Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang is my second favourite science-fiction short-story collection I’ve read. My first happens to be his newly released collection, Exhalation, released earlier this year which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.
The two collections, published seventeen years apart, both demonstrate Chiang’s ability to subtly weave very human stories using the mechanics of traditional science-fiction tropes. Yes, there are aliens and teleportation devices, time machines and androids, and artificial intelligence but these are just tools used to tell something of the human experience.
While I consider both books to be some of the greatest works of science-fiction ever written, the second book, Exhalation, has a deftness of narrative story telling and subtly of theme which is lacking in this first volume. You should absolutely read both, but that extra time period between the two collections has really allowed Chiang to tighten his storytelling bow until it pings with the clarity of a musical note.
Let’s do a quick run through the stories found within to give you a flavour of what you can expect…
Tower of Babylon
Hillalumm, a native of Elam, is enlisted to help build the Tower of Babylon, the infamous biblical monument. Were the tower, in Chiang’s version of the story, “to be laid down across the plain of Shinar, it’s would be two days’ journey to walk from one end to the other”, reaches impossibly high and requiring a building project biblical proportions (ding!) in order to meet the goal of reaching heaven and meeting the almighty.
The story can be read as allegory, but has at the same time Chiang’s impenetrable rationality which makes for a unique tale. Tower of Babylon fits into a series of Ted Chiang stories which I like to call, “Real Religion”. I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate it, as the description removes all the nuance of his story. Chiang, while clearly a rationalist with a solid grasp of science, also has a fascination with mainstream religion and there are hints of that here.
With more than a few similarities to Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Understand finds our protagonist, Leon, undergoing an experimental medical treatment as he recovers from an accident which resulted in serious brain damage. The procedure succeeds in restoring his brain function, but maybe too well and Leon finds that his intelligence is on an exponential upward curve with no clear end point. Eventually his intelligence becomes superhuman and he disassociated from the rest of the human race; if only there was someone who could empathise with his condition? Would that person be friend or foe and would they make the same choices as Leon?
Division by Zero
I won’t even pretend to understand Division by Zero. It’s a talented writer that can produce a narrative story with a basis in a mathematical principle. The story is broken up into mini-chapters, with each chapter broken up into even smaller narrative chunks. And from these chunks is produced a pattern which is likewise reflected in the narrative context of the story.
I didn’t completely understood what I read, but I knew it was clever!
Story of Your Life
Story of Your Life is the basis for the science-fiction film, Arrival. Following the appearance of a series of alien spacecraft which hang over various locations on Earth, the US Government enlists linguist Dr. Louise Banks to decipher their language and communicate with the aliens, known as heptapods.
The heptapod language is so unfamiliar that it proves almost impossible to decipher until Dr. Banks is presented with the concept of Fermat’s Principle of Least Time. From this she is able to deduce that the aliens experience all events in one single moment rather than sequentially as humans do.
Eventually Banks becomes so proficient in heptapod that she begins thinking like the alien creatures, becoming able to see events which have not yet happened. Through the story we see how knowing the future affects decisions she makes throughout her life.
This is another of Chaing’s “Real Religion” stories. There’s so much to unpack here that I can’t do it justice in a few short paragraphs, but if you’d like to a proper in depth analysis on this complex story, try Greg Beatty, on the Strange Horizon’s website.
The Evolution of Human Science
Scientific development has become so complex that scientific concepts can now only be communicated through Digital Neural Transfer or DNT. Unfortunately only humans augmented before development in the womb can receive data transferred by DNT resulting in a two tier population. The are echos of the modern class divide struggles here, but in Chiang’s world DNT builds an almost impermeable barrier between two sides of the human race.
Hell is the Absense of God
God exists, Angels are real. Miracles occur and their effects are real. When reading this I got flashbacks to reading The Boys comic book, another story which describes the real world effects were such fantastical concepts such as superheroes or gods real.
Hell is the Absence of God surfaces a series of hypocrisies in mainstream religion. It’s really a work of brilliance.
Liking What You See: A Documentary
Liking What You See is told as a talking-head documentary and follows a series of characters and their experiences with calli, a new technology which limits the ability for humans to see aesthetic beauty in one another. Never judge a book by its cover.