|The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories|
Head of Zeus hardcover £18.99
review by Christopher Geary
Closer to Jonathan Carroll than Jeff Noon, but with stylistic elements of both literary approaches to genre concerns, the short fiction of Ken Liu comes into its own with SF that is cleverly lyrical and carefully thought out. It is a mode of storytelling into which esoterical concepts are almost casually introduced and this is especially evident in the magical realism of the title piece, a bildungsroman fable where origami animals come to life in childhood and influence an adult's development into philosophical maturity. Although there is sentimentality here, the gist of it still feels somewhat aloof from the petty concerns of selfish pride and nostalgic longing. Rather than the genuine warmth of characterisations, cool poetics is the prevailing mood of Liu's best work.
In his recent collection of so-called 'weird fiction', Three Moments Of An Explosion (Macmillan, 2015) China Mieville's distrust for, and rejection of, traditional forms of storytelling often resulted in mere lists or sketches or notes that he apparently had no idea what to do with. So, while a few such pieces are so rich in fabulous notions that they can and do transcend all of the usual limits of genre, several of Mieville's efforts are throwaway pages of unfinished art with a very small 'a'.
Liu, however, seems to follow the example of Howard Waldrop, and so nearly all of the stories in this book are fully rounded narratives - even when the writer's intention is clearly to appear otherwise; and somewhat otherworldly in nature, to a point where the author might risk alienating readers. Liu draws us into his fantastic worlds so that we become immersed in unfolding dramas that envelop reason, while Mieville tends to exclude us, so readers are simply observers - looking in shop windows at retailer's displays.
The correspondence-story framework of State Change has echoes of Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, with a parallel world where human souls are found in objects, and it explores the problems of a lonely woman whose 'life force' appears irrevocably linked to an ice cube, and dependent upon its frozen condition for her basic survival. But, of course, there is a twist. People relying upon the benevolent dictatorship of A.I. machinery is the subject of The Perfect Match, a witty rom-com that pre-empts Spike Jonze's movie Her (2013), but also harks back to The Forbin Project (1970). Romance of a sort is also present as background influence in Good Hunting, a story based upon the Chinese mythology of fox spirits and demon slayers where ancient magic fades, in an era of sweeping change prompted by urbanisation and technological progress, but eventually has its sublime potency renewed by emotional attachment not unlike faith. Liu's fiction often seems to be part of a resistance movement that's wary of modernity - but are many his protagonists just tilting at windmills?
Simulacrum and The Regular are different in genre content and style but both stories are quite evocative about memory, and how cyber-tech enhances or distorts meanings of what we recall as truth. While the first is a riff on celebrated work by Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison, the second is a fairly straightforward detective story with obvious cyberpunk leanings. The Waves imagines a vigorous utopian futurism that surpasses Iain M. Banks' magnificent Culture, or Accelerando by Charles Stross, and even Rudy Rucker's new universes of endless possibilities. There is a tale about truly alien books, where publishing takes on a seemingly infinite diversity, and such offbeat themes are continued in another piece concerned with alien cognition that catalogues complexity of 'intelligent life' that evolves into microscopically weird or cosmically bizarre forms.
Ostensibly about the 'forgotten' Chinese immigrants that built railroads in America, All The Flavours is yet another tale about the changes wrought upon western families and young individuals by hearing foreign legends told, and the acceptance of cultural diversity into a melting-pot society, despite some racist tendencies on both sides of a language barrier. Harking back to E.M. Forster's classic The Machine Stops (1909), A Brief History Of The Trans-Pacific Tunnel is Liu's alternative history about pioneers who happily prefer living underground.
Wearing its cultural and mythological references fairly lightly, as a humorous historical, The Litigation Master And The Monkey King is some kind of Manchu Equalizer, as rogue solicitor Tian fights injustice on behalf of sundry victims caught up in poverty traps. Its descent into horror, as the political scandal of a massacre that emerges from beneath state censorship like blood oozing under a closed door, is also the subject of The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary, which has a historian team-up with a physicist to help expose the shocking truth about Unit 731 and the 'Asian Auschwitz' of Pingfang. Not unlike Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter's excellent The Light Of Other Days, this intriguing SF about "exploiters of the dead" is partly concerned with the international consequences of viewing/ experiencing the past in terms of a virtual reality. It calls into question the veracity of eyewitness testimony in any courts of law, while ably confronting the amorality of war crimes, and it challenges the grim legacy of 'sacrifices' that has always stained the record of even legitimate medical research.