In his review of Ted Chiang’s brilliant short story collection Stories of Your Life and Others (2002) in The Guardian, China Miéville mentions the “humane intelligence […] that makes us experience each story with immediacy and Chiang’s calm passion.” The oxymoron “calm passion” is an insightful and ingenious way to describe these stories because of the way it hints at their deft melding of the most solid of hard science fiction concepts with an often surprisingly gentle, humane touch. There’s no other author I can think of who can inject such a level of emotionality in a story about a mathematical theorem like “Division by Zero.” There’s no one who has ever combined linguistics, alien contact and the struggles of raising a child as movingly as Ted Chiang does in “Story of Your Life.” And that’s just listing two out of the eight consistently excellent stories collected here.
At this point, because we’re talking about what’s considered by many to be one of the single best collections of short speculative fiction ever, I’d like to encourage you to save yourself some time, stop reading this review and just go buy the lovely new edition by Small Beer Press (which also includes the author’s fascinating notes about each of the stories and features a gorgeous new cover commissioned by Ted Chiang himself), but if you wish to continue reading, the rest of this entry will provide some more impressions of the book and the individual stories, some links to further reading about the author, and at the end, an entirely hypothetical description of his writing process that hopefully will not lead to cease-and-desist letters.
Ted Chiang’s prose is often understated, as if he didn’t want flowery language to stand in the way of the ideas behind the stories. As advanced and frankly strange as some of his concepts are, the lucid and rational tone Chiang employs to introduce them allows them to sneak into your mind without any resistance, much in the same way that a comedian’s dead-pan delivery often amplifies the effect of a joke.
Especially in the pure science fiction stories, Chiang makes no excuses for the hard science that underpins his work and will at times go into great depth explaining the theories behind the tales, even illustrating them with charts. At the same time, he also doesn’t shy away from emotion, especially in “Story of Your Life” and “Division by Zero.” Amazingly, the stories that lean more towards fantasy than science fiction, notably “Hell Is the Absence of God” and “Seventy-Two Letters,” sound just as rational and logical, despite the oddness of their concepts.
Chiang also employs some neat tricks and techniques, such as the lack of any dialogue in “Hell Is the Absence of God.” In contrast “Liking What You See: A Documentary” is essentially all speech (in the form of a series of long interview and debate answers). Also compare the faux Victorian era style in “Seventy-Two Letters” with the modern magazine article format of “The Evolution of Human Intelligence.” Most impressively, in “Story of Your Life,” Chiang intermingles two separate story lines, mostly moving in two temporal directions — and not only is the story perfectly readable, but the technique is highly relevant to the story’s theme. It almost feels like he’s showing off, writing eight stunning stories, none of which are alike.
Several of these stories received one or more of the major genre awards upon publication, including three Nebulas, a Hugo, a Campbell Award, a Sturgeon Award, a Locus Award and a Sidewise Award, with “Hell Is the Absence of God” being the most decorated story with three separate awards. It’s also interesting to note that Ted Chiang withdrew “Liking What You See: A Documentary” when it was nominated for a Hugo, because he felt the story didn’t turn out the way he really wanted it to after having to rush it due to editorial pressure.
With all of this, it’s quite likely that this isn’t the first time you’ve read that this is some of the best short-form speculative fiction work published in the last two decades. If it is, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage you, once again, to stop reading and go buy this collection. If you’re still not on your way to the bookstore, here are a few notes about the individual stories.
The collection starts off strong (say, Jorge Luis Borges-level strong) with “Tower of Babylon,” in which a group of miners are traveling to the tower of Babel, an impossibly tall structure that, in an astonishing literalization of Ptolemaic cosmology, rises past the moon, sun and stars to reach the Vault of Heaven, where God resides. This is one of those stories that starts out sounding normal, takes a left turn into the surreal early on, and ends with one of the all-time greatest brain-twisters in speculative fiction history. It’s also a great example of Chiang’s stylistic habit of using an eminently reasonable tone, almost comparable to that of a realistic travelogue, to describe something wonderfully odd. If M.C. Escher had written short stories, he might have come up with this.
Next up is “Understand,” an examination of the hypothetical effects of unimaginable levels of intelligence amplification. The inside look at the protagonist’s mind is at once impressive and terrifying. Describing this story as “Flowers for Algernon” on steroids doesn’t do justice to its mind-bending final pages, but thematically there’s definitely a link.
