The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species ★★★★★ (5/5)

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • This stone is the seat of the Quatzoli mind. The stone organ is filled with thousands, millions of intricate channels, forming a maze that divides the water into countless tiny, parallel flows that drip, trickle, wind around each other to represent simple values which, together, coalesce into streams of consciousness and emerge as currents of thought.
  • Over time, the pattern of water flowing through the stone changes. Older channels are worn down and disappear or become blocked and closed off—and so some memories are forgotten. New channels are created, connecting previously separated flows—an epiphany—and the departing water deposits new mineral growths at the far, youngest end of the stone, where the tentative, fragile miniature stalactites are the newest, freshest thoughts.
  • And so the Quatzoli are themselves books. Each carries within its stone brain a written record of the accumulated wisdom of all its ancestors: the most durable thoughts that have survived millions of years of erosion.
  • Their great philosophers distrusted writing. A book, they thought, was not a living mind yet pretended to be one. It gave sententious pronouncements, made moral judgments, described purported historical facts, or told exciting stories . . . yet it could not be interrogated like a real person, could not answer its critics or justify its accounts.
  • An idea was worth keeping only if it led to victory.
  • Each planet contains a poem, written out in the bleak, jagged, staccato rhythm of bare rocky cores or the lyrical, lingering, rich rhymes—both masculine and feminine—of swirling gas giants. And then there are the planets with life, constructed like intricate jeweled clockwork, containing a multitude of self-referential literary devices that echo and re-echo without end. But it is the event horizon around a black hole where the Tull-Toks claim the greatest books are to be found. When a Tull-Tok is tired of browsing through the endless universal library, she drifts toward a black hole. As she accelerates toward the point of no return, the streaming gamma rays and X-rays unveil more and more of the ultimate mystery for which all the other books are but glosses. The book reveals itself to be ever more complex, more nuanced, and just as she is about to be overwhelmed by the immensity of the book she is reading, her companions, observing from a distance, realize with a start that time seems to have slowed down to a standstill for her, and she will have eternity to read it as she falls forever toward a center that she will never reach. Finally, a book has triumphed over time.

State Change ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

  • I can’t keep her savage beauty out of my mind. I wish my soul was heavier, more solid, something that could weigh itself down. I wish my soul wasn’t this feather, this ugly wisp of goose down in my pocket, lifted up and buffeted about by the wind around her flame. I feel like a moth.
  • “This is what I live for,” Amy whispered to Rina, her pupils unfocused, wild. “All life is an experiment.”
  • People tended to have more to talk about at the beginning of the week and the end of the week, either about what they had done over the weekend or what they were about to do the next weekend. There was not so much to talk about on Wednesdays.
  • She thought she had so much to say to him that she would never have time to read again.
  • All my life I thought my soul was in those cigarettes, and I never even thought about the box. I never paid any attention to that paper shell of quiet, that enclosed bit of emptiness. An empty box is a home for lost spiders you want to carry outside. It holds loose change, buttons that have fallen off, needles and thread. It works tolerably well for lipstick, eye pencil, and a bit of blush. It is open to whatever you’d like to put in it.

The Perfect Match ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

  • After all, the mission statement of Centillion was to “arrange the world’s information to ennoble the human race,” and what could be more ennobling than making work more efficient, more productive, more pleasant?
  • Centillion is an algorithm that’s gotten out of hand. It just gives you more of what it thinks you want. And we—people like me—think that’s the root of the problem. Centillion has put us in little bubbles, where all we see and hear are echoes of ourselves, and we become ever more stuck in our existing beliefs and exaggerated in our inclinations. We stop asking questions and accept Tilly’s judgment on everything.
  • “Back then, the government watched everything you did on the Network and made no secret of it. You had to learn how to keep the insanity at bay, to read between the lines, to speak without being overheard.” “I guess we were lucky, over here.” “No.” And she smiled at his surprise. He was learning that she preferred to be contrarian, to disagree with him. He liked that about her. “You grew up believing you were free, which made it even harder for you to see when you weren’t.
  • If cultural imperialism is what it takes to make the world a better place, then we’ll happily arrange the world’s information to ennoble the human race.”
  • “Centillion is in the business of organizing information, and that requires choices, direction, inherent subjectivity. What is important to you—what is true to you—is not as important or as true to others. It depends on judgment and ranking. To search for what matters to you, we must know all about you. And that, in turn, is indistinguishable from filtering, from manipulation.”
  • Churchill said that we shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us. We made machines to help us think, and now the machines think for us.”

