Of Imagination and Fantasy: The Importance of Childhood and a Look at Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie”

For many readers, it seems that  speculative fiction (once you figure out what it means) conjures up either thoughts of the future or the ancient worlds past. Visions of demons and monsters, aliens and robots, or their hybrid kin tend to spill from the stories we read and, as a result, the realms of  sci-fi and horror cloud our minds; but is this the only “ speculative”?

Where are the worlds we saw as children when our toy soldiers came to life and shot their plastic green guns filled with imagined bullets or when the dolls that we groomed so meticulously walked with a womanly confidence and won the hearts of all the soldiers in our toy boxes? These magical moments that we experienced as children seem disappear from our daily adult lives. Now, when we look at stuffed animals or tiny figurines, all we see is plastic and thread.

But for speculative fiction writer and most recent winner of the Hugo Award for Science Fiction, Ken Liu, the power of childish imagination does not only exist in his stories: it thrives. In his short story, “The Paper Menagerie,” Liu envisions the synthetic life of origami animals and their struggle to exist as supernatural entities for a Chinese-American child named Jack as he struggles to accept his mother’s heritage as his own.

A small paper tiger by the name of Laohu replaces a human friend for Jack, who is able to give the tiger life when they play. Like any other tiger, Laohu can leap and growl, he can hiss and bite, and he can grow old and die. The significance of this toy and its close relationship with Jack present a unique magical realist twist on the classical characters found in fantasy and sci-fi.

Liu is a master of playing (quite literally) with his characters and using them to express very adult themes through the eyes of a child. There are underlying notions of racism and self-acceptance alongside Jack’s mother’s struggle to integrate into the foreign home she lives in are are very real issues, and not necessarily fantastical. Many of us hail from foreign countries or have ancestry in foreign countries that may or may not make us feel very comfortable in our own skin. Racism isn’t something made up nor was it an invented monster for any particular tale, but much like robots or zombies it is something that threatens the autonomy of characters in both fantastic and general fiction tales.

This story exposes in its skeleton many aspects of traditional speculative fiction: the fantastical, the realistic, the familiar, and the strange. All the pieces of the puzzle exist within it, so why is this sort of speculative fiction not as popular? That is to say, what does Dracula have that Laohu does not?

I had never head of this story, nor did I have any idea of who Ken Liu was until a couple of weeks ago. The notion of re-visiting childhood seemed boring to me and, in my quest for exploring new speculative pieces, my interest was hardly piqued by the first glance at this story. Out of boredom (or maybe the desperate desire to select a piece for my upcoming blog article) I figured, “What the hell.”

I quickly fell in love with the plot and the character of Laohu. Perhaps it’s the fact that I stem from a multicultural family (my mother is African and my father is American with German parents) but the cultural asymmetry between Jack and his mother really struck a chord with me. I understood Jack’s desire to fit in and I felt the pain in his heart as he was torn between two worlds. But what gripped me the most was how Jack’s perspective on his heritage shifted as grew up.

Jack starts out  consumed by the “magic” of his mother’s creations. His eyes light up when he holds the paper animals in his hands, feeling their spirits come to life. But quickly, Jack’s peers and neighbors strip him of his love for these origami creatures (in Chinese these are called zhezhi) and he sees them as nothing more than colored paper.

Perception and the willingness to believe is such an important part of what allows us to accept things as magical or fantastical. Without that readiness to accept something as true even if every sign is pointing to the opposite, we would not have speculative fiction. Horror,  sci-fi,  fantasy,  cyber-punk,  steampunk,  dystopian, and  utopian themes all depend on the reader to revert to a childlike mentality in order to view these make-believe worlds. Yet what’s striking is that when presented as adult universes, we can easily accept them; it is the inclusion of child-like elements that separates the fantastical from the immature.

The world of a child, through the eyes of a child, is the most magical world of all. When we are able to bestow life into lifeless objects: paper, plastic, and fabric, we are able to transport ourselves into the true universes in which the  speculative genre was meant to be. A villainous A.I thriller is good, a classic blood-curling horror about bloodsuckers is great, but maybe what we need to really need to (re)experience  are those cuddly and childproof fantasies of our youth: the kind filled with paper tigers and simple hearts like Laohu.

– Contributed by Hannah-Sophie Hirsch

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