“Division by Zero” is maybe the most emotional short story ever featuring this many math references. It consists of 9 sub-chapters, each consisting of a mathematical factoid, followed by a short look into the minds of each of its two protagonists. Saying the story is “about” a math theorem, as I did at the start of this review, is probably misleading, because it’s more about the effect of a theorem on the main character. Like several other stories in this collection, one of its themes is the inevitability of knowledge: the inability to ignore or forget something once it’s entered your mind. (For another great examination of this, check out China Miéville’s story “Details”.)
My personal favorite, and one of the single best science fiction novellas I’ve ever read, is “Story of your Life,” in which a linguist achieves an entirely new perspective on time and awareness while trying to master an alien language. This story, in itself, is easily worth the cover price of the book. It’s filled with poignant, delicate images that circle back to its main theme in unexpected ways (e.g. the main character’s daughter telling her to read a fairy tale “the right way”). It’s hard to imagine how emotional a hard science fiction story can be until you’ve read this one.
“Seventy-Two Letters,” one of the strangest stories in the collection, is set in an alternate version of the Victorian era, in which Golems are an integral part of the burgeoning industrial revolution and the Royal Society of natural philosophers is working behind the scenes to save mankind from extinction. (And since three times is a charm, a third line from this collection towards China Miéville leads through The Iron Council, in which he does some equally innovative — but very different — things with golems.)
The three-page entry “The Evolution of Human Science” is more of a concept than a story, but one that may mess with your head more than any of the others in the collection, especially after you read the author’s brief afterword about it.
In “Hell Is the Absence of God,” there’s no longer any question about the existence of Heaven or Hell — after all, both versions of the afterlife are at times visible from Earth, and everyone gets to go to one of them. Angels occasionally manifest in our reality, usually accompanied by a handful of miracles as well as some corollary damage. In this setting we meet the heart-broken protagonist of the story, whose wife died in the blast area of an angelic visitation, and who is afraid he doesn’t love God sufficiently to be allowed to join her in Heaven. Enough has been written about this extraordinary story that I won’t waste your time with more — suffice it to say that you won’t forget this one easily after reading it.
Closing out the collection is “Liking What You See: A Documentary” (the one he turned down a Hugo nomination for), in which people can selectively turn off the ability to recognize beauty in humans. The story consists of a number of short sections, all either answers to interview questions or parts of a speeches, debates and even commercials. This format somewhat masks its highly emotional content and is a great example of Chiang’s understated style. Most of the characters are very realistically painted college students, full of their newly discovered independence and individuality, and the various ways they deal with this issue (or turn it into an issue) is very sharply drawn.
That concludes this amazing lineup of eight unforgettable and excellent short stories collected in Stories of Your Life and Others. And now, as promised: China Miéville’s “calm passion” oxymoron mentioned at the start of this review, as well as the apparent contrast between the sometimes mind-bending concepts behind these stories and their lucid, uber-rational tone, kept running through my mind. After finishing the final story in the collection, a sleepless night during which I simply couldn’t stop thinking about the possible workings of a mind that can come up with this type of fiction led me to this description of Ted Chiang’s writing process, which, I would like to emphasize once again, is entirely fictional.
At varying intervals of several months to several years, but usually during a full moon, Mr. Chiang is overcome by a fit of inspiration that, in intensity and impact, is probably comparable to one of the angelic visitations he describes in “Hell Is the Absence of God.” After releasing a bloodcurdling scream, he races for his laptop and begins to type furiously for about 72 hours straight, disregarding everything around him in a desperate bid to record the searing visions granted to him before they fade. After this, he tiredly prints out the results (which at this point resemble a Joycean stream of consciousness that contains more neologisms than punctuation), locks them in a fireproof safe, and passes out for about two days. This completes the first phase of Mr. Chiang’s creative process. (While Mr. Chiang is recovering unconsciously, and his family cleans up the debris around his writing area, it’s now time — unbeknownst to the author — for the editors of the major speculative fiction magazines and anthologies to engage in their yearly cage match. The winner of this brutal fight wins the singular honor of being the first to publish the new Ted Chiang story.) Once the author is awake and lucid again, he somewhat sheepishly returns to his daily routine (in which he is an apparently soft-spoken technical writer living in Washington State), but after a few weeks, recollections of his last “turn” start to seep into his forebrain. This indicates the start of the second phase of Mr. Chiang’s creative process, which involves reviewing and deconstructing the chaotic output of the first phase, taking it apart much like a watchmaker repairing a timepiece, and with the help of graphing paper, a microscope, and possibly a few scientific implements that aren’t available yet to the general population, carefully and painstakingly building it into one of his supremely elegant and coolly lucid stories. Incidentally, this unusual and lengthy process also explains why Mr. Chiang has only published about 12 stories in the last 20 years. (Please note again that the above description is my entirely fictional attempt to come to terms with the utter brilliance of these stories. Aside from the editors’ cage match, of course — that’s all true.)