Good Hunting ★★★★☆ (4/5)

  • Yan had explained to me that the hulijing chose to live near human villages because they liked to have human things in their lives: conversation, beautiful clothes, poetry and stories, and, occasionally, the love of a worthy, kind man.
  • It was strange, what Yan and I shared. She wasn’t exactly a friend. More like someone who you couldn’t help being drawn to because you shared the knowledge of how the world didn’t work the way you had been told.
  • “There’s only one thing I can do.” Her voice broke for a second and became defiant, like a pebble tossed into the pool.
  • Judging was the luxury of those who did not need to survive.
  • When I was young I had been trained to hear the scratching of a ghost’s fingers against a paper window, to distinguish the voice of a spirit from the wind. But now I was used to enduring the thunderous pounding of pistons and the deafening hiss of high-pressured steam rushing through valves. I could no longer claim to be attuned to that vanished world of my childhood.
  • From day to day, things never seemed to change much. But if you compared things over a few years, it was almost like you lived in a different world.
  • The old magic was back but changed: not fur and flesh, but metal and fire.

The Literomancer ★★★★☆ (4/5)

  • “I’m a literomancer.” “A what?” “Grandpa tells people’s fortunes based on the characters in their names and the characters they pick,” Teddy explained.
  • Lilly shook her head. Boys were simple, and fists could do the talking for them. The magic of words between girls was much more complicated.
  • “When American soldiers first went to Korea, they often heard the Korean soldiers say miguk. They thought the Koreans were saying ‘me, gook.’ But really they were talking about the Americans, and miguk means ‘America.’ The Korean word guk means ‘country.’ So when the American soldiers began calling the people of Asia ‘gooks,’ they didn’t understand that they were in a way really just speaking about themselves.”
  • The rich and educated had made a mess of things, so why shouldn’t the poor and illiterate have a chance at it? No one before the Communists had ever thought much of the lowly peasants, but when you have nothing, not even shoes for your feet, you are not afraid to die. The world had many more people who were poor and therefore fearless than people who were rich and afraid. I could see the logic of the Communists.
  • “The character for ‘mob’ is formed from the character for ‘nobility’ on one side and the character for ‘sheep’ on the other. So that’s what a mob is, a herd of sheep that turns into a pack of wolves because they believe themselves to be serving a noble cause.
  • “The ancient Chinese were called huajen by their neighbors because their dress was magnificent, made of silk and fine tulle. But I think that’s not the only reason. The Chinese are like wildflowers, and they will survive and make joy wherever they go. A fire may burn away every living thing in a field, but after the rain the wildflowers will reappear as though by magic. Winter may come and kill everything with frost and snow, but when spring comes the wildflowers will blossom again, and they will be magnificent.
  • The word “freeze” seemed to call for her attention. She closed her eyes and pictured the word in her head, examining it carefully the way she thought Mr. Kan would have. The letters jiggled and nudged against each other. The z took on the shape of a kneeling, supplicating man, the e the fetal curl of a dead child. And then the z and e disappeared, leaving free in its place.

