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Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang, Tor, 2002, 333 pp.
Ted Chiang is one of the most honoured writers in science fiction -- he's won every major award in the field and the Nebula Award twice. He's a painstaking writer, and Stories of Your Life and Others has all of his fiction to date, only eight stories. Readers unfamiliar with Chiang's work will come to this collection with fairly high expectations! How do his stories stack up to this acclaim? The first half of this book has stories that are flawless and absolutely astounding; they deserve every acclaim that they have received. I didn’t care as much for the stories in the second half, but they were all clearly written by the same insightful writer. Chiang's writing reminds me a great deal of Yann Martel's in Life of Pi: both writers have a grasp of smooth writing, writing that is also intriguing, and both can convey information in a pleasing way.
“Tower of Babylon” was Chiang’s first published story and it won him a Nebula Award. This story exhibits Chiang's trademark approach: take a worldview and write from within its logical framework. "Tower of Babylon" is the story of Hillalum, a Babylonian miner who is called to help at the great tower itself. The Babylonians have been building the tower for hundreds of years and it has now reached the vault of heaven; Hillalum's professional services are required to help tunnel through that vault. The main part of the story is about Hillalum and a crew of others as they make the four-month ascent. They pass through clouds, the zone of the sun (during which time they have to travel at night), the stars, and finally up to the summit of the tower where it is about to meet the stone of the sky itself. Chiang describes the mining process, and how the teams make sure that the heavenly reservoirs of water behind the sky won't flood through. What happens when they break through? I won't ruin the surprise of the story, because Chiang's ending lives up to the potential of what has come before. It's a remarkably effective piece, written in a straight style that helps convince us of Babylonian cosmology.
“Understand” is about that over-used idea in the genre, the mentally advanced person. Leon almost died from a drowning accident, and large parts of his brain were destroyed. Doctors bring him out of a coma by administering an experimental drug called hormone K that is supposed to make dead areas of the brain grow back. It works too well, however, and soon Leon is far smarter than the doctors and, later, the CIA operatives sent to assess his usefulness. He steals some more K, and blackmails the Director of the CIA into leaving him alone. Otherwise, there's not much action in the story: Chiang takes us along a simple progression as Leon gets smarter. What is the human brain capable of? What would higher intelligence actually look like? The story rests on the strengths of Chiang's answers, and he doesn't disappoint. The ending feels somewhat conventional, but at least it's not the Flowers for Algernon style of concluding a story by way of returning everything to the status quo.
“Division by Zero” is an intriguing and character-based story about advanced mathematics! This would seem to be a total contradiction in terms, but the structure of the story is carefully orchestrated to reveal both character and mathematical ideas at the same time. Renee is a brilliant mathematician, but she is worried that her new system of thinking will undermine the whole field; her husband Carl supports her as best he can from his own experience with depression years ago. "Division by Zero" is impossible to describe. It's best experienced first hand.
“Story of Your Life” is a revelation, another work that bases its structure on its foundational ideas and succeeds at the task. It's by far my favourite story in the collection. It's also one of the few first contact stories in science fiction that actually focuses on the vast amount of work it would be to decipher an alien language. Even better, Chiang finds an interesting basis for this alien language in an underlying foundation for physics that is diametrically opposed to our own. The main character Louise is a linguist, and will this distinctive language affect her mind? Again, Chiang raises some fascinating issues and doesn't disappoint in the payoff.
“Seventy-Two Letters” is an excellent story, but not as mind-blowing as the first four in the collection. It's the second of three Chiang stories, following "Tower of Babylon," that gets its effect by examining, inside and out, a worldview non-typical in sf. While "Tower of Babylon" felt hermetically sealed, existing in its own environment and anxieties, "Seventy Two Letters" has some familiar concerns. This is a world of golems, set in the Victorian era, and the main issues of the story are power, control, and the possible end of all human life on the planet.
“The Evolution of Human Science” is a fun short-short, taking the shape of an article written for an academic journal. Humans have been superseded by their creations, the metahumans, but we can’t really understand what they are doing. Should we continue doing science, even if we are way behind?
“Hell is the Absence of God” takes us into a world shaped by the fundamentalist Christian point of view. Angels visit Earth, but they are not the warm and fuzzy guardian angels of too many greeting cards and bad TV shows. This is probably the most rigorously constructed of the three alternate-worldview stories in the collection, and also one of the most chilling. The first line of the book gives away the ending: "This is the story of a man named Neil Fisk, and how he came to love God" (245). But the route to that conclusion is grim and surprising and, best of all, a logical outcome of what we are told during the narrative.
“Liking What You See: A Documentary” is a previously unpublished story. How does beauty affect us? In the future, a brain modification called calliagnosia (calli for short) is available and it has one function: to make the human brain unaware of the visual attractiveness or ugliness of other people. Chiang makes the story work by taking us into the viewpoints of many different people, mostly around a college campus that is deciding whether to make calli mandatory on-campus.
Stories of Your Life and Others concludes with some author's notes by Chiang, and he discusses each of the stories and how he got the ideas behind them. On the whole, the stories here are well worth reading and the hype is largely right: this is definitely an important collection.
Last modified: March 7, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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