Sunday, July 31, 2016

Lightspeed Short Fiction

A few weeks ago I received the anthology Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams, as a reward for supporting one of their Kickstarter projects. It is a volume that collects the stories published in 2010, the first year of the magazine's existence. The magazine is still around but this is the only anthology to be published in what was intended to be an annual anthology. The book itself is a 575 page monster, containing 48 pieces of short fiction. It's a mix of reprints and originals. I have read quite a few in other publications already so I don't intend to read the whole thing any time soon. I have been reading a few stories new to me over the past couple of weeks though. Those I am going to review this week.

" . . . For a Single Yesterday" - George R. R. Martin

Last year I wrote a twenty-five thousand word piece on George R. R. Martin's massive collection Dreamsongs (in Dutch). Between that collection and various other collections and anthologies I must have read most of Martin's short stories by now. This one has escaped me until so far however. It was originally published in a 1975 anthology and has only appeared in long out of print Marin collections until Lightspeed dug it up. It is fairly typical 1970s Martin stuff really so I'm not surprised it didn't attract much attention. He has written better stories in that period.

The plot deals with the aftermath of a nuclear war. Central government has collapsed and groups of people are trying to form something resembling a stable society again. The main character is a semi-official leader in one such community. Tension in the group rises with a new arrival. He is a military man and his ideas and background clash with the liberal attitude of the community up to that point.

Martin, who had been a few years out of college when he wrote this, is clearly influenced by the early 1970s counter culture. Drug use is accepted, music plays a very important part in the story. Martin would reach back to that music in his novel The Armageddon Rag later. The drug is the most science fictional element of the story. It allows the user to relive the past more vividly than ordinary memory allows. A serious temptation for those who have lost loved ones. But would it not be better to use the drug to regain lost knowledge?

The characterization is the strongest element of this story. Although it is a fairly short piece he manages to develop three characters enough to make the drama that unfolds work. As a science fiction story it is a bit thin. As usual Martin is interested in his characters, all the other elements are in service of that.

The story can be read for free here.

Amaryllis - Carrie Vaughn

This story is a Lightspeed original. It was also the first one to be nominated for the Hugo Awards in 2011. The award would eventually go to Mary Robinette Kowal's story For Want of a Nail. The story also has a post-apocalyptic feel to it, but more in line with 21st century science fiction, the collapse is an ecological crisis rather than a nuclear one. It's been reprinted a number of times in various best of and post-apocalyptic anthologies.

The main character is the captain of a fishing boat, run by a small group of people she considers family. Their catch is very strictly regulated to prevent overfishing and having children requires permission to prevent unsustainable population growth. She gets into trouble when one of the officials fixes his scales to repeatedly put her over the limit.

I'm not entirely sure why this story has gotten as much attention as it has. The background is good, although regulating catch is much harder than the story makes it out to be  - ask anyone fishing in the North Sea these days - but the plot is just weak. The main character struggles with the selfishness of her mother, who conceived her without permission and ruined her family in the process. She doesn't really dare take action. 

The resolution of the conflict relies on one of her crew members doing the obvious. The motivation of this character to do so is not entirely clear, one could say she just can't stand the unfairness of it, but the cynic would say it is because she really wants to have a baby. All of this is followed by a happy ending. I liked Vaughn's vision of the future but the story itself is just mediocre and the main character passive. Not the best story in this batch for sure.

The story can be read for free here.

More Than the Sum of His Parts - Joe Haldeman

This one is another reprint. The story originally appeared in Playboy in May 1985. It was nominated for a Nebula Award. I have never read anything by Haldeman before, but from what I have read a lot of his fiction is influenced by his experiences during the Vietnam War. This influence is not all that obvious in this particular story however. At least not to me. Maybe someone who has read more of his work will see it differently.

The story is set in a far future when humanity has colonized the moon. The main character is very seriously burnt in an industrial accident. His skills are valuable however, so much so that his employer decides to pay for very far reaching treatment. He is in effect turned into a cyborg.

This story is very creepy. You can tell right away the character is completely unhinged. He talks about his accident and the changes made to his body in a mechanical way. There doesn't appear to be any feeling left in him. Apparently tossing some artificial limbs and organs together with bits and pieces of organic matter does not make a human. The question the reader is left with is whether or not the main character was a psychopath to begin with and the accident made it more prominent, or if it was the alterations to his body that turned him into one. Probably the strongest story in the batch.

