The Paper Menagerie Essay Topics

“Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

May 25, 2012 at 11:27 am | Posted in Short Stories | 4 Comments
Tags: Hugo Awards, Ken Liu

This is the fourth of the five Hugo-nominated short stories. It was originally published by F&SF and is available online (PDF).

This is obviously a fantasy story, but I’d rather think of it as an exercise in meta-science fiction, because it seems like an excellent argument that someday human authors will go the way of Kasparov and Jennings and end up outclassed by artificial intelligence. No one likes to hear the talk, popular in screenwriting circles, that there are only 10 plots, or 11 characters, or any other quantification of story. Stories capture the human experience, and if they can be circumscribed by formula, so can our minds. Any time someone talks about story patterns that “work” or “don’t work” (I can speak from personal experience on this score) they can expect to hear from people telling them about this or that great work that doesn’t follow the rule in question, or even that all taste is subjective and thus there is no good or bad literature, just stuff one person likes and stuff that person doesn’t like. This is art, not science, they say. The artist doesn’t maximize a value function, they express their inner soul.

To those who feel this way, I would point you at this story. In a world where hundreds of thousands of stories are written every year, I’m sure at least a few of them were more calculated and emotionally manipulative (perhaps I should say more successfully calculated and manipulative, for even elewhere on this year’s ballot, both “Homecoming” and “Movement” wanted to be as emotionally manipulative, they just weren’t as successful). I suppose it sounds like I don’t like the story, because in our society “calculated” and “emotionally manipulative” are things you say about stories you don’t like. If you like the story, and I do like this story, then you’re supposed to describe the exact same attributes by calling it “effective”, “tragic”, “poignant”, and perhaps even “haunting”.

An obvious criticism of this story, especially in the context of the Hugo awards, is that the fantasy element is not very important. In fact, I would go so far as to call it completely unnecessary. Not only do I think the story would be just as a good if the magic was stripped out, I will go farther and say I think it would be better. While reading the story I spent at least a little time trying to work out the specifics of the origami magic system, and I think every moment not spent thinking about the central emotional conflict lessened, however minutely, its impact (but there I go talking about what works and doesn’t work again).

It’s the manner in which the details of the story seem strictly decoration for its emotional structure that made me think of artificial intelligence. The details of the mother’s difficulties assimilating into America and her son’s experience in school are far more important to the story than the magic paper, in that if they were removed they would definitely have to be replaced by something, but still it seems as though a completely different set of details could be swapped in and the story would function more or less as before, like new tires on a car or new lyrics to a song. It’s those details about the mother and son’s lives that are the recognizably human part of this story, the part that the idealist would say comes from the soul of Ken Liu, even if there’s absolutely no autobiography present. But this story, precisely because it is so effective, lets us glimpse something beneath those details that looks like a formula: a mother whose only real emotional connection in life is to son, her estrangement from that son through no fault of her own and plenty of his, and the son’s tragic realization of the error in his ways their eventual reconciliation that comes too late. Is the mother/son relationship even necessary, or can we further generalize this to an acquaintance with an emotional connection to the protagonist and so on?

I find that an interesting question, but I doubt many people reading this will, so I’ll move on. Sometimes, once your attention is drawn away from the art and to the craft, the attraction is gone. After we learn the clever trick behind a magician’s illusion, the act becomes boring. I don’t think that’s the case with “Paper Menagerie”. Yes, the author clearly worked very hard to manipulate the reader’s emotions. That strikes the modern mind as false, for authors are supposed to be expressing themselves, not manipulating their audience. Yet the story is effective, so effective that it easily overcomes the obstacle posed by the reader’s awareness of its artifice, because of the truth it contains. The circumstances might be contrived to heighten everything to an improbable degree, but nevertheless the problems faced by the mother and her son in “Paper Menagerie” are real problems we recognize from our own lives and the lives of those we know. I haven’t decided if it’s the best story on the ballot, but I think it simultaneously has the most artifice as well as the most truth.

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