The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories


Annotation by Nate Elias

Book by Ken Liu

The stories in Liu’s collection all border in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. Playing with the forms of fiction seems to be one of Liu’s inherent tactics when bringing his characters and ideas to life in each narrative. The first story in the collection, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” Liu weaves a narrative that is void of characters and rather focuses on the process of reading and writing in made-up (possibly alien) species. Opening with this story sets up a tone for the book that hints for the reader to approach each story as its own text and to read with the body, soul, and mind in unison.

Liu makes up for the absence of characters in the first story by utilizing vivid character-building techniques in “State Change.” The main character, Rina, has a habit of checking refrigerators, freezers, and ice cubes as a method of therapy and calming nerves. While the plot has nothing to do with this character trait, the character trait itself is a metaphoric tool which reflects on the title, “State Change” and the epiphany Rina has when she comes on to Jimmy, who represents salt which cannot be frozen. This story also utilizes a non-traditional linear narrative technique by utilizing excerpts from letters, memoirs, and history texts.

“The Perfect Match” uses a more traditional narrative flow but requires simplicity compared to Liu’s other stories because the high concept plot requires more suspension of disbelief. The story proposes a software called Tilly (reminiscent of the iPhone’s ‘Siri’ function, only gone haywire) that makes all the decisions for the user. The consequence of this is that people choose to not think for themselves anymore. The main character, Sai, uses Tilly for every decision until one day his neighbor, Jenny, encourages him to turn it off for a short time. While she seems like a conspiracy theorist at first, it turns out that her speculations about Tilly were accurate when suited men arrive try to stop Sai and Jenny when their efforts to hack into the system go too far.

Although Liu’s content deals with science, technology, and speculation it does not read as genre science fiction literature; it reads more like literary science fiction, which is a much smaller niche. His prose often utilizes poetic language such as in the story “State Change”: “I have no candle to burn at both ends. I won’t measure my life with coffee spoons. I have no sprint water to quiet desire, because I have left behind my frozen bit of almost-death. What I have is my life.

I’m currently at work on my own speculative short fiction and Liu’s collection provided a framework of how to fully make a high-concept premise within the confines of the short story form concrete.  Liu exercises poetic language, structural range, and importance of character which serve as a reminder that it is not just the story being told, but how it’s being told.