Genre: short stories, fantasy, sci-fi
Four out of five stars overall.
I loved The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu which was the first I’d read of the author, which is kind of unusual as he’s most known for his long fantasy and sci-fi works like “The Dandelion Dynasty”.
The real pearl of this collection for me was “Byzantine Empathy”, which I will find myself rereading and thinking about for a while. It follows two different people, one working for humanitarian organization and one creating a VR experience where you can upload for example a scene of being in the middle of the most violent war. It’s idealism set up against pragmatism, led by really interesting morally gray characters. The choice of making the opposing sides understand each other, as previous college friends, yet not steering away from creating villains – it was just great. They do set up very interesting arguments, which is why I attached a page from the book below. The story showcases a power struggle both in politics and social media; it’s PR and image, people experiencing mass graves on their own body and looking into how human empathy could work both for and against a group of people trying to create change.
I found that in this collection, the short stories were very hit or miss for me; some I found immense insight and new thoughts and perspectives in, while others went straight past my head and left me wondering if I’d missed the point or if they were just unoriginal. And I guess that makes sense considering how this collection is more focused on the combination of the new digital age ahead of us as well as the asian (mainly chinese-inspired) cultural elements and perspective. You will have concepts that’s over-done. I’ve seen reviews bash the “easier” stories like the one of online bullying, but I disagree there because I think Liu more often than not writes the easier concepts really well, and in that way has something to add. “Thoughts and Prayers” is one of those, with the idea of uploading every single photo and clip of a loved one to the Internet, to create a virtual version of them (in this case to use as an example of the horrifying reality of mass shootings). It is a terrible idea in reality because of how human beings have shown to behave, no debate there. Drawing much inspiration from the real world, where american survivors of school shootings has spoken for gun control and been the subjects of massive harassment and conspiracy theories, it looks into how you can completely screw with the memories a human has of a dead loved one. Humans has real weaknesses in how much we can handle. And the story is not so far-fetched as deep-fakes are becoming a very real thing. Revenge fake porn sounds fucking awful.
The pessimism hit me like a wave half-way into the book. Like I truly didn’t see it coming as you think one short story stops with the questions unanswered, only for it to be a red thread taken up later in another one. And it didn’t always end that well, did it. For the collection overall, I loved this kind of composition. It’s enough of the same universe or storyline to be able to delve into deeper topics of artificial intellingence and VR and how humans can use technology in ways ranging from imperfect to directly devastating. I described it to a friend as “1001 clever shortcuts to dystopia ft. nostalgia”, which was what it was for a while. But it also gives space for the more out there one-off fantasy stories.
The mix of types of stories, mainly the fantasy among the sci-fi, can also be interpreted as making the collection not quite as put together as well. Messy, if you’d like. It could be that it should have stayed to the sci-fi side and discarded some fantasy stories. Best example of this is how I found the short story of “Hidden Girl” interesting, but flat and not very special. I don’t get why the book is called that. I liked the chinese mythology behind it, but it was one of the rarer cases where I would’ve liked a longer story to be able to fulfill the potential of the setup of the cast of characters. It surely feels like the beginning of an abandoned long-form project and not a short story like the others.
Favourite short stories; “The Gods Will Not be Chained”, but also the rest of that story with “The Gods Will Not Be Slain” and “The Gods Have Not Died In Vain”. It starts with a girl trying to find out the circumstances of her dad’s death and ends in AI war, where the artificial intelligence was created by people finding out the method of uploading their knowledge and consciousness and becoming like gods and a new type of human that is born and lives solely in the digital space. “Staying Behind” is similiar in that it goes into this digital space, this Singularity in which most people has chosen over the currently-real world, with enough originality to really draw me in. Then comes “Altogether Elsewhere, Vast Herds of Reindeer” going even deeper and further into the future, with a mother seeing her daughter a couple days over the course of her life as she travels in space and time. It’s obvious that there’s certain venues Liu has put a lot of time into researching and reflecting over, and those are the ones I think that really stand out and is worth reading this for.
Another excellent one was “Staying Behind”, which really made me think about religion for some reason and the idea that someone you love can lose credibility the moment they get indoctrinated into an ideology, where you never know if they’ve really found the one perfect and real thing or if they’ve lost themselves enough to be too far gone. It’s the idea behind people we love becoming monsters or zombies as well I guess, only with the additional uncertainty that they might be the ones in the right and not you.
“This wasn’t my mother speaking. The real Mom knew that what really mattered in life was the authenticity of this messy existence, the constant yearning for closeness to another despite imperfect understanding, the pain and suffering of our flesh. […] It is this world, the world we were meant to live in, that anchors us and demands our presence, not the imagined landscape of a computed illusion. This was a simulacrum of her, a recording of propaganda, a temptation into nihilism.”from “Staying Behind” by Ken Liu