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The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories
Author:Ken Liu

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

Ken Liu



PREFACE


I started my career as a short story writer. Although I no longer write dozens of short stories every year since shifting most of my creative efforts to long-form fiction, short fiction still holds a special place in my heart.

This collection thus has the flavor of a retrospective for me. It includes some of my most popular works (as judged by award nominations and wins) as well as works that I’m proud of but didn’t seem to get much recognition. I think they’re a good, representative sample of my interests, obsessions, and creative goals.

I don’t pay much attention to the distinction between fantasy and science fiction—or between “genre” and “mainstream” for that matter. 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.

We spend our entire lives trying to tell stories about ourselves—they’re the essence of memory. It is how we make living in this unfeeling, accidental universe tolerable. That we call such a tendency “the narrative fallacy” doesn’t mean it doesn’t also touch upon some aspect of the truth.

Some stories simply literalize their metaphors a bit more explicitly.

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I’m also a translator, and translation offers a natural metaphor for how I think about writing in general.

Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.

At this moment, in this place, the shifting action potentials in my neurons cascade into certain arrangements, patterns, thoughts; they flow down my spine, branch into my arms, my fingers, until muscles twitch and thought is translated into motion; mechanical levers are pressed; electrons are rearranged; marks are made on paper.

At another time, in another place, light strikes the marks, reflects into a pair of high-precision optical instruments sculpted by nature after billions of years of random mutations; upside-down images are formed against two screens made up of millions of light-sensitive cells, which translate light into electrical pulses that go up the optic nerves, cross the chiasm, down the optic tracts, and into the visual cortex, where the pulses are reassembled into letters, punctuation marks, words, sentences, vehicles, tenors, thoughts.

The entire system seems fragile, preposterous, science fictional.

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? We are different, you and I, and the qualia of our consciousnesses are as divergent as two stars at the ends of the universe.

And yet, whatever has been lost in translation in the long journey of my thoughts through the maze of civilization to 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.

Does the thought not make the universe seem just a bit kinder, a bit brighter, a bit warmer and more human?

We live for such miracles.

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I am forever grateful to the many beta readers, fellow writers, and editors who have helped me along the way. Every story here represents, in some measure, the sum of all my experiences, all the books I’ve read, all the conversations I’ve had, all the successes and failures and joys and sorrows and wonder and despair I’ve shared—we are but vertices in Indra’s web.

I also want to thank everyone at Saga Press, my publisher, for helping me put together such a beautiful book. Among them are Jeannie Ng, for catching all those errors in the manuscript; Michael McCartney, for the lovely jacket design; Mingmei Yip, for accommodating unorthodox requests for calligraphy; and Elena Stokes and Katy Hershberger, for the thoughtful publicity campaign. I’m especially thankful to Joe Monti, my editor at Saga Press, for championing and shaping this book with his good judgment (and saving me from myself); Russ Galen, my agent, for seeing the possibilities in these stories; and most of all, to Lisa, Esther, and Miranda, for the millions of ways in which they make the story of my life complete and meaningful.

And finally, thank you, dear reader. It is the possibility of our minds touching that makes writing a worthwhile endeavor at all.





THE BOOKMAKING HABITS OF SELECT SPECIES


There is no definitive census of all the intelligent species in the universe. Not only are there perennial arguments about what qualifies as intelligence, but each moment and everywhere, civilizations rise and fall, much as the stars are born and die.

Time devours all.

Yet every species has its unique way of passing on its wisdom through the ages, its way of making thoughts visible, tangible, frozen for a moment like a bulwark against the irresistible tide of time.

Everyone makes books.

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It is said by some that writing is just visible speech. But we know such views are parochial.

A musical people, the Allatians write by scratching their thin, hard proboscis across an impressionable surface, such as a metal tablet covered by a thin layer of wax or hardened clay. (Wealthy Allatians sometimes wear a nib made of precious metals on the tip of the nose.) The writer speaks his thoughts as he writes, causing the proboscis to vibrate up and down as it etches a groove in the surface.

To read a book inscribed this way, an Allatian places his nose into the groove and drags it through. The delicate proboscis vibrates in sympathy with the waveform of the groove, and a hollow chamber in the Allatian skull magnifies the sound. In this manner, the voice of the writer is re-created.

The Allatians believe that they have a writing system superior to all others. Unlike books written in alphabets, syllabaries, or logograms, an Allatian book captures not only words, but also the writer’s tone, voice, inflection, emphasis, intonation, rhythm. It is simultaneously a score and recording. A speech sounds like a speech, a lament a lament, and a story re-creates perfectly the teller’s breathless excitement. For the Allatians, reading is literally hearing the voice of the past.

But there is a cost to the beauty of the Allatian book. Because the act of reading requires physical contact with the soft, malleable surface, each time a text is read, it is also damaged and some aspects of the original irretrievably lost. Copies made of more durable materials inevitably fail to capture all the subtleties of the writer’s voice, and are thus shunned.

In order to preserve their literary heritage, the Allatians have to lock away their most precious manuscripts in forbidding libraries where few are granted access. Ironically, the most important and beautiful works of Allatian writers are rarely read, but are known only through interpretations made by scribes who attempt to reconstruct the original in new books after hearing the source read at special ceremonies.

For the most influential works, hundreds, thousands of interpretations exist in circulation, and they, in turn, are interpreted and proliferate through new copies. The Allatian scholars spend much of their time debating the relative authority of competing versions and inferring, based on the multiplicity of imperfect copies, the imagined voice of their antecedent, an ideal book uncorrupted by readers.

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The Quatzoli do not believe that thinking and writing are different things at all.