. . . all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphor—which is the logic of narratives in general—over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless. (p. vii)
My friends, them's fightin' words.
Ken Liu issues this most bookish of come at me bros in his preface to The Paper Menagerie, a retrospective collection spanning a decade's worth of writing from the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award winning author and translator. I should offer some sort of qualitative assessment before we get too down and dirty, so here it is: Liu is an outstanding writer, this book is excellent, and when future generations look to exemplify the zeitgeist of early twenty-first century speculative fiction this will be one of the first volumes to which they turn. However, my blood's up so let's get back to those metaphors.
In short, metaphor is essential. To communication; to expression; to, arguably, thought itself. To make a special claim for its role in fiction is to ignore its impact on the entire gamut of human experience. The CONDUIT metaphor, in which communication is conceived of as the packing and transmission of units of information, underpins not just how we talk about communication but how we talk and how we communicate at all. Meanwhile grammatical metaphor—which reconceptualizes the slippery, amorphous world of processes and verbs as a bounded, arrangeable domain of objects and nouns—makes possible the taxonomic organization of these processes, and so underpins not only the scientific method but the Post-Enlightenment epistemological project in its entirety. Metaphors are thus vital for reducing the irreducible, for making sense of the senseless, not just in fiction but also in what we generally like to treat as fact. They are the lenses through which we view the world. They are, to borrow a phrase, what We Live By.
It's not then that Liu is wrong in his assertion, far from it, it's that by making it, by choosing to frame his collection in this way, suddenly everything is up for grabs. He is not demanding the reader remove their emerald glasses, he is noting simply that eyeglasses are being worn and inviting us to consider the hue through which we would most care to peer. He is denying us easy answers and making the job of your humble reviewer considerably more challenging.
But let's pick through the bones and see what we can see, eh? The collection's most consistent concern is that of belonging. There's a passage in Neal Stephenson's Anathem (2008) where a group of astroninja scholarmonks have an extensive and explicit discussion about the nested and overlapping circles of loyalty they hold. (They do so in the middle of a raid on a transdimensional alien spacecraft. It's very Stephensonian.) Liu's approach to the same question is far less technocratic, far more embedded. The opening story aside, every tale here is situated firmly in the personal and makes unapologetic appeal to affect as well as effect; another reason I think the book exemplifies the current state of the genre. Many of the stories are quite traditional SFnal thought experiments—If we changed factor X, how would it affect people in situation Y?—but at every stage the emotional weight is given equal, and often top, billing with the conceptual.
There's an embarrassment of riches here however you slice it, to the point that it's tempting to give up on any sort of closer critical engagement and just post a .gif featuring an anime character and the word "feels". However, of the fifteen stories only the ninth is previously unpublished, and as such "An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition" offers us something of a way in. It's a series of imaginings on alien thought mechanics framed as the last message a mother leaves her daughter before embarking on a one-way first contact mission. Structurally it's very similar to the vignettes presented in the opening story, "The Book Making Habits of Select Species", which concerns itself with detailing the record keeping customs of a series of alien societies. Both serve to signpost the preoccupations or, if we like, the predominant metaphors of the stories they precede, dividing the book into two halves, by pagecount if not by story number. For the sake of imposing some kind of order on proceedings I'm going to label these halves here as Memory and Myth.
There is of course a significant overlap between the two—not for nothing does the signpost story for Myth contain the word "Cognition" in its title—and the difference is largely one of scale. If memories inform our self-construction as individuals, myths inform this process as groups. Memory is how we project our past inwards, myth is the same flung out. At either endpoint of this continuum are the individual and diaspora, passing through family, nation, and empire on the way. Liu is a Chinese-American author, and he filters many of these ideas through Chinese and East Asian history. It's notable that the contraction-and-expansion structure of The Paper Menagerie echoes that of another recent standout collection born of Asian diaspora, Zen Cho's Spirits Abroad (2014), which featured sections titled Here, There, and Elsewhere.
The first two stories after "Book Making" give us close-up views of the individual in relation to their worlds. With "State Change" Liu starts as he means to go on regarding the literalization of metaphor, in a touching (if rather slight, given the weight of what is to come) story of how to play the dating game if your soul were manifest for all to, well, touch. "The Perfect Match," meanwhile, is one of the less successful entries, being a fairly by-the-numbers Big Brother/Enemy of the State affair on control and intrusion given an update for the corporate age of Apple and Google. It does, however, serve to set up the themes of power and resistance that inform the next, and perhaps my favorite, story in the collection. "Good Hunting" (first published in your very own Strange Horizons) marks the point at which things really kick into gear as the mantle of vaguely whiny millennial angst is cast off in favor of exploring familial obligation, steampunk fox spirits, and the perpetual clash between tradition and modernity in early industrial-age Hong Kong. Now this I can get my teeth into.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. While the forces of imperialism certainly make their presence felt, the focus of the rest of the early stories is kith and kin. "Simulacrum" offers a disconcerting take on the parental desire to preserve children in that "perfect" moment, while "The Regular" is a taut cyberpunk police procedural that nonetheless hinges around family and the ghosts of decisions not taken. The wider world intrudes to distressing effect in "The Literomancer" as a young American girl is forced to reckon with the collateral damage of her father and her nation’s anticommunist wetwork in 1960's Taiwan, and the opening act culminates in the collection's title story, which swept the short story categories of the 2012 Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. Like many of the other stories here, it's not exactly subtle in its emotional manipulation, but as the story of a mixed heritage Chinese-American coming to terms with his late mother's history as a mail order bride, "The Paper Menagerie" carries undeniable power and resonance.