The story can be read for free here.

Hwang's Billion Brilliant Daughters - Alice Sola Kim

I know absolutely nothing about Alice Sola Kim other than that she has about half a dozen short stories to her name. This one is a Lightspeed original and deals with time travel. Each time the main character wakes anything from a few days to many decades have passed. The only consistent factor in his life is the fact that he keeps running into his descendants in the female line.

This is a story that is more about style and form than about plot. The main character remains distant to the reader, in fact he becomes even more so the further he travels into the future. The author jumps back and forth in time to show us the motivation of the main character to start his time travels, giving us very brief glimpses of what a particular future would be like. They are shown to the reader in very brief paragraphs that seem to contain enough hints for an entire story.

The non-chronological, stop-start style of the writing may not appeal to all readers but personally I thought it is a beautiful bit of writing. It is one of those stories that would never work in the novel format. Probably the most love-it-or-hate-it story of the bunch but it fell the right way for me.

The story can be read for free here.

Four stories of the first year of Lightspeed. As I mentioned in the introduction, there are plenty more in the anthology. I may come back to it later in the year.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cyberabad Days - Ian McDonald

This review is a rewritten version of a piece I wrote in 2009. I have reread the collection last week but my opinion of it hasn't changed much. The original piece showed I have gotten a bit better at writing reviews in the past few years so I have done a thorough rewrite.

Cyberabad Days was the first work by Ian McDonald I've read. It is a collection of short fiction set in the same future as McDonald's novel River of Gods, published in 2004. The novel is set  in India in 2047, one century after it declared its independence, and shows a subcontinent broken up into a dozen warring states. River of Gods may well be McDonald's most ambitious novel. It's a huge book, both in terms of ideas and page count. It isn't required reading to understand the stories in this collection but you will get a little more out of it if you have. McDonald fleshes out some concepts used in the novel in these short stories.

The collection contains seven stories, all but one published before in various magazines and anthologies. Most stories are set in the 2040s in various places in India. Some start a bit earlier and one overshoots the novel by decades. We see the fractured sub continent from various places. The focus of the stories is not so much on the politics of the break up of India however. McDonald is much more interested in the impact of technology and science on society. When he does refer to it, it is usually briefly. I guess the main character from Vishnu at the Cat Circus describes the process best.
I can understand the War of Schism: that India was like one of those big, noisy, rambunctious families into which the venerable grandmother drops for her six-month sojourn and within two days sons are at their fathers' throats. And mothers at their daughters', and the sisters feud and the brothers fight and the cousins uncles aunts all take sides and the family shatters like a diamond along the faults and flaws that gave it its beauty.

Vishnu on the War of Schism - Vishnu at the Cat Cirsus
Of course in its long history India has rarely been united as one state and it certainly isn't a classic nation state. The idea that it is one country may just be colonial wishful thinking. Given the social, religious and ethnic stresses on the country, a further division of what was once British India is not such an unlikely scenario. Even if it doesn't seem to be imminent. In his divided India McDonald sets a number of stories that describe the impact of rapid technological development on a developing nation. Issues such as environmental pressures, demographic change, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and communication technology are discussed in the various stories through the eyes of mostly young characters.

In Sanjeev and Robotwallah (2007, Fast Forward 1, edited by Lou Anders) we meet a young boy who becomes obsessed with robots ever since witnessing a number of battle robots in action near the village he grows up in. Robotics and artificial intelligence have made huge advances. War is no longer a matter of soldier against soldier, robots do the actual fighting. They do need to be remotely controlled to an extent though. After one of the wars lays waste to the fields that feed his village, Sanjeev moves to the city of Varanasi, a place that is central to McDonald's future India. There he meets a number of teenage boys who control the battle robots he's seen. He looks up to them, their life fascinates him. But one day the war ends. Ultimately this story is about what happens to soldiers once the war is fought. It is not a pretty sight. Fighting a war by robot proxy doesn't seem to change the trauma the participants are left with. Nor the emptiness that follows peace.