For a more truthful look at Ted Chiang’s writing process, check this Boing Boing interview. If you don’t want take my word for the excellence of this collection, take it from the participants in one of SFsignal.com’s recent Mind Melds, who all listed their ideal table of contents for the Perfect Short Story Collection. Go ahead and count the number of times Ted Chiang is mentioned. Then go buy Stories of Your Life and Others.
Stories of Your Life and Others is one of those books that receives such universal praise and accolades from readers, critics, and award committees that it represents a real risk for a book reviewer. After all, if you love the book, you’re merely contributing to the overwhelming chorus of praise and not really adding much to the discussion, but at least you are “on the same page” as everyone. The alternative is much more frightening. If you didn’t like or connect with a certain book, then you are either 1) too insensitive to recognize genius when it confronts you, 2) a perverse contrarian who takes pleasure in criticizing what everyone else likes, or 3) clueless and have no credibility as a reviewer.
Well, despite repeated listenings to the stories of Ted Chiang’s collection, I just didn’t get why they were so amazing and brilliant. I can certainly realize their careful crafting, intellectual rigor, rationalism, and serious thought about religion and faith. But I didn’t care about the characters or say, “Wow, amazing,” at the end of each story. Instead, I found the heavy role of mathematics, theoretical physics, language theory, and cool rationalism to be an obstacle to developing an emotional connection to the characters.
This was particularly true of “Story of Your Life,” which is all about mathematics, quantum physics, alien linguistics, and sequential vs. simultaneous time, but overlays this onto the very human story of a mother recounting the various events of her daughter’s life from a unique perspective. This should be EXACTLY the type of story that I love, given that I find all those topics fascinating. So in terms of story DNA, it should be a perfect story for me, but I’m afraid it’s like a painting I can appreciate for its technical brilliance and delicate structure, but it didn’t move me. Since this story not only won awards but also served as the inspiration for the 2016 Academy Award-winning SF film Arrival, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, it is certainly a story that gained plenty of attention. I’ll have to watch the movie now, since many of the book reviewers also rave about it as “that rare creature, a SF film that relies on intellect rather than CG and space battles.” Again, usually exactly my cuppa tea, so I’m at a loss to understand why I didn’t care all that much for it.
“Understand” is my favorite story in the collection, very much in the Flowers for Algernon mold but much more intense, about a man who in the process of being treated for a terrible accident is granted super intelligence, and his growing understanding of what it means to be smarter than the rest of the human race. The ending is quite dramatic and memorable.
There are also several stories that examine religious faith, specifically Biblical themes like “Tower of Babylon” and a literal vision of a world in which Heaven and Hell are real, “Hell is the Absence of God.” Both of these stories take a famous religious idea like the Tower of Babel or Heaven/Hell and then treat it in the most literal and magic realist terms.
“Tower of Babylon” describes that famous structure reaching into the stratosphere, and the construction workers who toil for generations to build it and what happens when they finally reach the Dome of Heaven. It is clearly a story about faith, but the conclusion and message was opaque to me. I tend to not respond to stories with religious themes, not being a believer myself, but still, I just didn’t get the point.
“Hell is the Absence of God” was a much more pointed story about why people go to Heaven or Hell, whether God is just or capricious, and whether good deeds and thoughts go rewarded or not. It is actually a fairly interesting exploration of “why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa,” but I have never heard a convincing explanation of this that involves divine will. The conclusion of this story only confirmed for me that rewards and punishments have no connection with belief or actions, though I don’t think that was the intended message. Again, I just am not wired to understand these things.
“Seventy Two Letters” was a strong story, a very steampunk story of an inventor who creates a Golem that forms the basis of an alternate Industrial Revolution in England, and also has some interesting parallels with computer programming. It also raises some questions about creating life and the responsibilities that come with that. I’d say this was one of the stronger stories of the collection.
“Liking What You See: A Documentary” is about our human obsession with physical appearances and what would happen if this could be removed via a medical procedure. What would happen if you no longer perceived others as “beautiful” or “ugly?” Would you then judge them for their character or actions, and would this create a more just society? Again, an interesting thought experiment that Chiang explores via a series of journalistic articles and snippets of college students’ opposing views of this procedure, much like a pro-/anti-gun control type debate. It was a good idea, but I thought it dragged on far too long and I lost interest partway through.
