There is a righteous, deep-felt fury I sometimes experience when reading stupendously good work. How dare you, I shout at the author, dropping the book, pacing for a while, how dare you make me feel so much. I rant on Twitter. I joke about how the author must be stopped.
I have done all those things elsewhere and am left hollowed out. Ken Liu's The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a book from which I staggered away, dazed, unable to speak. I have wrestled with how to review it, circled my metaphors like a wary cat, and finally abandoned the enterprise of trying to live up to its accomplishment. I will be honest, and blunt, because this is a book that has scoured me of language and insight and left itself rattling around inside the shell of me.
I have never been so moved by a collection of short fiction. I was at times afraid to read more. Every single story struck chords in me profound enough to hurt, whether about the love and cruelty of families; the melancholy of thermodynamics; the vicious unfairness of history and the humbling grace with which people endure its weight. Stories so often take us out of ourselves; Liu's stories went deep into my marrow, laying bare painful truths, meticulously slicing through the layers of pearl to find the grain of sand at its heart.
I'd read some of these pieces when they made their first appearances in magazines: the much-lauded "The Paper Menagerie" in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, "Good Hunting" in two parts on Strange Horizons. Liu's stories always impressed me; so did his novel, The Grace of Kings. But this collection is so much more than the sum of its parts that the phrase loses all meaning. Selected from more than seventy stories published over the course of twelve years, these fifteen are strands of silk woven into a spider's web, or precise folds compressing an enormous decade-spanning oeuvre into something one can hold with two hands.
In "State Change" a girl is born with an ice cube for a soul, and lives her life trying to keep it from melting. In "The Regular," a private detective hunts a serial killer while wrestling with her private grief and the toll it has taken on her mechanically enhanced body. In "All the Flavours" a little girl in 1870s Idaho meets a man who might be the red-faced god of war, and listens to his stories. The final story — appropriately named "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" — is a harrowing meditation on nations, memory, responsibility, and to whom the past can rightly be said to belong.
"For me," says Liu in his preface to the collection, "all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors — which is the logic of narratives in general — over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless." This is the organizing principle of The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, the one that drives me to grasp at pearls, and silk, and paper folds in an attempt to convey my experience of reading it. I almost want to review the preface alone. It is simultaneously a statement of purpose, a map, and a key.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writing in his Notebooks, once asked and answered the following question:
Why do you make a book? Because my Hands can extend but a few score Inches from my Body ... but think only of the thoughts, feelings, radical Impulse that have been implanted in how many thousands of thousands by the little Ballad of the Children in the Wood! The Sphere of Alexander the great's Agency is trifling compared with it.
Cutting across history and biology, physics and folk tales, why do you make a book is the question at the heart of this work, inseparable from what is a book and how is a book. Storytelling — whether in oral or written tradition, along family or national lines, private musing or public record — is the means of digesting, communicating, understanding histories and experiences too vast to encompass.
Whether in a letter written from a mother to her son, an alien history scratched on the surface of an irradiated planet, or myths of origin transforming to keep up with humanity's phase-shifting, stories are the language we speak to each other. In A Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Liu speaks it with devastating eloquence.