I've had Ken Liu's "The Paper Menagerie" on my list for a while, but had a hard time finding a copy of it until he published it and fourteen other stories together in this collection. The stories were hit and miss for me. Some, like "The Perfect Match", about a a Google-esque company employing a personal AI a la "Her" motivated by it's highly lucrative recommendation engine for your life, was a bit over the top and obvious. "Simulacrum", too, about software used to simulate real individuals (with or without their consent) left me more uncomfortable than happy to've read it. Alternatively, stories like "The Waves" and "Mono No Aware" left me wanting to read more from a future that saw a major exodus of humans from Earth and the impact of immortality on humanity.
Three stories in particular stuck with me.
(Trigger warnings for torture.)
"The Literomancer" follows Lilly Dyer, a recently uprooted Texas girl (where she had been the third-most popular girl in fourth grade) to Taiwan where her dad works on an American military base. Lilly has found herself the target of a group of racist American girls at school and finds solace with some neighbors - an old man, Mr. Kan, and his grandson, Teddy.
As Lilly spends more time with Mr. Kan and Teddy, she learns that Mr. Kan does magic - literomancer. Mr. Kan explains that the Chinese invented writing as a form of divination. From a word, he's able to break it down into its characters to show the root of their meaning and thereby an individuals past and future, worries and hopes. Mr. Kan teaches Lilly that words have power, she learns that an ugly slur used by her bullies gets its root from the Korean word for America.
Their visits carry on, Mr. Kan performing literomancy for her and telling the story of how he came to Taiwan and ended up caring for Teddy.
My favorite scene of literomancy is when Lilly asks Mr. Kan to write the character for China.
"This is the character hua, and it is the only word for China and for the Chinese that has nothing to do with any Emperor, any Dynasty, anything that demands slaughter and sacrifice. [...] Hua originally meant ‘flowery’ and ‘magnificent,’ and it is the shape of a bunch of wildflowers coming out of the ground. [...] The Chinese are like wildflowers, and they will survive and make joy wherever they go. A fire may burn away every living thing in a field, but after the rain the wildflowers will reappear as though by magic. Winter may come and kill everything with frost and snow, but when spring comes the wildflowers will blossom again, and they will be magnificent. For now, the red flames of revolution may be burning on the mainland, and the white frost of terror may have covered this island. But I know that a day will come when the steel wall of the Seventh Fleet will melt away, and the penshengjen and the waishengjen and all the other huajen back in my home will blossom together in magnificence."
"And I will be a huajen in America,” Teddy added.
Mr. Kan nodded. “Wildflowers can bloom anywhere."
The story leaves the reader with a sense of guilt for seeing Lilly ask seemingly innocent questions of her father about "228", something she heard in a story of how Mr. Kan came to be in Taiwan with Teddy. From there, we learn that Lilly's father is involved with an intelligence agency, who acts quickly on the scant information Lilly has mentioned at the dinner table.
The Literomancer plays a lot with the tug between Lilly's identity as a Chinese American - feeling abandoned by her American friends back in Texas, missing her life as a would-be cowgirl, feeling isolated in Taiwan by her American classmates, and wanting to not feel ashamed of her the Chinese aspects of her culture (mainly shown through the food she eats and her interactions with her mother).
Behind the Story
With the ending of World War II Japan lost its 50 year rule over Taiwan, who had viewed the Japanese rule favorable thanks to economic and social policies they'd put in place. The US on behalf of Allied Forces turned temporary control of Taiwan over to the Republic of China, who quickly lost trust from the population due to mismanagement, corruption, runaway inflation, and food shortages, due in part to China exporting major commodities like rice back to its civil war-torn mainland.
"228" in the story refers to the February 28 Incident, the anti-government uprising in Taiwan that began on February 27, 1947 when 10,000-30,000 people were killed. The White Terror period followed, the setting for our story, when communist infiltrators from mainland China were discovered. Thousands of dissenters in both Taiwan and mainland China were disappeared, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. It was taboo to mark or mention 228 for decades.
Today, Taiwan holds up the 228 Incident as a major motivator for independence. Treaties signed after World War II were meant to give China temporary control over Taiwan with Taiwan eventually gaining sovereignty. People's Republic of China instead is aiming for unification and has threatened military action over the push for Taiwan independence, which would possibly lead to military action from the US and Japan.
(Trigger warnings for violence against female sex workers, mutilation, murder, blood, gore, privacy violation.)
One of the longer stories in the book, "The Regular", takes us to a not-so-distant cyber punk future. Body medications are routine and include advanced cyborg-like limb prostheses, Regulator pumps which manage the chemical responses in the brain, and the not-FDA-approved retinal camera. The Regulator is required for law enforcement as a means of removing the lizard brain aspects of discriminatory reactions, like managing adrenaline in life or death situations. Ruth, the former police officer turned private detective still has her Regulator, which helps manage the PTSD effects of a traumatic event in her recent past.
Ruth is hired by a grieving mother in Chinatown to find the killer of her daughter, a 28 year old high-end, independent escort. The police have written off the murder as the work of local gangs upset at the competition.
The Watcher is a recently released felon who preys on female sex workers that fit a narrow profile - educated women of color who are independent escorts with retinal camera implants. He makes his living posing as a man who seems like a safe Regular - an unassuming married man who'll be a source of regular income for the women he ends up murdering.
Ruth is able to manipulate data collected by an Internet of Things device to help put together the puzzle, narrow down a list of potential targets for The Watcher, and set a trap for him.
The Paper Menagerie
The titular story in the collection and the first work of fiction to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, it reminded me of Charlie Holmberg's series "The Paper Magician".
Jack was born in the Year of the Tiger. He's the son of a Connecticut man and woman his father ordered from a catalog and his mother has a special gift - she's able to fold origami and breathe life into it.
A little paper tiger named Laohu, folded from recycled Christmas wrapping paper is his favorite - it paws at him, pounces, and roars. The rest of his menagerie includes sharks, water buffalo, a goat, and a deer - all full of life from his mother's breath.
As Jack grows older, the bullying of his classmates drives a wedge between him and his mother and he finds himself forgetting the magic she created for him.
This was a sweet, sad story. As someone who has a difficult relationship with both of her parents, I felt the pangs of guilt and anger that Jack felt, put myself in his mother's shoes and felt the isolation and sorrow.