Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (2002)

Arrival might be the most interesting movie I missed in 2016. From the guy behind new Blade Runner, and, (even more important!) new Dune. Heh, new Dune… I’m not ashamed to admit I love Lynch’s version, but I’m ready for a new one.

Back to Arrival…a science fiction with Amy Adams playing a linguist trying to decipher alien language. Without any threat of invasion, this is no Ender’s Game, the goal is just to understand a fundamentally different culture. Well, the goal of our protagonist, government would prefer to gain some useful technology. The problem is, this alien culture is build upon fundamentally different understanding of time. It’s not a line for them and so they understand the world in a way far removed from our experience. Their language (languages in fact, as their writing is a language in its own right) reflects that.

The science of language is done with great care for details, and while the movie – and at this point I know it only from reviews and trailers – adds many entertaining details, to build a feature film from 64-page short story – it’s still a piece of hard s/f.

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But enough about the movie, short story collection is what this post is about. And its very interesting author.

With just fourteen short stories and a novella, the author behind the recent film “Arrival” has gained a rapturous following within the genre and beyond.

Do read this excellent profile from New Yorker, by Joshua Rothman… and keep that in mind – not every genre writer gets a solid article about him in New Yorker, even in 2017.

The anthology contains eight stories and notes from the author. Every story is a gem, maybe even one I didn’t like that I will enjoy bitching about near the end of this text. This is not like a short story from GRRM’s thematic anthology – a way for, arguably good, authors to sell you on their multi-novel bookverses with 30-page trailers. These stories can be good, and I actually enjoy Dozois/GRRM’s anthologies a lot. But Chang, who never published a full-length novel, gives us something else. A full story condensed inside a small container, a finely cut diamond. Every one of his stories could become a door-stoper. None needs to.

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From time to time – and not even every year – Ted Chiangs gets an idea. Then, not too fast, he transforms it into a story. This process is explained a bit in author’s notes, I often started reading them before finishing the story, not to know what will happen, but what the author was thinking.

Like, what inspired what is possibly the first and only Babylonian s/f ever? A story about the Tower of Babel realistically depicting Mesopotamian construction technology in a world where Babylonian cosmology is actually a pretty accurate description of the universe. Very first story and a recurring Chiang theme – he likes to take an idea from one of the world’s religions, or a pre-scientific theory (that was a tautology, wasn’t it ;)? ), and imagine that it could be true, and take it to it’s absurd consequences. Interesting thought experiments, combined with great discipline and quite intensive writing. Another similar story – a world with our level of technology, but and Old Testament God active and rather annoying. His angels visit Earth, curing cancer and accidentally killing people with small cataclysms accompanying their descent from Heaven. When protagonist’s wife dies in one such accident – and goes to Heaven, you can check such things in this world – he must confront his lack of faith if he ever wants to get reunited with her. If you wander how this story, entitled Hell is the Absence of God, ends… it can be described as Book of Job without annoyingly artificial happy ending glued to it.

Early science combined with theology get steampunkish Seventy-Two Letters, a story about industrial manufacture of golems and science of Names. And social conscience in a world of Victorian prejudice. It’s also a reminder that any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. The scientific rigour is applied to Kabbalistic principles and the result is industrial revolution unlike the one we learned about. People though… they don’t change, their virtues and vices always create imperfect societies and need for change.

In Division by Zero brilliant mathematician has to cope with the fact that she invalidated basic assumptions of arithmetic and thus the foundations of her own world.

The final story, Liking What you See: A Documentary, is written as well, a documentary. I did not like it half as much as the others. Maybe because the way it’s written Chiang’s excellent prose is simplified to resemble spoken language of interviewees, but mostly because of its political message I tend to disagree with. Unlike the author, whose sympathies are clear as you read it, and confirmed in story notes. The issue discussed is lookism and a very real problem of how beauty or lack thereof distorts our perception of people. Proposed solution? A special treatment that alters the way brain works to make one incapable of recognising beauty. I learned to appreciate political correctness lately, but I’m always suspicious. And isn’t that a caricature of everything alt right accuses PC of being… But I’m reviewing a short story, so what made me annoyed isn’t the fact that Calli, as the treatment is called, was invented and discussed by Chiang. But it just so happens that the enthusiasts of Calli are nice, well meaning and honest, and objectors are paid behind the scenes by the Pharmaceutical industry… cheap trick available to every writer wanting to influence reader’s sympathies.

The stories are thought experiments, but not satire. Pratchett was the genius of satire and frequently used outdated ideas to give them life in his amazing world. Flat Earth, Egyptian gods on a rampage… Chiang does not wink as much. In his own way he creates profound stories about language, philosophy of science, consequences of knowledge, artificial ad biological intelligence. One of his goals, in his own words (and again – from the New Yorker piece), is to resist the identification of materialism with nihilism. I believe he does well.

Score: 9/10 Favourite story: Hell is the Absence of God or Tower of Babylon

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One thought on “Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (2002)

  1. Heh, tempted by your review I finally read Chiang’s stories. And I’m not in the least disappointed 🙂 Short stories usually showcase author’s strengths and weaknesses – they are a world in miniature. And Chiang is a master of that form. He offers very diverse stories here – from ancient Babylon through Victorian times to near future, which seems to be his favorite setting. The most known by now is most probably The Story of Your Life. I had seen Arrival before I read the story and I must say I appreciate both versions – for different reasons. As for Chiang’s compilation, my favorite stories are Hell is the Absence of God and Understand, the latter a sinister twist on Flowers for Algernon :). Division by Zero didn’t click for me at all, and I agree with your critique of Liking What You See as – in essence – a political pamphlet instead of sf story. All in all – a well-deserved 8/10.

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