Science-fiction star blends old cultures to conjure new worlds

Saga Press, 450pp. Maruzen price: ¥2,560 plus tax

“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

I’m probably not the only reader to pick up this book because the title called to mind Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”

While animal figurines made of glass in the Williams play represented the sensitivity and vulnerability of a young woman, the origami animals in Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” represent the soul of a Chinese mother who was a mail-order bride and remains unable to express herself fully in English even to her American husband and their son.

This short story scored a hat trick by winning three prestigious sci-fi literature awards: the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards. It is the title work of Liu’s jewel box collection of 15 sci-fi and fantasy stories.

Liu, an American born in China, has rapidly established himself as an important writer of science fiction and fantasy novels. He also translated “The Three-Body Problem” by Chinese novelist Liu Cixin, which became the first translated novel to win the Hugo Award in 2015.

Liu’s writing is meticulous and elaborate. He leaves no stone unturned, an essential quality for a sci-fi and fantasy writer who must convince readers of the world he describes.

If you are not an avid sci-fi or fantasy reader, don’t let yourself be put off by the first story, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species.” It lists various alien species with enigmatic names and characteristics that show the depth of the author’s imagination. But the stories in this book are essentially about humanity, in whatever form it may take.

Of course, the stories have elements of magic, fantasy or science fiction although many of them are not explicitly about an imaginary world. “State Change” can be easily interpreted as a story of a woman’s awakening in romantic love, while “The Regular” passes as an intriguing murder mystery — only the characters live in a world where it is the norm for police detectives to have a “Regulator,” a collection of chips and circuity that maintains levels of chemicals in the body, implanted at the top of their spines.

The stories also have Asian connections in one way or another, be it in a character or setting. Even kanji characters appear in “The Literomancer,” “Mono no Aware” and “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King.”

“Mono no Aware” was the winner of the Hugo Award for the best short story in 2013. Its Japanese title, meaning “the pity of things,” refers to an aesthetic principle of classic Japanese literature. The story, about a young Japanese man on a spaceship evacuating people from Earth as a comet heads for the planet on a collision course, could be good material for a film.

The book also features some very attractive characters, such as Logan, the Chinese hero in “All the Flavors,” and Yan the fox girl in “Good Hunting.” “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” is an interesting account of alternate history in which there was no World War II.

“All the Flavors” reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys” in the way Logan, a Chinese immigrant to the United States in the 19th century, tells many mythical stories to a little American girl. This story has a setting similar to that of “The Literomancer,” in which an American girl befriends a Chinese man and boy in Taiwan, yet their endings leave contrasting impressions.

— Yukiko Kishinami, Japan News Staff Writer


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