It would be extremely easy for me to club The Paper Menagerie into Science Fiction genre. And technically, it would not be so wrong either. It is an anthology of 15 stories each of which picks one thread from a varied range of human frailties or whims and then takes you on a story telling trip where the reader would easily want to believe the supernatural and otherwise unbelievable. In my humble opinion, Liu dabs a few strokes of sci-fi, fantasy and dystopia on a predominantly chromatically dull backdrop of human values & thought process for a few bursts of colour. Or may be to he does it to make his stories more believable because humans do behave strangely more often than not and without much rationality too. There is a smattering of historical fiction too which makes us introspect if we, as a race, have evolved at all. I found many readers describing it as speculative fiction and the word intrigues me. Because yes, the book did cause me to speculate, in a healthily curious way. The author has put together a collection of his works and once you have read it, it is no surprise to you that the stories have been finalists/shortlisted or won several prestigious literary prizes.
The image is from my own instagram account and can be found here
My favourite story, ( and judging by the reviews, pretty much everyone else’s too, who has read the book ) in the book is “The Paper Menagerie”. The titular story is also the only one to win The Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. “The Paper Menagerie” is nothing short of a work of art for me, as preposterous it might sound to some. It made me cry because it brings the reader’s own experiences or memories of motherly love, that need to fit in or be accepted, and importance of empathy to forefront. Especially for Asian kids who always experience a certain tension in their relationships with their parents, the book makes you emotional. In “Simulacrum”, he talks about how frighteningly blurry the line between reality and simulation can get if you allow it to happen. “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”, Kiu expands upon humanity’s need to document, its need to make thoughts tangible. And it is not as if beauty takes a back seat while talking about science. He calls humanity’s need to make its thoughts on a particular moment tangible to others ” A bulwark against the irrefutable tide of time…. Everyone makes books.”, he finishes with a flourish. In “All The Flavours”, he takes you through the life and the tales of the earliest Chinese to the United States of America in late 19th century. These immigrants who went to work on the construction of rail road and gradually started taking up mining face prejudice and bias that every early immigrant faces. It makes you wonder and ponder if the exposure of two disparate cultures to each other must always end in clashes and suffering or so their a harmonious end possible? So far, everything that has and is happening in the world only chips away at my hope rather than giving me more hope. The story of “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is a dystopian tale that explores how far humanity can bend without breaking. How is redeeming ourselves of wrongdoing so easy for us humans? How come scientific progress supersede ethical issues and trump every other thought? The story “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary ” again left me angry and agitated. It is about Unit 731, a covert biological and chemical warfare unit of the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), roughly around WWII. If you haven’t heard about it, this story will force you to look it up.A lot of it is hush hush, a lot of it denied in the past in official records, but then when has the powers of the world acknowledged human rights violations until forced to? Then there is “Mono No Aware” which is about a group of survivors aboard the space ship The Hopeful after a massive asteroid makes impact with earth.
The only requirement for one to enjoy this would be a liking for science fiction, an interest ( even if fleeting ) in the human behaviour, and some interest in history. Because it can get a bit dark, a bit depressing at times. It is not a typical drama/thriller or something you keep reading because the plot line is interesting. The genre can wary from noir to dystopian to fantasy to science fiction. But for a story a day kind of reading, this book would be perfect, I believe!