So ends Memory, and after "Comparative Cognition" allows a brief intermission to reset the metaphorical backdrop, in Myth aspects that were bubbling under come bursting forth in full effect. Familial and emotional ties are still core, but the scale is inverted and the wider forces take center stage. "The Waves" starts the second act proper, interspersing a series of creation myths with the story of a generation starship crew wrestling with their own senses of self as the rest of humanity expands across the galaxy, surging and receding towards singularity.
Now, the obvious metaphor invoked by these "wider forces" is globalization, which, being the ill-begotten child of colonialism and (neo)liberalism, is axiomatically hegemonic. This is not a good thing, I think we might all agree. Resistance is generally regarded as laudable in the abstract, but in practice can take many forms; one of the more common has been termed "glocalization" by some academics. (And here we see grammatical metaphor in full effect, as the messy interactions between resources, ideologies, and billions of people across the world are reduced to a single gratingly ugly portmanteau noun, the better to be pinned to the conceptual display board for examination and classification.) This process is frequently ambiguous, as the homogenizing tendencies of expanding global hegemony are counteracted by the creation, by the reification, of a distinctive but no less monolithic or constructed local hegemony. To compound the problem, this is then usually defined less by what it is than what it is not, what it stands in implicit opposition to.
The Hugo award winning (Short Story, 2013) "Mono no aware" perfectly encapsulates these issues, and by extension some of the key preoccupations of the book, so I'm going to spend a bit of time on it here. This is not least because one of the main mediums through which groups choose to define themselves is language. National languages are in many ways a recent invention, the standardization and spread of a prestige dialect being a key creation of, and enabling factor for, the modern nation state, yet the folk linguistics of many groups posit, not without some basis, immemorial links between language, culture, and nation. Liu explores these links in many of his stories, more or less overtly, and Mingmei Yip's precise Chinese calligraphy in both this tale and "The Literomancer" is the most visually arresting manifestation of this discussion. Inevitably, it's also a discussion which skirts the ever-shifting boundaries of linguistic relativity and determinism. The entire collection teeters on the brink of the Whorfian rabbit hole without ever quite managing to fall in.
I try to phrase it poetically for her, but I’m not sure if I’m successful. "Wareware ha, hoshi no aida ni kyaku ni kite." We have come to be guests among the stars.
"There are a thousand ways of phrasing everything," Dad used to say, "each appropriate to an occasion." He taught me that our language is full of nuances and supple grace, each sentence a poem. The language folds in on itself, the unspoken words as meaningful as the spoken, context within context, layer upon layer, like the steel in samurai swords. ("Mono no aware," p. 240)
In "Mono no aware," humanity is threatened by a climate change analogy extinction-level meteor impact. The world's governments fail to get their shit together in the most singularly abject fashion, with only the Americans managing to construct a solitary lifeboat vessel, the spaceship Hopeful. Hiroto Shimizu is an engineer on the vessel, after his mother wrangled him a last minute spot by appealing to an old college sweetheart, and the only Japanese crew member. The story concerns his reflections on the past before, as he inevitably must, he makes a fateful decision about the future. Along the way he tries to preserve his memories of Japan, which inescapably take on an element of personal and national myth.
Take his use of wareware. It's a relatively uncommon form of first-person plural, which is poetic but is also pretty formal, and usually used by someone talking on behalf of a larger group; synecdoche plenipotentiary, with the part speaking for the whole, whatever "whole" they might feel that to be. So, for example, an executive might occasionally use it while representing his company during negotiations, but for many Japanese speakers it has unmistakably nationalistic overtones. In my own experience as a Japanese resident of visibly non-Japanese ethnicity, wareware has come to be a major discursive red flag, as in most of the situations I've encountered it it's been followed immediately by the word nihonjin: "We Japanese . . ." The speakers are almost always men in the upper-reaches of middle age (Who else would presume the authority to speak on behalf of an entire nation?) holding forth on issues of culture and, crucially, cultural difference. What follows will usually be, at best, essentializing, reductive, and exclusionary. The reification of a monolithically inclusive "we" seems to inevitably formulate the concurrent existence of an equally hypostasized "they." "Our" language is full of nuances and supple grace, "theirs," it is left unspoken, is a crude, discordant mess.
