You can read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, or the Hobbit, for the first time just once in your lifetime. The pure joy that such an experience brings to you, the sorrow of knowing the book will end soon, pacing yourself so the end is drawn out – these are familiar to most readers. I was too young when I first read Sherlock Holmes and Jerome K Jerome to remember such feelings. I was too impatient when I first read Douglas Adams and Michael Crichton for the first time. P.G Wodehouse was prolific enough to never prompt the fear of running out of reading material.
And then I read Ken Liu, and had the whole epiphany of discovering a writer whose work I am going to obsess about.
Over a dinner where a lot of thoughts were being exchanged about AI and whether humans would survive even minutes after it became self aware (the overwhelming opinion was that we wouldn’t), Jonas asked me if I had read Ken Liu’s Paper Menagerie. Almost a year later, it went from my reading list to my now reading list to my finished reading list within a couple of days – once I started it, I read it obsessively, snatching time wherever I could. I read it alternatively on my phone and my Kindle, depending on whether I was standing in a queue or waiting for a meeting or on a flight or on my commute. I finally got done with it a few minutes ago, and I write this review with a smile on my face, as I know there two more of the man’s books lined up for me to read!
The Paper Menagerie is a much-awarded short story (the first work of fiction to win the Nebula, the Hugo and the World Fantasy Award, all at the same time) that is part of a short fiction collection that is equally artistic, evocative and creative. Liu’s skill as a writer and storyteller is breathtaking – he is able to take you away with equal ease to Imperial China or to a spaceship speeding away light years away from Earth. The stories in the collection are all awarded or nominated, and span many genres – alternative history to steampunk to historical fiction to hard science fiction.
His love for and scholarship in Chinese and Japanese history shines through as he explores themes of identity, belonging, forced relocation, thriving in a new world dealing with historical injustices. Whether you are fighting with the Chinese War God Guan Yu or planning your next kill with a serial killer in an alternative future, one thing is certain – you are immersed in that universe and lost to this.
Apart from the Paper Menagerie, here is a list of some of the stories and the awards they have won:
Mono No Aware – Hugo Award winner
The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary – Finalist – Hugo, Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon awards
The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species Finalist – Nebula and Sturgeon awards
The Waves, All the Flavors & The Litigation Master and the Monkey King – All finalists – Nebula award
I’m going to jump into his Dandelion Dynasty series – a silkpunk epic fantasy series of revolution and techno-magic!
You can hear LeVar Barton read the Paper Menagerie right here. It takes about 49 minutes.