Integrating contemporary literature with a specialized genre like science fiction seems to be difficult. Movement and The Homecoming both tried(?) and failed. However, all is not lost for the current field of nominees. From Ken Liu: The Paper Menagerie. This one operates well in the mode of Bradbury-esque magical realism: the story of a boy growing up, the magical paper dolls his immigrant mother makes for him, and a tinge of melancholy.
Jack is the son of an American father and a Chinese mother. There’s some unusual circumstances behind the marriage of Jack’s parents – his mother is a mail-order bride. She also has a magical ability: the origami she produces is embued with the essence of life. The Paper Menagerie is the story of Jack’s childhood, his efforts to become an all-American boy, and the eventual reconciliation with his mother’s culture.
Let’s begin with my first thought on the story. The Paper Menagerie does a much better job at fusing genres than do Movement or The Homecoming. Where those two stories simply use their science fiction settings as little more than decoration for a contemporary story, Liu’s The Paper Menagerie uses its fantasy settings much more wisely. Here, the fantasy elements aren’t serving as decoration to a contemporary story, they are actively participating.
For example, not only does the origami play a role in driving the first wedge between Jack and his mother, it also serves as the first step in allowing Jack to rebuild his relationship with his mother and Chinese culture. The origami itself serves the role of messenger, allowing Jack to realize that even though he abandoned his heritage, it never abandoned him. The origami is embedded into the story, not merely serving as window dressing.
As a story, The Paper Menagerie is about the pain of fitting in and conformity. Essentially, the implicit point is that giving into conformity makes the world a little less magical. Before Jack embraces Americanism, he plays with toys that are just as alive as he is. After, he plays with lifeless action figures that may be interactive, but not alive in any sense of the word.
Another focus is the experience of children who come from two different cultures. Jack is picked on for his half-Chinese appearance, but believes that this inability to fit in can be overcome by shirking all things Chinese. Liu seems to make the argument here that this route is ultimately self-destructive, leading to a growing distance between one’s parents and makes one blind or callous to heritage.
Overall, a solid story, and at least deserving of a nomination for a fantasy story. Of the stories nominated this year that handle contemporary issues, it does the best job blending the storytelling with genre.