“The Paper Menagerie”, by Ken Liu


Winner: 2012 Hugo – short  story

Winner: 2012 Nebula: – short story

Liu has appeared seemingly from nowhere to capture both the Hugo and Nebula award for this story, along with a bunch of nominations for other awards.  And it shows a tremendous amount of craft, what struck me the most about it was the seamless integration of a fantasy element into what otherwise reads like normal literary short fiction.  Jack is the first person narrator, growing up in the 70’s as the half-Asian child who is trying to come to terms with his racial identity at a time when he was very much in the minority, and grows to resent his Chinese mother who tries to make him happy but doesn’t speak much English or have much enthusiasm for assimilating into American culture.   The title refers to little origami animals that his mother creates which have the extra ability of coming to life, although they keep their paper-based limitations.  I was a little less satisfied with the ending, years later after Jack’s mother is gone he comes across a letter she wrote to him as a child, which should lay a huge guilt trip on him, and if fact would seem to have been written with that intent, but at the end of the story we don’t get any insight into his reaction, or lack thereof.  So I’m not sure then what was the point of such a long note, if he is truly unmoved by it why bring it to light?  But maybe the ambiguity is part of the point, he at least has some reverence and nostalgia for the remaining origami animals, as a connection to his own childhood as well as his mother.  Liu combines elements of his own background with a clear and economical writing style, resulting in a nicely done story, probably unfair to the other nominees that are more overtly genre, but sometimes a well-told tale will out.  It’s not one I would have singled out for nomination due to my own story preconceptions, but a worthy winner.

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