Imaginary Forest

Calvin Dong
4 min readJun 18, 2017

Imagine you started out with nothing.

Literally so. Just a blank canvas that you were on. You can imagine it as a huge white sheet of nothingness, and you just stood on the edge (or in the middle, who knows) and stared at the expanse of infinity.

But there was also a little fissure in it. Just a little crack where the two parts didn’t quite fit together, just a little break in the unchanging landscape.

Every day, you returned to that blank canvas. Everyday, it was unchanging. And every time, you took a glance at that little fracture to reassure yourself that it was there.

Imagine what it would feel like to return to your canvas one day and to see the crack gone. To see the two pieces merge into one, to see that little blemish wiped off of your canvas. It was pretty. You might even call it minimalistic. In a sense, it was perfect now. But why do I feel so empty?

The Paper Menagerie was really good. Generally, I’m used to short stories having a consistent feel, having a style or point of reference that pervades the whole work. Raymond Carver’s stuff all sounds quintessentially American and his characters pretty obviously are, and so on and so forth. In that sense, The Paper Menagerie was weird. The author (Ken Liu) flew between worlds ripped from my childhood to futuristic dreamscapes I could barely get a handle on. He even dabbles in Murakami-esque “This is the real world, but not” type of writing where things seem totally normal and realistic up until something twists and the realism shatters.

I’m not a big fan of dystopias or sci-fi, normally. Dystopias to me all sound the same; in order to make things perfect, x did y and that ended up restricting people from their personal freedom which led to a society in chaos -> etc. Some of that is still here, but finally I’m getting some unique realizations from it. In “The Perfect Match”, Liu describes a world where AI is perfect, and computers can literally predict your every need before you even realize you have them. I liked this quote a lot.

“He had a will that could not be captured in bits.”

As logical as we like to think we are (and I like to think I am) it’s part of us to have flights of fancy, to do something you never could have predicted, to spontaneously book a flight somewhere and take off, to start loving a genre of music that you never thought you would.

And what happens when those rough edges of being human are rubbed off? Well, you don’t really have to make any decisions because machines can make the most optimal ones for you, so a life like that can only be characterized as really boring. For all the ways machines make the world better, reading this story was the first time I’ve opened my eyes to the repercussions of losing touch with our humanity.

There are plenty of brilliant stories in here (also the titular story holy crap I almost cried) but I can’t summarize them anywhere near the level to how Ken Liu constructed them. So please, read this for yourself; the variety in here means there’s something for everyone.

I’m just gonna attach some quotes that I liked.

“Death is essential to the growth of our species.”

“It’s a myth that we must die to retain our humanity.”

“Do you ever regret choosing this path?”

“No,” Lydia said, holding his hand with both of hers. “I’m not afraid to step out of the way when something new comes to take my place”.

“You may join us, if you wish, or continue as you are. It is of course difficult to decide when you have no experience of our mode of existence. Yet you must choose. We cannot choose for you.”

“…despite the crowd, no one spoke above a whisper. The very air seemed to shimmer with the dense connections between all the people — families, neighbors, friends, colleagues — as invisible and strong as threads of silk.”

“Chess is a game of skirmishes,” I say. “The perspective of Go is bigger. It encompasses entire battles.”

“There are no heroes in Go,” Bobby says stubbornly.

I don’t know how to answer him.

Mindy is a singer, and she likes the sound of languages other than English. “It’s hard to hear the music behind the words when their meanings get in the way,” she told me once.

“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.”

We are defined by the places we hold in the web of others’ lives.

I pull my gaze back from the Go board until the stones fuse into larger patterns of shifting life and pulsing breath. “Individual stones are not heroes, but all the stones together are heroic.”

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