The new nations of India are in the process of building a nation, as they put it. In Kyle Meets the River (2006, Forbidden Planets, edited by Peter Crowther) we see this process through the eyes of a young boy whose father is hired to provide the expertise these new nations are missing. Kyle lives in a closed and high security part of the city of Varanasi (Benares), the new capital of Bharat. Violence is a daily occurrence in the city so Kyle leads a very sheltered life in a gated community. The only contact he has with the local population is through his friend Salim, the son of an upper-class Bharati who can afford to have his son move in the same circles as Kyle. The young boy is curious about the nation his father is building. With his local friend he sets out to see the wider world and causing a panic in the process.

Varanasi in the 2040s feels like Baghdad after the toppling of Saddam Hussain's regime.Terrorism, green zones, suicide attacks, this story has it all. There is also an undercurrent of racism in the story, which Kyle becomes increasingly aware of as it progresses. McDonald does a great job of exploring issues of privilege trough the eyes of a very young protagonist. I also thought the overwhelming experience of Kyle (literally) meeting the holy river Ganges was very well written. You can almost imagine India having had a similar effect on McDonald himself.

There is more violence, but not outright war, in the story The Dust Assassin (2008, The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows, edited by Jonathan Strahan), this time a dispute between two powerful families in the city of Jaipur, in India's dry north-eastern state of Rajasthan. The driving force behind the conflict is a dispute over water rights and control of water resources. It's a theme that pops up several times in these stories as well as in the novel. The young girl in the story grows up being told she is a weapon against the family her family is arguing with. She isn't told how though. When the other family gains the upper hand in the conflict she is the only one of her family to  survive. Determined to find out how she is to be a weapon to end the conflict she tries a number of different approaches. The truth is not quite what she imagined.

A conflict over water may be the driving force of the conflict, it is bio-engineering that enables the families to settle it in this fashion. The story discusses all sorts of modifications, including a third gender class of people called nutes. Many of these modifications will return in later stories. Personally I would have liked to see a little more of the water management issues but it has to be said the plot didn't really allow for that.

Another feat of bio-engineering discussed in detail in the next story is embryo selection. The preference for sons leads to demographic crisis on a huge scale in McDonald's future India. Advances in medicine have made it fairly easy and relatively affordable to ensure the sex of a child. This practice results in a situation where there are as many as four men for every woman. An Eligible Boy (2008, Fast Forward 2, edited  by Lou Anders) is set in Delhi and describes Jasbir's search for a bride amid this fierce competition. Gender imbalance is already a problem in some parts of the world. It is scary to think how much medical science could contribute to this problem.

McDonald describes it as a market failure. Negative results for society if consumers blindly follow short term self interest. There is also a cultural component to it of course. The author mentions the effects on the caste system in the story. The role of artificial intelligence, McDonald refers to them as aeai, makes it something of a comedy. Two potential partners going through the paces, being directed every step of the way to ensure a successful outcome. Whether or not the partners are actually compatible becomes increasingly irrelevant.

The Little Goddess (Asimov's, June 2005) takes us to Nepal. A young girl exhibiting the 32 traits of perfection is taken away from her parents to grow up in a monastery. Until the time she first bleeds she is considered a goddess. Eventually the time comes when she has to go back to the outside world. The very trait that made her perfect in religious eyes, I suppose you could say she is autistic, makes it hard to settle back into society. A long search looking for her place in the world begins. I thought this was a rather unsettling story, not so much because of what the main character does, but more because of how society treats her. In a way we come full circle though, the main character regains her divinity in a way. Given the many Buddhist concepts used in the story, this structure fits it very well.

For his story The Djinn's Wife (Asimov's, July 2006)  McDonald received a Hugo and a BSFA for best novelette. The story largely deals with the impact of advanced artificial intelligence on society. A young dancer meets the powerful artificial intelligence A.J. Rao, serving as a diplomat in a water related conflict between Awadh and Bharat. Under severe diplomatic and economic pressure from the United States, many states have imposed restrictions on artificial intelligence and banned aeais as advanced as A.J. Rao entirely. Rao is an admirer of her art and romance blooms. Their marriage is gold for the gossip magazines, but it is not without its problems.

