Over the years, I have developed a real appreciation for short story collections. They allow readers to savor bite-size narratives in between the regularly scheduled events of their hectic, day-to-day lives. The art of short story telling, however, is rarely tackled with much finesse. To be fair, it’s not an easy task to think of an original plot, people it with interesting and engaging characters, and then tell it in a logical way within the space of a handful of pages. But if a good short story is like a piece of expensive chocolate, then Ken Liu’s short story collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is like an exquisite boxed assortment of the finest truffles.
This particular collection boasts fifteen individual tales. In spite of the fact that many of them have been published elsewhere before, they still flow seamlessly together, united by their science fiction elements and the fact that, to some extent, each story is about the art of storytelling itself. It’s a beautifully meta concept, and it’s executed with consistent brilliance – sometimes blatantly, such as in “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” and “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition”, and other times more subtly, as is the case with “The Literomancer” and “Simulacrum.” Chinese culture and history also play a role in many of the stories, manifesting in a number of different ways, as does issues of cultural and individual identity. The conflicted, often confused roll of the immigrant in foreign societies is handled often and beautifully (the end of “The Paper Menagerie” inspired actual tears – thanks for making me cry in the lunchroom at work, Mr. Liu), as is the complicated roles of narrative and perspective in history. Each story is entrancing, fantastical, and yet entirely believable, written with an artist’s beauty and a lawyer’s precise economy of language. And, perhaps most impressive of all, each tale feels like a spoken narrative, in spite of scientific terminology and complex subject matter.
The overall effect, here, is that these stories can be appreciated individually or as a cohesive anthology. Every reader will doubtlessly have their favorites (I’ve been talking about “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” nonstop to anyone who will listen), but no story in the collection represents a weak link – which is honestly a rare and genuinely impressive accomplishment. Even beloved literary giants like Neil Gaiman aren’t always able to pull that off. Each story is exactly as long as it should be, and each leaves the reader wishing there was more.
It is difficult to pin down one specific genre for this book. Fans of fantasy literature, science fiction, historical fiction, and Chinese mythology would all do well to pick up a copy. In fact, I would recommend the volume to anyone who simply enjoys a good story. Technical and emotional, complex and to the point, Ken Liu is a genuine master of the form. These are the sorts of stories which deserve to be read over and over again, the sort of book readers will eagerly share with their friends and relatives. And if you find yourself compelled afterward to run out and dig up everything else Mr. Liu has written, don’t worry; you’re in good company.
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