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Magic Tigers and the Miracle of Translation in Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie

Magic Tigers and the Miracle of Translation in Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie

12In the preface to The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, Ken Liu writes, “Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.” After a dazzling description of how neural impulses flow from his brain—mid-thought—to his fingers, and then how a reader’s eyes and brain perceive and process what he’s just written, Liu continues:

Who can say if the thoughts you have in your mind as you read these words are the same thoughts I had in my mind as I typed them? … And yet, whatever has been lost in translation in the long journey of my thoughts through the maze of civilization in your mind, I think you do understand me, and you think you do understand me. Our minds managed to touch, if but briefly and imperfectly.

The theme of translation pulses through every story in the collection, which spans science fiction, magical realism, and what Liu has coined “silkpunk,” a science fiction-fantasy hybrid inspired by East Asian antiquity. The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is a rare combination of lavish prose, characters in fascinating, unique situations, and heart-wrenching moments.

Ken Liu was born in Lanzhou, China and immigrated to the United States at the age of 11. This double citizenship seems to have given him the intercultural perspective to play both outsider and insider in his fiction, and to explore circumstances in which people with divergent perspectives clash.

Having translated Chinese science fiction and other literature into English, most notably Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem trilogy, Ken Liu is well acquainted with the risk of the intended morphing into the unintended. But humankind doesn’t just take this risk when translating words into another language. As Liu’s stories show, the actions we take for loved ones can easily morph into something unintended when they’re separated from us by the rift of a cultural divide.

In the title story, “The Paper Menagerie”—a work for which Liu won no less than a Hugo, a Nebula, and a World Fantasy Award—Liu shifts between the thoughts of a biracial American boy named Jack, who can’t look at his Chinese mother without remembering that his American father purchased her from a catalog, and Jack’s mother, who can’t find the English words to tell her son how she feels. So she creates a new playmate for Jack: an origami tiger that she brings to life with her breath.

The skin of the tiger was the pattern of the wrapping paper, white background with red candy canes and green Christmas trees.

I reached out to Mom’s creation. Its tail twitched, and it pounced playfully at my finger. “Rawrr-sa,” it growled, the sound somewhere between a cat and rustling newspapers.

Jack’s delight with his impossible pet is struck down by a neighborhood boy who asks incredulously, “Your Mom makes toys for you from trash?” Although alive the magic tiger may be, its spell on Jack is broken. To him, the paper tiger is as inadequate and embarrassing as his mother’s English.

Other stories in the collection explore the translation of biological beings into virtual selves, blurring the line between reality and unreality. In “The Simulacrum,” a girl discovers her father in bed with three virtual lovers—“simulacra”—created by a camera that uses an approximation of its subject’s personality to animate the simulacrum. Though the father destroys his virtual lovers to try and win his daughter back, they become estranged. He avoids the pain by creating a simulacrum of his daughter, back from the days when she was too young to realize his flaws. The daughter correctly observes, “The desire to freeze reality is about avoiding reality.”

See Also

Some of Liu’s stories critique humanity’s increasing dependence on machines. In “The Perfect Match” and “The Regular,” Liu portrays humankind’s dysfunctional relationship with technology in dystopic futures, the results of calamitous advancements in data mining and bionics, respectively.

In “The Perfect Match,” a paralegal is dependent on “Tilly,” a program on his smartphone like Siri that everyone in his city is helpless without. Tilly is the perfect assistant, digitally fetching forms and taking notes. She even sets the paralegal up on a blind date with a woman with a high “compatibility index,” suggesting the restaurant where they should meet and the topics they could discuss. When the paralegal finds the dinner too predictable, he shocks his date by doing the unthinkable: turning Tilly off. His date is so afraid to make decisions without Tilly’s guidance that she rejects him.

In “The Regular,” private investigator Ruth tracks down a serial killer who preys upon sex workers with cameras implanted in their eyeballs. Ruth is an ex-cop with a biochemical regulator on her spine that keeps her stress hormones in check when she needs to be calm in life-or-death situations. But some officers believe the regulator dampens the instincts cops rely on to interpret potential threats. Ruth discovers that no implant can save her from grief, or from making the ultimate decision when facing a murderer.

No matter where Liu’s stories fall on the ever-shifting continents of genre, his imagination and human insight always make for a gripping, mind-blowing, eye-opening glimpse at past and future worlds, both fascinating and terrifying.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
Saga Press
Published March 8, 2016
ISBN 9781481442541

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