The evidence suggests Liu is too careful and conscientious a writer to be unaware of the implications of these words, and to be unaware of the contradictions they contain. While transliterating the particle は as ha is an interesting choice, Hiroto's "poetic" sentence is indeed a poem, a haiku in fact , and that this story about the last Japanese person alive first appeared in a collection called The Future is Japanese (2012) certainly points to a healthy authorial sense of irony. If we were being charitable, Hiroto is positioning himself as speaking on behalf of humanity in its entirety. However, the Hopeful stands as the world as various, literal, minorities react to overwhelming American dominance through mythologizing their own cultures. The memories Hiroto shares offer us in turn an essentialized version of the (sic) Japanese as stoic and orderly in the face of crisis, a self-stereotype utilizing the same tropes presented in Western media after traumas such as the March 11th Triple Disaster or the more recent Hiroshima landslides and Kumamoto earthquakes, which conveniently glossed over incongruities such as the fact that that many people refused to leave their shattered homes for fear of them being looted. Even when the "we" becomes an "I", Hiroto imposes a reductive collective narrative. Mythmaking for his hegemony of one, samurai swords and all.
But then we all do this, to an extent. And if the alternative is submission to an ideology with which you feel no kinship, then who's to say it's worse? "All the Flavors" explores a possible middle ground, relocating parts of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms to gold rush-era Idaho Territory as a group of Chinese miners, one of whom may or may not be Guan Yu of legend, slowly earn acceptance in a frontier town. At almost ninety pages this novella is easily the longest story in the collection and also, despite the ambiguity of its ending and authorial postscript, the most optimistic. This is good; it gives the reader something to cling to as the final three stories drag us down through some of the more gut-wrenching episodes in human history.
"A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel" offers a different kind of conduit metaphor. An alternate history in which WWII was averted after Emperor Hirohito halted expansion of his Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in favor of digging a tunnel beneath the ocean, this apparently preferable alternative to the horrors of industrialized warfare nonetheless culminates in shell-shocked veterans, militarily coerced comfort women, and enslaved prisoners dying as they lay rail tracks. There are two obvious readings for this relocation of Japanese wartime conduct: either Japan is inherently evil, or the interconnectivity of the worldwide marketplace is not a morally neutral state; it is global trade, not sport, that is war by other means, and both are built on imperialism and the backs of the exploited.
I would, perhaps unsurprisingly, favor the latter interpretation; not least because the penultimate story is also one of imperial horror, this time within eighteenth-century China as a bush lawyer bears the full brunt of the Qing Dynasty's efforts at editing its history of cruelty and subjugation. "The Litigation Master and the Monkey King" is a brutal reminder that the difference between the internal consolidation of nation and the external conquest of empire is as much a matter of time as it is of geography. The groups to which we may claim belonging are anything but immutable or inviolate.
The final story closes the Möbius strip. "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" took me as long to read as the rest of the collection put together. It is, and there is really no other way of phrasing this, utterly fucking harrowing. I should try to make some effort to talk dispassionately about how it distills the entire book's concerns about belonging and memory and myth and love and family and nation and empire and diaspora, but this review is already grossly overdue and overlong and I need much, much more time and space to process this story anywhere near adequately. It concerns the creation of a one-shot time travel device by a Chinese- and Japanese-American couple, who then use it to investigate Unit 731, the notorious Japanese biological warfare research installation situated in Harbin, Manchuria during WWII. It's not the grim subject matter that's the challenge (though it is) so much as the deftness with which it's addressed (David Peace covered similar ground in far lengthier and less affecting manner in 2009's Occupied City), and the timing. I read this in the same week that Barack Obama visited Hiroshima, a confluence of events that has, as I talk through with friends, family, colleagues, and students their understandings of past horror and tragedy, their understandings of guilt and acceptance, caused an unexpectedly jarring discoloration of my own figurative eyeglasses. I thought I had something of a handle on things and now I suddenly find that I do not, or more I find that what I had is wholly inadequate.
And with that confusing profusion of eyeglasses and handles we return to metaphor, though of course we never really left. On the one hand it's inherently reductive and divisive, segregating the analog world into discrete units we might label A or B, or China or America, or Us and Them. But equally, metaphor only works because of the things we share, our common grounds: this is like that, these are the features they both possess. Liu revels in this multiplicity; as in fiction, as in fact, and his consistent success at imposing meaning gives lie to his claim as to the irreducibility and senselessness of reality. While The Paper Menagerie occasionally plucks a little too eagerly at the heartstrings, there is irresistible depth, scope, and craft to back it up. In this bravura exploration of where we have come from and where we may be going, Liu has produced a shining example of where we are now.
- Five morae, seven, five. We might even claim that stars (hoshi) are an acceptable deep space substitute for the traditional seasonal reference.
wa re wa re wa
ho shi no a i da ni
kya ku ni ki te
K. Kamo has masters degrees in globalization and applied linguistics and teaches in Japan, facts that are more related in theory than in practice. He blogs at this is how she fight start and occasionally tweets. He also regrets not choosing a less abstruse pseudonym.