Simulacrum ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

  • My contribution to the eternal quest of capturing reality is the oneiropagida, through which a snapshot of the subject’s mental patterns—a representation of her personality—could be captured, digitized, and then used to reanimate the image during projection. The oneiropagida is at the heart of all simulacrum cameras, including those made by my competitors.
  • My father proclaims that he works in the business of capturing reality, of stopping time and preserving memory. But the real attraction of such technology has never been about capturing reality. Photography, videography, holography . . . the progression of such “reality-capturing” technology has been a proliferation of ways to lie about reality, to shape and distort it, to manipulate and fantasize. People shape and stage the experiences of their lives for the camera, go on vacations with one eye glued to the video camera. The desire to freeze reality is about avoiding reality.
  • Perhaps it is the dream of every parent to keep their child in that brief period between helpless dependence and separate selfhood, when the parent is seen as perfect, faultless. It is a dream of control and mastery disguised as love, the dream that Lear had about Cordelia.
  • But the oneiropagida is exquisite at capturing her mood, the emotional flavor of her thoughts, the quirky triggers for her smiles, the lilt of her speech, the precise, inarticulable quality of her turns of phrase.

The Regular ★★★★★ (5/5)

  • “I’ve always believed that one should pay for experiences rather than things.”
  • And he can always pay for another, later. He likes paying for things. Power flows to him when he pays.
  • Ruth refrains from explaining that the police detectives are all fitted with Regulators that should make the kind of prejudice she’s implying impossible. The whole point of the Regulator is to make police work under pressure more regular, less dependent on hunches, emotional impulses, appeals to hidden prejudice. If the police are calling it a gang-related act of violence, there are likely good reasons for doing so.
  • Information doesn’t want to be free. It’s valuable and wants to earn. And its existence doesn’t free anyone; possessing it, however, can do the opposite.
  • If a revolution were to come to China, Dagger quipped, it would be triggered by mistresses, not speeches.
  • The Regulator deadened the pain, stifled grief, and numbed the ache of loss. It held down the regret, made it possible to pretend to forget. She craved the calmness it brought, the blameless, serene clarity.
  • His voice dredges up memories of his raspy morning mumbles, his stentorian laughter, his tender whispers when they were alone, the soundtrack of twenty years of a life spent together, a life that they had both thought would last until one of them died.
  • It has always been the regular state of things. There is no clarity, no relief. At the end of all rationality, there is simply the need to decide and the faith to live through, to endure.

The Paper Menagerie ★★★★☆ (4/5)

  • The high-school-me thought I knew so much about everything. Contempt felt good, like wine.
  • know what the Chinese think is the saddest feeling in the world? It’s for a child to finally grow the desire to take care of his parents, only to realize that they were long gone.

An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition ★★★★☆ (4/5)

  • My darling, my child, my connoisseur of sesquipedalian words and convoluted ideas and meandering sentences and baroque images, while the sun is asleep and the moon somnambulant, while the stars bathe us in their glow from eons ago and light-years away, while you are comfortably nestled in your blankets and I am hunched over in my chair by your bed, while we are warm and safe and still for the moment in this bubble of incandescent light cast by the pearl held up by the mermaid lamp, you and I, on this planet spinning and hurtling through the frigid darkness of space at dozens of miles per second, let’s read.
  • A joyful memory may be relived countless times, each replay introducing new discoveries. A painful memory may be replayed countless times as well, each time creating a fresh outrage. Eidetic reminiscence is a fact of existence.
  • Thus, while the Telosians do not forget, they also do not remember. They are said to never die, but it is arguable whether they ever live.
  • Time’s arrow is the loss of fidelity in compression. A sketch, not a photograph. A memory is a re-creation, precious because it is both more and less than the original.
  • By the time they part, they each have absorbed the experiences of the other. It is the truest form of empathy, for the very qualia of experience are shared and expressed without alteration. There is no translation, no medium of exchange. They come to know each other in a deeper sense than any other creatures in the universe.
  • And if others in the galaxy were also clever enough to harness the gravitational lenses of their own suns, we would be able to talk to them as well—though the exchange would more resemble monologues delivered across the lifetimes of stars than a conversation, messages set adrift in bottles bound for distant shores, from one long-dead generation to generations yet unborn.
  • most of our thoughts and memories are destined to fade, to disappear, to be consumed by the very act of choosing and living.

