The Paper Menagerie

The March/April issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction features a nice blend of content and style. I like my speculative fiction darker--I also like mundane spec. fic.--and this issue has more of both than what I read in the digest's last installment.

Ken Liu's "The Paper Menagerie" blew me away as I read it last night. It's a story of personal and cultural identity, the connection between a mother and a son, and the subtle influences of the fantastic in our daily lives.

Liu's prose is handsomely crafted. Simple, concise sentences effectively communicate our first-person narrator's increasing detachment from his mother and his heritage. At first the voice is endearing, as the young son of an immigrant basks in the love and gifts of his mother. And then it becomes a narrative burr, as the boy grows distant from his mother in his quest to become "American." We never grow to dislike him, but we do resent his indifference toward his mother in the third act. This indifference makes the final sentences all the more affecting, however.

Mom is a wonderfully rendered character. Her preternatural abilities are remarkable, but not as remarkable as the tale of her perseverance through a hard childhood and her subsequent journey to America. Her love for her son is palpable, and the letter she leaves him, to be read during Qingming, the Chinese festival of the dead, drives the nature of that love home in the story's gut-wrenching third act.

Why won't you talk to me, son? The pain makes it hard to write.

The story is satisfyingly emotional without wallowing in the syrup of sentiment. It spices its human core with the supernatural, rather than relying on speculative parlor tricks. Indeed, part of the story's success is the narrator's unabashed acceptance of his mother's gifts. This acceptance is as staunch a proof of the genetic inheritance of our ancestors as is the narrator's first mumbled words "...in Chinese that had the same accent as my mother and me."

And for such a sad story, the piece ends in a remarkably hopeful fashion. It's an expertly told tale--economical and affecting.

I read a lot of short fiction, and this is the best story I've encountered so far in 2011...

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