Of the 15 science fiction short stories collected in Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie”, those premised upon family, community and romantic relations (of love and affection, in particular) as well as historical allusions (especially when counterfactuals are considered, in terms of how wars and socio-economic development may have unfolded differently – or both in the same story – were the most riveting, even if many of them do not have happy endings. Although Liu covers a wide range of themes in different settings and non-chronologically across different time periods (including the future), it is the characters and the narratives of their lived experiences which stand out. Strong characterisation, in other words, is the focus, with the broader context built around the characters, and with the reader also forced to confront many of the moral dilemmas the characters face.
Listed in the order of their appearance in the book, eight stories stood out: “The Perfect Match” (on the pervasiveness of an all-knowing digital assistant, which is prescient given recent concerns over privacy and the use of data); “The Literomancer” (on the American involvement and transgressions in Taiwan); “Simulacrum” (on a camera which captures human actions and behaviours, and how it has affected a parent-child relationship); “The Regular” (a “whodunit”, yet with an emphasis on the police use of technology and the ramifications of over-reliance; “The Paper Menagerie” (on fitting in, in the United States); “All the Flavours” (on the experience of gold-hunting Chinese immigrants in the United States); “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” (presenting an alternate history in which Japan does not lose the Second World War, and a tunnel connects Japan to the United States); as well as “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (on the dynamics of wartime atrocities and reconciliation).
Some of the stories can be heart-wrenching – “The Paper Menagerie”, for instance, captured a range of issues ranging from an impoverished China and the difficulties when integrating into the American neighbourhood or community, to the parent-child dynamics within an immigrant family – while others involving physical torture or mental exertions can feel very visceral. Other stories in “The Paper Menagerie” can feel very real too, in terms of their parallels to the discourse in contemporary society. Especially with the stories dealing with historical allusions, and in addition to Liu’s author notes at the end of these stories, there may be deviations from what actually happened, but the challenges in terms of deciding the “right” course of action and of balancing trade-offs from the differing perspectives of individuals remain constant. And easy answers are rarely in sight.