The Waves ★★★★★ (5/5)

  • He always gave her time to come to her own conclusions about something new without his editorial comment. That was one of the first things she liked about him when they started dating years ago.
  • “They believe the gift of immortality should be shared by all of humanity,” João said. “Even the farthest wanderers.”
  • Rebel. Change is the only constant.
  • We stop being human at the moment we give in to death.
  • either. It is terrible to put such a choice before them, but to decide for them would be even more cruel.”
  • Bobby was frozen at the physical age of ten. He and the other perpetual children integrated only uneasily into the life of the colonists. They had decades—sometimes centuries—of experience, but retained juvenile bodies and brains. They possessed adult knowledge, but kept the emotional range and mental flexibility of children. They could be both old and young in the same moment.
  • Even eternal youth and eternal life did not appear so wonderful compared to the freedom of being a machine, a thinking machine endowed with the austere beauty of crystalline matrices instead of the messy imperfections of living cells. At last, humanity has advanced beyond evolution into the realm of intelligent design.
  • Maggie looked at her granddaughter, a miniature mechanical centaur, freshly made and gleaming, and also a being much older and wiser than she by most measures.
  • While they flew, they huddled together against the cold emptiness that was space. Intelligence, complexity, life, computation—everything seemed so small and insignificant against the great and eternal void. They felt the longing of distant black holes and the majestic glow of exploding novas. And they pulled closer to each other, seeking comfort in their common humanity.
  • She felt the loneliness of making the entire universe your playground, yet having no home.
  • Patterns of energy now, Maggie and the others learned to coalesce, stretch, shimmer, and radiate. She learned how to suspend herself between stars, her consciousness a ribbon across both time and space.
  • She had done nothing drastic, just a small adjustment, a nudge in the right direction. The change would continue to mutate, and the mutations would accumulate long after she left. In another few hundred generations, the changes would be enough to cause a spark, a spark that would feed itself until the creatures would start to think of keeping a piece of the sun alive at night, of naming things, of telling stories to each other about how everything came to be. They would be able to choose.

Mono No Aware ★★★★★ (5/5)

  • He looked around, overcome by emotion. “It is in the face of disasters that we show our strength as a people. Understand that we are not defined by our individual loneliness, but by the web of relationships in which we’re enmeshed. A person must rise above his selfish needs so that all of us can live in harmony. The individual is small and powerless, but bound tightly together, as a whole, the Japanese nation is invincible.”
  • Dad sighed and smiled at me. He looked at the setting sun and spoke again: “The fading sunlight holds infinite beauty Though it is so close to the day’s end.”
  • “Everything passes, Hiroto,” Dad said. “That feeling in your heart: it’s called mono no aware. It is a sense of the transience of all things in life. The sun, the dandelion, the cicada, the Hammer, and all of us: we are all subject to the equations of James Clerk Maxwell, and we are all ephemeral patterns destined to eventually fade, whether in a second or an eon.”
  • “Yet it is this awareness of the closeness of death, of the beauty inherent in each moment, that allows us to endure. Mono no aware, my son, is an empathy with the universe. It is the soul of our nation. It has allowed us to endure Hiroshima, to endure the occupation, to endure deprivation and the prospect of annihilation without despair.”
  • We are defined by the places we hold in the web of others’ lives.