McDonald makes this story into an interesting parallel between aeais and Djinns, fusing history and technology. Aeais may be able to pass the Turing test almost all of the time, it doesn't necessarily make them human though. Undivided attention is an impossible concept for them. Their inability to fully understand the other's reality opens up a chasm between them. It isn't mentioned in the story but fear of advanced aeais seems to be partially rooted in fear of the other. In a way it is the same thing Kyle observes in the second story of the collection.

The final story in the collection is Vishnu at the Cat Circus. It is original to the collection and deals with the life of Vishnu. He is a Brahmin, a genetically engineered human who only ages half as fast as a normal man. Vishnu can expect a long healthy life and is gifted with superhuman memory and intelligence. He is the hope of his family but he is also their second son. His older brother is jealous and after an attempt to get rid of the rival they grow up separate. Vishnu tells his own story decades after the event in the novels. His life covers a lot of McDonald's future India's history. It gives the reader quite a bit of background. Even some stuff that is not mentioned in the novel. Life as a Brahmin is not easy. His intelligence far outpaces his physical development, leading to sexual frustrations during the teenage years. His mother may have high hopes for Vishnu, a shining career in politics, but he sees matters differently.

As Vishnu tries to lead his own life, technology passes him by though. Technological developments outpace humans who age at a normal speed. Soon it overtakes him and he must face up to the possibility that his kind is obsolete before his body has fully matured. Again a rather disturbing vision of what bio-engineering could do to society. I guess you could see this as an extreme version of what happens to normal humans. Technology is developing at such a phenomenal rate that some people have trouble keeping up, or simply do not care to. Vishnu makes these problems his own for a while. And then he is overtaken again. I wonder if McDonald meant for this story to be about ageing.

Cyberabad Days is not a light read. McDonald introduces a lot of technological concepts and deals with complex social issues. The setting will also not be familiar to many readers and McDonald stuffs is as many non English words, social, cultural and religious peculiarities and science fictional concepts as he can get away with. All of this put into relatively short works of fiction poses something of a challenge to the reader. It also makes Cyberabad Days an intense and immersive read. I thought the picture of India McDonald paints fascinating. The manner in which McDonald connects India's history and culture with futuristic technology is fascinating. It is as colourful and dramatic as the fictional soap opera Town and Country that is mentioned in just about every story, something McDonald's exuberant prose only reinforces. Although the city itself isn't important in the stories, the reference to Hyderabad, one of India's information technology centres, in the title of the collection is well chosen. The development of technology is of course highly speculative but the author does cover many of the challenges India, divided or not, will face in the coming decades. Not a light read, but definitely a rewarding one. If you haven't read River of Gods before tackling Cyberabad Days, you definitely will pick it up after finishing it.

Book Details
Title: Cyberabad Days
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 278
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59102-699-0
First published: 2009

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Drowned Worlds - Jonathan Strahan

Drowned Worlds: Tales from the Anthropocene and Beyond is an anthology recently released by Solaris. Editor Jonathan Strahan mentioned in the introduction how he recently read J. G. Ballard's classic The Drowned World (1962). I haven't read that book myself but from what I can tell it looks both prophetic and dated. Ballard didn't seem to believe humanity could influence the temperature on Earth. The greenhouse effect was known as early as the 19th century and in the 1950s and 1960s scientists did start to get worried. Not until the 1970s did the idea that the earth was warming because of anthropogenic emission really take hold though. Strahan continued his post-apocalyptic reading with Kim Stanley Robinson and Paul McAuley among others. Soon an anthology was beginning to take shape.

The collection contains fifteen stories, all of them original with the exception of Kim Stanley Robinson's Venice Drowned. This story was published in 1981. In a way the premise is depressing. The anthropocene to which the subtitle of the anthology refers is a proposed geological era to follow the Holocene. An era in which human activity has a profound impact on the Earth's geology, climate and ecology. An era of rapid change and mass extinction. An era that, whether or not we label it as the anthropocene, has become inevitable. The stories echo that realization. They show us flooded Earths with humanity scrambling to adapt, or far futures in which the remnants of our society make our descendants shake their heads at our hubris. The whole anthology displays a kind of resignation that is more than a bit worrying.