Overall, I think Stories of Your Life and Others will probably please more readers than not based on all the rave reviews and awards, even though I didn’t like it all that much. The audiobook was ably narrated by Abby Crayden and Todd McLaren, who convey the cool, cerebral tone of the stories.
I had hazy memories of reading the title story of this collection, “Story of Your Life,” when it won the Nebula and was nominated for the Hugo in 1999, and have been wanting to reread it for ages. I finally got my hands on it again as part of this collection, and reread “Story of Your Life” first. It didn’t disappoint… in fact, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Chiang combines linguistics, psychology, and sociology with alien first contact and loving vignettes about a mother’s relationship with her daughter. It blew my mind how well he did it. That novella was a clear five-star read for me (and now I really want to see the film Arrival).
So I dove into the rest of this collection, which was, for the most part, a slight letdown. Chiang is still brilliant — his ideas sometimes fly a little over my head — but the actual storytelling frequently falters, with a few of the stories striking me more as focused on exploring a particular idea (in a thin fictional setting) than on telling a compelling story.
Here’s the list of stories in this collection, along with my ratings and comments:
- 5 stars for “Tower of Babylon”: This novelette, which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, retells the events of building the Biblical tower of Babel. A group of miners takes the months-long climb to the top of the tower so that they can cut through the “vault of Heaven,” which is a ceiling over the earth that the builders of the tower have reached. The twist is that, in this world, all of the beliefs about our cosmos that held sway thousands of years ago are actually real, including a flat earth. The normal rules of physics and what we know about our universe don’t apply. It’s not as mind-blowing as “Story of Your Life,” but came pretty close. I enjoyed it immensely.
- 4 stars for “Understand”: An introspective novelette and another Hugo Award winner, about a self-absorbed artistic man who is given a spinal injection of “hormone K” when he’s left brain-dead in the aftermath of an accident. It not only revives his brain but rebuilds his neurons in a far better way, giving him superhuman levels of intelligence. It felt rather remote and slow-paced until the rousing ending. Though that ending was fascinating, I couldn’t quite buy into the justification for the final conflict.
- 3 stars for “Division by Zero”: This story is an exploration of suicidal tendencies that can strike when a person’s worldview is completely upended. It’s told from a mathematician’s point of view, who discovers a proof that mathematics is inconsistent and illogical. The math elements whooshed over my head and, perhaps partly because of that lack of understanding, the rest of the story wasn’t compelling.
- 5 stars for “Story of Your Life,” as discussed above. It’s interesting that I loved this so much more the second time I read it. Maybe the ideas needed some time to seep into my brain.
- 5 stars for “Seventy-Two Letters”: In this Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning novella, Victorian steampunk is crossed with Jewish “golem” mythology, which is treated as serious science here. Chiang’s approach here is similar to that in “Tower of Babylon,” in that the way science (here, biology) works in this world is far different than in the real world. It can a while to really wrap your brain around that, and I’m not sure my brain ever entirely got there. “Seventy-Two Letters” contains several interesting ideas — especially when eugenics pops up its nasty head — but I got a little lost in the weeds.
- 3 stars for “The Evolution of Human Science”: This is a 3-page short-short in the form of a science journal article, discussing and analyzing what has happened to normal human scientific research now that there are “metahumans” (another subset of super-intelligent humans among us) whose scientific research and knowledge are unimaginable leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of humanity’s. The tone is highly analytical, as befits a scientific article; the subtext seems to be that normal humans are in a pathetic place now but trying to make the best of it.
- 5 stars for “Hell is the Absence of God”: Yet another “what if the world really worked in a different way that some people believe in” type of literary exploration (Chiang seems taken with this approach). In this disturbing novelette, yet another Hugo and Nebula winner, Chiang assumes the reality of old-style Judeo-Christian beliefs. Heaven and hell, as traditionally envisioned, are indisputably real. Powerful angels periodically appear, wreaking havoc and physical destruction whenever they do. Hell also puts in regular appearances: the ground becomes temporarily transparent every so often, and you can “see Hell as if you were looking through a hole in the ground.” But there’s very little spiritual comfort to be found in this world, along with physical blindness that’s a clear symbol of spiritual blindness. In the end we are faced with a God who is inconsistent, unfair and indifferent. It’s a well-crafted story, but personally I found the hostility to religion distasteful.
- 5 stars for “Liking What You See: A Documentary”: What happens when scientists figure out a way to sidestep “lookism,” turning off people’s ability in our brains to evaluate the physical attractiveness of others? It’s another piece of fiction that struck me as more of a thought experiment, built around a particular idea. Chiang goes down some less-expected paths, but here again I found the style of his story-telling to be overly analytical and remote.