Always on the lookout for speculative short fiction, I came across Ken Liu on an internet list somewhere. The little bio said he’d won the Hugo and the Nebula for his short stories and translations, and as I’m ashamed to say I’ve read very little by Chinese-American authors, I immediately ran to the library. They had his short story collection, The Paper Menagerie & Other Stories, and even though I knew he was award winning, I was not prepared for just how life-changing this collection would be.
The book encompasses thirteen short pieces and two novellas, most focusing around aspects of Chinese-American experiences and the political-socio issues between China and Japan. Weaving Chinese legends, immigration experiences, alternate history, and science through his themes, Liu completely and totally immersed me in the many facets of Chinese experience. While I’ve never been drawn to study Chinese history before, Liu’s fiction digs right to the core of cultural emotion and uncovers truths that can never be unseen.
Most of the works encompass brutal plots, from depicting tortures Americans used on suspected communists during the 1960s, to the mass genocides of the Manchurian takeovers, to the horrific experimentations performed on peasants and POWs during WWII, and the intense racism Chinese immigrants were subjected to throughout the 19th and 20th century. While it’s one of the most perfect collections I’ve ever read, The Paper Menagerie isn’t entertainment. It’s an emotional study of the Chinese experience and essentially the rape and pillage of an entire culture over thousands of years by both its own people, and its conquerors.
One of things I most appreciated about the collection was at the end of each story, Liu leaves an author’s note containing bibliographical references to the historical contexts of his stories and/or the scientific theories and themes. Liu is not just an author, but a historian and a scientist, and he’s d*mn good at all three.