"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (2016)
"I didn't have any toys except my paper menagerie. I brought Laohu out from my bedroom. By then he was very worn, patched all over with tape and glue, evidence of the years of repairs Mom and I had done on him. He was no longer as nimble and sure-footed as before. I sat him down on the coffee table. I could hear the skittering steps of the other animals behind in the hallway, timidly peeking into the living room."
I begin to realize that publishing companies are hip to Wikipedia. When you look at Ken Liu's entry, it's obvious that extra special care was taken with it. If this wasn't the case, why mention awards that he was only nominated for? It's not like you're going to find such information in Isaac Asimov's entry.
Anyway, Liu was born in China and immigrated to the States when he was 11. From there he went on to study English, Computer Science and Law. Aside from his short stories, he's written a couple "epic fantasy novels," and has worked as a translator of (among others) Cixin Liu's books.
The Paper Menagerie is a collection of his stories. These stories vary quite a bit in quality, and I think that the inclusion of some of them was a mistake. In the earlier stories you can tell that the author was still finding his voice, and these earlier stories are obviously early attempts at better-designed stories in the same collection.
In "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" the auther presents us with several examples of extraterrestrial bookmaking. It's not long enough to grow annoying, and he manages to avoid a certain type of pretentiousness that marks some of the other stories here.
"State Change" starts out lyrical and gets dumb fast. I'm not buying the spiritual metaphor at play here, and the labored way in which the title is worked into the ending is clumsy in the extreme.
"The Perfect Match" presents a world in which social media threatens our individuality - or at least more than it does now. It would have seemed more prescient a few years ago, but in 2019 it falls flat. There's an aside in this story about the cybernetic nature of our relationship with technology which reminded me of Yuval Noah Harari's work, but this aside is never followed up on. This is too bad, because that would have made for a much better story.
In "Good Hunting" a Taoist shaman's apprentice confronts the modern world. The "hulijing's" (fox spirit's) solution to the problem of modernization seems implausible to me (even given the fantasy setting), and the twist at the end doesn't feel earned.
"The Literomancer" is set in Taiwan after the Korean War. While I think Western readers might find this story "moving," it's implausible from the point of view of someone living in Taiwan. Why would the old man make that kind of confession to a Western girl he hardly knew? How would he not know that the girl's father was someone he should be very, very careful of? This story tries hard to be deep, but comes across as "Fun With Chinese Characters" minus the Taoist theology that would have backed up the old man's fortune-telling.
"Simulacrum" is the first story mentioned on the back cover of the book. It tries to make a point about the danger of defining loved ones by long-gone choices, but I don't think it does so in the most efficient manner possible.
"The Regular" is a decent attempt at cyberpunk, but I'm not buying the private investigator's method of discovering the killer's height. As the whole story is predicated on this method, it all seems rather unbelievable. The ending, so similar to a traumatic event in the protagonist's past, also seems unlikely.
"The Paper Menagerie" is the first genuinely good story here. It's about a boy's relationship with his mother. This said, how does a story like this win the Hugo, the Nebula and World Fantasy awards? "Magical realism" perhaps, but this story is neither science fiction nor fantasy.
"An Advanced Reader's Picture Book of Comparative Cognition," like "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" above, flirts with intellectual masturbation. A mother journeys to the stars to pick up broadcasts from alien civilizations, but the unique characteristics of the alien species discussed are never tied to the story's central plot. And what does any of that matter, if the human race would have been effectively dead (or evolved beyond caring) by the time any of those transmissions reached the Earth?
"The Waves" is a good story. It ties together mythology and evolution in an interesting way, and doesn't get bogged down in any of its details.
"Mono No Aware" is also good. After catastrophe strikes the Earth a Japanese astronaut makes a heroic sacrifice. This said, it reminded me a little too much of Cixin Liu's "Sun of China" and Neal Stephenson's book Seveneves. I have no idea which of the three stories/books came out first, but the author was definitely acquainted with "Sun of China" at some point.
"All the Flavors" is in some ways very cute, but it attempts more than it accomplishes. The history of Chinese immigrants in America is a huge subject, and this story fails to do it any kind of justice. I also wasn't buying the non-Chinese characters in the story. I'm sure there were some people back then with open minds, but they would have been few and far between.
In "A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel," a retired laborer starts a love affair and remembers the building of a huge undersea tunnel between the U.S., Japan and China. It takes a stab at Imperial Japan near the end, but does so in the lamest way possible.
"The Litigation Master and the Monkey King" is set during the Ching Dynasty. A "lawyer" defends a local woman against a wealthy relative and also uncovers an atrocity. This is one of the better stories here, even if it's heavy-handed and dabbles in ethnic nationalism.
"The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" is the last story in this collection. Apparently there are particles that allow people to witness the past (it makes no sense), and a historian's revelations concerning Japan's Unit 731 in Manchuria trigger an international outcry. Like "A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel" above, this story takes a swipe at Imperial Japan, but as with that story it fails to do the historical event in question justice. And if you ask me, couching this particular historical incident inside a poorly executed time travel story is/was in extremely bad taste.
Thoughts on all of the above: I'm getting a bit tired of Asian authors who try to represent all of Asia. Ken Liu doesn't do this as much as some, though he does stray into that territory. Kevin Kwan does this WAY more, but then again Kwan has a light touch with his characters that Ken Liu can't match.
And you know what I like about Cixin Liu? He extrapolates only from China; he extrapolates only from things he knows. He doesn't try to be America's pan-Asian spokesperson, and for this reason his stories have a genuineness that will, I think, stand the test of time.
I'm not trying to say that authors shouldn't write about cultures they don't belong to. But I have noticed this trend recently. It's as if a lot of non-Asian Americans (or Westerners) want to elect a literary spokesperson for an entire continent, and what this spokesperson writes is taken less critically than it ought to be. Ken Liu is a decent writer, but his desire to pose as such a spokesperson is obvious at times. It can be off-putting.
I doubt I'll be seeking out any of his books in the future. I suppose if I come across one of his two novels I'll read it, but I'm not in any hurry to do so. He'd probably be a lot better if he stuck with subjects and themes he really knows, but I doubt he'll be doing that anytime soon. He's probably writing some great pan-Asian epic as I type this, something that will really impress those ready to experience "Asian culture."
Whatever that means.
"Seveneves" by Neal Stephenson (2015)
"The Wandering Earth" by Cixin Liu (2017)
"Orion" by Ben Bova (1984)
"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)