“For me, all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors—which is the logic of narratives in general—over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless.”
– Preface to The Paper Menagerie, by Ken Liu
The Paper Menagerie was lauded as one of the top speculative fiction books of 2016, and maybe it was, I didn’t read that much speculative fiction this year. I was disappointed with it, though. For one thing, and this is on me, I was expecting more of a fantasy book than a sci-fi book, and PM veered strongly sci-fi. That manifested as most of the stories being more idea-driven than plot- or character-driven, which is just less interesting to me. On top of that, the writing felt a little flat. There were only one or two of those sentences where an idea or feeling seems to be perfectly distilled in words—the rest of the book was dry exposition. In his best stories, Liu uses that tone to manipulate the mood of the story, as in the last story, “The Man Who Ended History,” an account of the Japanese internment camp Unit 731 during World War II, told in the form of a time-travel documentary script. The dry, gentle, reasonable narration beautifully balances the brutality of the story, leaving the reader weeping, but resolved to remember and to hope.
The stories mostly deal either with ethical complications brought on by advancing technology, or with the experience of being Chinese-American, and some stories cover both. Both these themes are pretty interesting, although the former tends to keep me up at night worrying, and that’s probably the goal. How else to keep ourselves from complacency except to be reminded to question everything, especially the uncomfortable things? This is the gift that science fiction gives the world. Still, it is not exactly an enjoyable experience.