All the Flavors ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

  • After all, everyone called the banker “Mr. Kenan” when they were at the bank, but when he wasn’t around they called him “Shylock.”
  • “I think we have a pretty fair fight right now,” Crick said. He pointed his revolver at Logan. “Almighty God created men, but Colonel Colt made them equal.”
  • “When I was a boy I was taught that there were only five flavors in the world, and all the world’s joys and sorrows came from different mixtures of the five. I’ve learned since then that’s not true. Every place has a taste that’s new to it, and whiskey is the taste of America.”
  • While weak men and delicate women who were afraid to die fled south so that they could row around on their flower boats and sing their drunken verses, those who stayed behind, matching the music of their lives to the rhythm of the howling rage of the desert, grew tall with the barbaric blood mixed into their veins and became full of pride at their life of toil.
  • “Sweet, sour, bitter, hot, and salty, all the flavors in balance.”
  • Wei qi was even better than plum wine. There was sweetness in the simplicity of the rules, bitterness in defeat, and burning-hot joy in victory. The patterns made by the stones were meant to be chewed over, savored.
  • The way you go on, I’d think you are a lover of the Chinese if I didn’t know better. You claim to be showing me their faults, but all you’ve said simply show that they are industrious, frugal, clever, happy with each other’s company, and willing to bear hardships. If this is the worst you can say about the Chinamen, then it is all but certain that the Civilization of Confucius is going to triumph over the Civilization of Christ.”
  • “I don’t know what will happen to us out there,” Lao Guan said. “All life is an experiment. But at the end of our lives we’d know that no man could do with our lives as he pleased except ourselves, and our triumphs and mistakes alike were our own.”
  • “This is home,” Logan said, smiling at her. “This is where I have finally found all the flavors of the world, all the sweetness and bitterness, all the whiskey and sorghum mead, all the excitement and agitation of a wilderness of untamed, beautiful men and women, all the peace and solitude of a barely settled land—in a word, the exhilarating lift to the spirit that is the taste of America.”

A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

  • Politics were for those who had too much to eat.
  • I consider Betty’s words. It is the obsession of Americans to speak, to express opinions on things that they are ignorant about. They believe in drawing attention to things that other people may prefer to keep quiet, to ignore and forget. But I can’t dismiss the image Betty has put into my head: a boy stands in darkness and silence. He speaks; his words float up like a bubble. It explodes, and the world is a little brighter, and a little less stiflingly silent.
  • The design is simple: three ovals interlinked, a chain. These are the links that bound two continents and three great cities together, and these are the shackles that bound men whose voices were forever silenced, whose names were forgotten. There is beauty and wonder here, and also horror and death.
  • Make the secret a bit harder to keep. That counts for something.

The Litigation Master and the Monkey King ★★★☆☆ (3/5)

  • No, one did not go near the yamen courts unless one had no other choice. When you sought justice, you gambled everything.
  • To those who came to Tian for help, he was a songshi, a litigation master. But to the yamen magistrate and the local gentry, to the men who wielded money and power, Tian was a songgun, a “litigating hooligan.”
  • Tian closed his eyes and thought about Yangzhou, with its teahouses full of indolent scholars arguing with singing girls about rhyme schemes, with its palatial mansions full of richly robed merchants celebrating another good trading season, with its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants happily praying for the Manchu Emperor’s health. Did they know that each day, as they went to the markets and laughed and sang and praised this golden age they lived in, they were treading on the bones of the dead, they were mocking the dying cries of the departed, they were denying the memories of ghosts?
  • They had cut the Chinese off from their past, made them a people adrift without the anchor of their memories.
  • But the past lives on in the form of memories, and those in power are always going to want to erase and silence the past, to bury the ghosts. Now that you know about that past, you’re no longer an innocent bystander. If you do not act, you’re complicit with the Emperor and his Blood Drops in this new act of violence, this deed of erasure. Like Wang Xiuchu, you’re now a witness. Like him, you must choose what to do. You must decide if, on the day you die, you will regret your choice.”

