The Paper Menagerie

The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

I enjoyed the first and third installments of The Three Body Problem much more than the second. The only explanation I could come up with is that Ken Liu didn’t translate the second book. That said, his own Grace of Kings was a bit of a letdown.

1) “‘Your savings rate is right on target. I simply want to make sure you’re sticking to your regimen for consumption of leisure. If you oversave, you’ll later regret that you didn’t make the most of your youth. I’ve plotted the optimum amount of consumption you should engage in daily.'” – Tilly

Parts of Perfect Match are cringey, like using a thumb drive to steal data. But this story – published in 2012 – got Google and Facebook of 2020 completely right.

2) “‘So when the American soldiers began calling the people of Asia “gooks,” they didn’t understand that they were in a way really just speaking about themselves.'” – Mr. Kan

The Literomancer is full of fascinating tales of etymology. Wikipedia says ‘gook’ predates the Korean War, but I’ll believe Mr. Kan.

3) “‘For now, the red flames of revolution may be burning on the mainland, and the white frost of terror may have covered this island.'” – Mr. Kan

For better or worse, history doesn’t wait for anyone.

4) “Perhaps it is the dream of every parent to keep their child in that brief period between helpless dependence and separate selfhood, when the parent is seen as perfect, faultless.”

Having spent time with my cousin’s toddler, it’s hard to imagine him as a fully functioning adult.

5) “‘If I say “love,” I feel here.’ She pointed to her lips. ‘If I say “ai,” I feel here.’ She put her hand over her heart.”

The Paper Menagerie is not fantasy, not scifi. It’s an immigrant story.

6) “‘We could either die and let our children grow, or we could live forever and keep them always as children.” – Joao

This twist on the immortality question was brilliant. I still think that immortality is a trap. What’s the point of life if it never ends?

7) “All-Under-Heaven was thus split into the Three Kingdoms of Cao Cao, Sun Quan, and Liu Bei. Of the three, Cao Cao had the valor and wildness of the Northern Skies while Sun Quan had the wealth and resilience of the Southern Earth, but only Liu Bei had the virtue and love of the People.”

I was not expecting Three Kingdoms. The English translation of the novel is way too intimidating, so it’s a wonderful surprise to read a short story like this.

8) “The Tunnel ended up taking a lot of business away from surface shipping, and many Pacific ports went bust. The most famous example of this occurred in 1949, when Britain sold Hong Kong to Japan because it didn’t think the harbor city was all that important anymore.”

The social and political commentary on Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Japan, and Asian America was really top notch throughout these stories.

9) “‘Most Brilliant and Perspicacious Magistrate, how can you say that I lie? Can you tell me the contents of this forbidden book, so that I may verify if I have read it?'” – Tian

In addition to huilijing and Three Kingdoms, even the Monkey King shows up.

10) “If you strap one of those to a rocket moving away from the Earth at a speed that’s faster than light – a detail that I’ll get to in a minute – and point the telescope back at the Earth, you’ll see the history of humanity unfold before you in reverse.”

The last story starts in 3BP-scifi style, but it unfolds into one of the best pieces of commentary on WWII and the role of history.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed every story in this collection, but this book was really greater than the sum of its parts. There was a bit of everything. Robots. Spaceships. Surveillance. Immortality. The paper tiger was merely a sideshow. The most pleasant surprise was the infusion of ancient Chinese folklore that – for me – has redefined fantasy as a genre. I’m not sure where else I could read stories like these.

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