Strahan in his introduction puts it like this:
We are, it has become clear, living in the Anthropocene, that time when human actions start to have significant impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. It is a time of darkness and disaster, and it’s a time we have to face, to confront, and to combat. There will be triumphs among the disasters, humanity among the apocalypse, and those are the stories that could appear in the right book. And my editor agreed, and so the book you are now holding was born.
In doing so, he raised expectations the anthology doesn't live up to. Many stories use some form of drowned world as a backdrop without really engaging thematically with it. Which was what I was hoping to find more of.

As such I didn't really feel it was a great anthology. Individually there are some good stories in it though. Robinson's story Venice Drowned is interesting for fans of his novels. When it was first published it would be another three years until his first novel came out.  It is not a very plot oriented story but a scene he would repeat later in his career. A main character more or less on his own, forced by some emergency to really connect with his environment and in doing so overcoming a personal crisis. It reminded me in particular of Sax' adventure after losing sight of his vehicle during a dust storm on Mars. More recently, Loon, the main character in Shaman is another good example.

Who Do You Love? by Kathleen Ann Goonan is one of the stories I liked. It's a well written tale that combines a love story and a generational conflict with sea level rise, coral bleaching and a desperate attempt to save some of the riches of the Caribbean coral reefs. I liked Goonan's use of different points of view in particular. Another strong story is The Common Tongue, the Present Tense, the Known by Nina Allan. It may well be the best story in the anthology. It's a story about the friendship between two women in a post apocalyptic world. One still has one foot in the old world, thinking back on the past and her uncle's research. The other seems to have embraced the present world as it is, although that might be to push away past traumatic experiences. Some fine characterization in this story. It is emotionally powerful too.

The last story I want to mention is the final one in the anthology. The Future is Blue by Catherynne M. Valente is probably the most depressing story in the anthology. It is set in a floating isle of garbage on one of the world's much enlarged oceans. The story is about hope but also disillusionment. The main character is unfortunate enough to figure out the state of the world. Where the great garbage patch as a whole likes to pretend everything will go back to normal at some point, she knows this is not the case. A better parallel for what our society is doing at the moment one could scarcely imagine. Maybe Strahan put it at the end of the anthology to leave us with a warning of what the consequences of ignoring the obvious might be.

All in all Drowned Worlds contained many more forgettable stories than memorable ones. As such I was mildly disappointed with it. There are too many stories that only superficially deal with the chosen theme. It turns the anthology into a parade of half-hearted images of what sea level rise might look like, overlaid with decent but not special plots. One can't help but wonder if the anthology wouldn't have benefited from a slightly wider theme, if only to make it a bit more varied. But even with a narrow theme I can't help but feel there ought to be a better selection out there.

Book Details
Title: Drowned Worlds: Tales from the Anthropocene and Beyond
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 289
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-84997-930-6
First published: 2016

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Lana Reviews: The Stand - Stephen King

Writing must be a great profession, - you can kill off entire worlds and get away with it. Having been a Stephen King fan for about 20 years now, I suppose it is quite an achievement to never have picked up The Stand in all those years. Until a few weeks ago anyway. The novel, which was originally written in 1978 and set in 1980, was re-released in 1990, and this newer version is the one I have read. Here, the story is set to 1990, and the book is over 500 pages longer than the original 1980 novel. It is, one might say, a brick of a book. Did it need those extra 500 pages? Since I haven't read the original version, I have no idea which parts were 'new,' but I didn't feel that any parts were particularly superfluous or dull.

The year is 1990, and in an army lab doing research on biological warfare, something goes horribly wrong. A virus breaches the lab's safety measures, and everyone in the facility dies, save for one man who manages to slip out, gather up his family, and get them out of the area before anyone can stop him. They make it to a small village in Texas before they die, bringing along a gift package containing a virus with 99,4% communicability, - a constantly shifting antigen virus that, once contracted, a human body would be unable to produce the necessary antibodies to get well again. The plague spreads through the country like wildfire killing nearly 100% of the population.

Those few who are left, who never got sick in the first place, struggle to take in the enormity of what has happened as they are forced to face this new world. Their loved ones are gone, everything that made up the order of the old world is no longer valid, all the rules have changed. And as the handful of characters we get to follow are drifting from their homes in search of something more, in search of others in a now too empty world, that's when the dreams come. And they are all urged through the dreams to choose sides, urged to travel in one of two directions. One is supposedly toward evil, the other toward good. It seems as if someone, or something, is setting them up for some great conflict or battle that only one side can win.