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary ★★★★★ (5/5)

  • Every night, when you stand outside and gaze upon the stars, you are bathing in time as well as light.
  • The pairs of Bohm-Kirino particles are under quantum entanglement. This means that they are bound together in such a way that no matter how far apart they are from each other physically, their properties are linked together as though they are but aspects of a single system. If you take a measurement on one member of the pair, thereby collapsing the wave function, you would immediately know the state of the other member of the pair, even if it is light-years away.
  • Who should have control over the past is a question that has troubled all of us, in various forms, for many years. But the invention of the Kirino Process made this struggle to control the past a literal, rather than merely a metaphorical, issue.
  • One of the most vexing problems created by the violent and unstable process by which states expand and contract over time is this: As control over a territory shifts between sovereigns over time, which sovereign should have jurisdiction over that territory’s past?
  • If these debates have a clinical and evasive air to them, that is intentional. “Sovereignty,” “jurisdiction,” and similar words have always been mere conveniences to allow people to evade responsibility or to sever inconvenient bonds. “Independence” is declared, and suddenly the past is forgotten; a “revolution” occurs, and suddenly memories and blood debts are wiped clean; a treaty is signed, and suddenly the past is buried and gone. Real life does not work like that.
  • All along, we have made international law work only by assuming that the past would remain silent.
  • Evan told the history of Japan to me not as a recitation of dates or myths, but as an illustration of scientific principles embedded in humanity. He showed me that the history of Japan is not a story about emperors and generals, poets and monks. Rather, the history of Japan is a model demonstrating the way all human societies grow and adapt to the natural world as the environment, in turn, adapts to their presence.
  • Clearing away the superficial structure of the reigns of emperors and the dates of battles, there was the deeper rhythm of history’s ebb and flow not as the deeds of great men, but as lives lived by ordinary men and women wading through the currents of the natural world around them: its geology, its seasons, its climate and ecology, the abundance and scarcity of the raw material for life. It was the kind of history that a physicist could love.
  • Our lives are ruled by these small, seemingly ordinary moments that turn out to have improbably large effects. Such randomness is much more common in human affairs than in nature,
  • If we, for “strategic” reasons, sacrifice the truth in the name of gaining something of value for short-term advantage, then we will have simply repeated the errors of our forefathers at the end of the War.
  • History is not merely a private matter. Even the family members of the victims understand that there is a communitarian aspect to history.
  • Because of our limited capacity for empathy for mass suffering, I think there’s a risk that his approach would result in sentimentality and only selective memory.
  • And so the People’s Republic’s approach to historical memory created a series of connected problems. First, the leniency they showed the prisoners became the ground for denialists to later question the veracity of confessions by Japanese soldiers. Second, yoking patriotism to the memory of the War invited charges that any effort to remember was politically motivated. And lastly, individual victims of the atrocities became symbols, anonymized to serve the needs of the state.
  • without real memory, there can be no real reconciliation.
  • History is a narrative enterprise, and the telling of stories that are true, that affirm and explain our existence, is the fundamental task of the historian. But truth is delicate, and it has many enemies. Perhaps that is why, although we academics are supposedly in the business of pursuing the truth, the word “truth” is rarely uttered without hedges, adornments, and qualifications.
  • Those who have witnessed the ineffable have no doubt of its existence, but that clarity is incapable of being replicated for anyone else. And so we are stuck here, in the present, trying to make sense of the past.
  • Evan tried to introduce more empathy and emotion into historical inquiry. For this he was crucified by the academic establishment. But adding empathy and the irreducibly subjective dimension of the personal narrative to history does not detract from the truth. It enhances the truth. That we accept our own frailties and subjectivity does not free us to abdicate the moral responsibility to tell the truth, even if, and especially if, “truth” is not singular but a set of shared experiences and shared understandings that together make up our humanity.
  • We are born into strong currents of history, and it is our lot to swim or sink, not to complain about our luck.
  • The truth is not delicate and it does not suffer from denial—the truth only dies when true stories are untold.
  • The silence of the victims of the past imposes a duty on the present to recover their voices, and we are most free when we willingly take up that duty.