve around national identity (particularly Japanese, Chinese and American patriotism). There are undercurrents of mythology and fairytale (especially Asian folklore), and there is quite a lot of political activism that sheds light on historical tragedies.
I can remember basically every story in this collection (a very good sign!) and although not every story gave me quite as visceral a reaction as those opening two, that was more down to personal taste than any problems with the writing. The ones that really stood out to me were ‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species’, which is about how different alien species make books, ‘The Paper Menagerie’, which is about origami animals that come to life and a son’s heartbreaking relationship with his Chinese mother, ‘The Waves’, which is about space travellers and human immortality, and my absolute favourite, ‘State Change’, in which people’s souls manifest as inanimate objects that they have to carry with them. Essentially this collection couldn’t have been more perfect for me: timeless human questions set against a backdrop of magical realism/space travel. Um … count me in!
Liu’s writing style is incredibly versatile (all those different genres!) and his imagination just staggers me. I have no idea how he could sit down and come with entirely new, mind-boggling alien races, or how he is able to so seamlessly mix ancient folklore with cutting-edge technology. The closing story, ‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’ is probably the most structurally creative in the collection; it is written in the style of a TV documentary (complete with stage directions about found footage and voiceovers) and it brings to life the true story of a horrific war crime (Unit 731 in the Second Sino-Japanese War) in the context of a scientist who has managed to invent a form of ‘time travel’ that lets you witness the past exactly as it happened. The story is a towering achievement on which to end The Paper Menagerie: it is an important, politically motivated story that builds its own scientific world and touches upon everything from global politics to the finer points of one couple’s marriage. Mind-blowing.
I really can’t think of anything else to say about this book other than READ IT. It’s astonishing and magnificent; probably the best short story collection I’ve ever read (yes, it may have even toppled Revenge by Yoko Ogawa).
“For me, all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless.” – Liu, Preface
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy The Paper Menagerie here.