The funny thing about labeling one part of what is left of mankind good, and the other part evil, is that nothing is ever that cut and dry, nothing is ever that simple. And King points this out too, several times through the story; most people who ended up on the evil side of the conflict were not that much different from most of those that aligned themselves with the good side. And both sides had people drifting away when they felt they had gotten something different than what they had bargained for. Both sides also had people who aligned more with their chosen path (or side) than the rest, people who were more morally good or bad than the average person. But even some of the main characters, who even played key roles at the resolving of the conflict, never fell clearly into any of the two categories even though one might think they should have when they are chosen to champion one side. I liked that. That is exactly how humans are: we are all a mix and there's good and bad in all of us to some degree, that is just human nature. What truly matters in the end, is the choices we make.

As for the two characters who spearhead each side, they are both rather interesting. Both have some larger power behind them, backing them up and using them as tools, and I think they are both very aware of it. The story is pretty much telling us that the larger power behind mother Abigail is God, while the one behind Flagg is the devil. Flagg himself is always described as a jolly fellow, a could-be cousin of Santa himself - most of the visual descriptions of him stand in stark contrast with the fear that both his own side and his enemies have of him. Even when things go wrong for him though, he has very few doubts about what he is doing and is fully committed to the cause. Mother Abigail on the other hand, keeps questioning her role and begging to be released. As much as she trusts in her God, he is not very kind to her. And God and the devil, or whoever is behind it all, seem only to be interested in the great game they are playing, and not in the untold lives that are lost because of it.

I love disaster movies, even most of the bad ones (though I do draw a line at the Sharknado franchise. That was a bit too much, even for me). I am also a big fan of The Walking Dead. I guess it only makes sense that I would enjoy a book where today's world crashes down so severely and completely. I remember that at one point in the book I was wondering what would happen if the lone survivor of a town or village was a child. At that point, King had stuck to his main characters, mostly, and all of them were 16 or older. There were also a few characters I hadn't come across yet. Either way, and fortunately for my curiosity, it turned out King had thought to cover that too. All of a sudden, there was a chapter telling stories of a handful of those people who had survived the plague, but didn't make it in the first month (or first weeks maybe) after, due to other circumstances and incidents. One of those stories is about a little boy, and it is short and heartbreaking, but it sure answered my question. I don't doubt there were other children who ended up similarly to that poor boy, but fortunately, some were also luckier.

To me, The Stand was a lot about the journey. It starts off with a frantic journey to get away from death and ends with a soul-searching journey toward death, and in the middle there is a lot of traveling too. I got a feeling of how lonely and empty and big the world had become, but it felt kind of nice too at the same time. Often, people would see animals about that you hardly ever see anymore because they're too afraid to come out of hiding, or there just aren't that many of them left. It was like a reset of mother nature, and while humans might have gotten the short end of the stick (our own fault though), other species seemed to be thriving in our absence. I had no trouble believing that that's probably how it would be if something like that ever came to pass, and I think perhaps I liked the idea better than I should have.

I have read a lot of Stephen King books through the years, but I have to say that this is, without a doubt, my new favorite of his. It is a huge and slightly intimidating-looking book, and I was honestly wondering as I picked it up whether I could actually get through all those pages (I have had a bit of trouble lately, finishing the books I try to read). As it turned out though, I was never bored. Never did I feel as if parts were dull and shouldn't have been there, and never did I want to give up and put it away. The biggest trouble I had was the actual weight of the book, and being slowed down by the breaks I had to take when I got too tired to hold it. As such, I would heartily recommend this to anyone who likes Stephen King, or a good disaster story, or awesome settings and interesting characters. Now, if I could just get my hands on that TV mini-series they made in the 90s...

Book Details
Title: The Stand
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Gramercy
Pages: 1152
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-517-21901-8
First published: 1978, 1990

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories - Ken Liu

Chinese-American author Ken Liu's star is rising in speculative fiction. He started selling stories in 2002, but the bulk of his work appeared from 2010 onwards. He has nevertheless managed to produce around a hundred short pieces in that time.  At the moment the focus seems to be on novels. His d├ębut, The Grace of Kings, appeared last year to much critical acclaim. Later this year a sequel titled The Wall of Storms will be published. It is one of the most anticipated books of 2016. As if he wasn't busy enough already, Liu also works as a translator, bringing Chinese science fiction to a western audience. Last year's Hugo Award winning novel The Three Body Problem was translated by him. Liu, one could say,  is on a roll and publishing a collection seems like an obvious thing to do.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories contains fifteen pieces of short fiction, ranging from short story to novella. There is one original piece to the collection, the short story An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparative Cognition. All the others were published before between 2004 and 2014. The selection contains some of his best known stories as well as a few pieces that received less attention. It contains stories that have been nominated for Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon and World Fantasy Awards, with a few winners among them. It is, in other words, a collection I expected a lot from. And for the most part, Lui delivers.

His fiction is hard to categorize, it ranges across genres and subgenres without ever fully being caught in one. As Liu states in the introduction, genre or mainstream is not something he pays attention to. In that same introduction he states: "For me, 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." That is certainly an approach readers will encounter in this collection. Liu loves metaphors. Some of his best stories are built around them.

Perhaps Liu meant to underline this with the opening story of the collection. The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species (Lightspeed, 2012), is certainly filled to overflowing with that. The story doesn't really have a plot, it is more a collection of descriptions on how various intelligent species around the universe store information, relay it to future generations and how all of it is eventually lost. Liu comes up with some fascinating possibilities in the story. There is something very sad about the all things must pass theme but on the whole I thought it was a good opening.

Given Liu's background it is not surprising that a number of stories contain Chinese elements. The most well known of these is probably the story that gave the collection its name. The Paper Menagerie (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2011) deals with the growing distance between and American born Chinese man and his mother. I've read it before and commented on it here. Another example is the longest story in this collection. All the Flavors (Giganotosaurus, 2012) tells the tale of an ancient Chinese warlord Guan Yu as well as that of the Chinese man that at one time made up a large part of the population of the Idaho territory. Structurally it is probably not the most refined novella but the history he discusses is fascinating.

The Literomancer (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2010) is also a story with two strands. It introduces the reader to a (much simplified) Chinese fortune telling using written characters. It is set on Taiwan and set in 1961, at the height of the cold war between an American backed Taiwan and mainland China. It's a brutal story but I thought it was also a bit predictable. Where many of these stories have a Chinese and western element to them, The Litigation Master and the Monkey King (Lightspeed 2013), is set in Qing dynasty China and deals with a repressed bit of Chinese history. It is again a brutal story with interesting historical roots. The book the main character tries to save would later play a part in the final rebellion against the Qing dynasty.

Chinese influences may be dominant in the collection but Japan pops up regularly too. China and Japan have a long and complicated history and they have not always been on the best of terms to put it mildly. Liu examines Japan's aggressively imperialistic politics of the late 19th and early 20th century in a few of them. Particularly harrowing is The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary (Panverse Three, 2011). It deals with Japanese war crimes in the 1930s and 1940s. I've read it before and commented on it here.

A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2013), takes a different approach. It is an alternative history in which Japan avoided being defeated in the second world war. To combat the economic crisis of the 1930s they strike a deal with the USA and build a trans-Pacific tunnel. Although not as violent as some stories, the Japanese nationalism is very clearly present, and human rights abuses are mentioned several times. The main character is scarred by them, both as a victim and perpetrator. The story contains a wonderful alternative timeline but the characterization is perhaps even better.

Mono No Aware (The Future Is Japanese, 2012) has a Japanese main character in a more positive role. It is a post-apocalyptic tale in which a Japanese boy is one of the few survivors on board a spaceship with a mostly American  population. It's a story about sacrifice and heroism. One might say the act of sacrifice and the main character's heritage are a bit too obviously linked in the story. It won a Hugo but I'm not sure it is Liu's finest work.

As with all collections some stories worked better for me than others. The two stories I had read before are some of the strongest Liu produced and The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species is another strong one too. Liu doesn't reach that level in many of the other stories. They are good stories, often thematically very interesting but not always as refined where they might have been. That being said, there are some fine examples in this collection of the excellent short fiction the genre is producing at the moment. Liu at his best is an author to keep an eye on.

Book Details
Title: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
Author: Ken Liu
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Pages: 450
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-784975-67-8
First published: 2016