Stories Of Your Life And Others - Ted Chiang

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive)

Stories Of Your Life And Others
Ted Chiang
Orb books
ISBN: 0765304198 (Amazon link)

I've never read anything by Ted Chiang before, but as I kept reading gushing, breathless recommendations for his work, I picked this up on a whim one lunchtime. I was curious - how could someone who'd written so little get so much praise? The cover of this suggests he won six awards with just seven published stories. Oh, seven awards if you include "Best New Writer". That's an award for each published short story! Surely he couldn't be that good?

He is. This is quite simply one of the best short story collections I've ever read. It reminded me of what SF can and should be - the literature of ideas. The directness of the stories is admirable, each plot is pared right back to the bare minimum required to explore a central Big Idea. The prose is remarkably polished too; clean, spare, with few unnecessary words, and no straining after style. Even when evoking a period feel in Seventy Two Letters, Chiang does so with simple, short sentences, managing to conjure amazing atmosphere from surprisingly unadorned paragraphs. The transparent quality of the writing just lets the story jump from the page into your brain. However, what really brings each story to vivid, gripping life is the way the author manages to deftly sketch characters. Each story, no matter how abstract and clinical its central premise might sound - what if arithmetic could be shown to be inconsistent? - is build around a warmly human core, with complete complex people where others have mere characters. In every case the human story, no matter how tangential to the Idea at first glance, ends up mirroring and illuminating the central Idea. In case it's not clear, I'm now among those gushing praise for Chiang. Oh, and one more thing. There's not a single dud in the collection. Not one. The quality is uniformly superb.

The Tower Of Babylon - I almost groaned when I opened the book to this. Surely there's nothing more to be squeezed from this old chestnut? Well, what if God wasn't bothered by the Tower? The human focus here is Hillalum, a miner. Why a miner? Shockingly simple. When the Tower is pressed against the Vault of Heaven, Hillalum and his crew are going to tunnel through to find God. Superb.

Understanding - If I had to pick a weakest story, this might be it. It's still technically accomplished, and emotionally involving, but it felt a little less original than the others. There are shades of Flowers for Algernon and Blit. Leon has had a serious accident, and has suffered severe brain damage. Treatment with a new drug restores not only his original level of intelligence, but actually increases his functionality. He can now focus on two things at once for example, or memorise long numbers easily. Naturally, more treatments are suggested, as an experiment. The government becomes interested, but as Leon starts to see patterns in everything around him, he starts to realise that there are larger issues involved. If only he could get enough treatments to achieve full understanding of his own mind, he could rule the world, muhahaha! This story actually feels a lot more original than a summary suggests; the quality of the writing holds up the well trodden plot. Merely very good.

Division By Zero - Possibly my favourite. A man, a woman, suicide attempts, and a proof that arithmetic is inconsistent. The author's note says this was occasioned by the elegance of a derivation for Euler's Equation, which suggests a chilly, technical tale when in fact there's tremendous emotional impact in this story. Brilliant.

Story of Your Life - A retrospective look at what it means to bury a child, set amidst a first contact with aliens who think about time differently. Embraces variational physics, orthographies and language theories, all mirrored in a touching re-examination of a daughter's life. Another favourite.

Seventy Two Letters - Golems and Kabbala. What if the Doctrine of Names applied? What would an industrial revolution look life? Throw in the old biological theories of preformation, and approach both problems from the point of view of creating Von Neuman machines. Season with industrial politics, eugenics and a vaguely Victorian period feel. Yet another favourite.

The Evolution of Human Science - A three page short-short originally written for Nature. What if a splinter race of post-humans comes about and brings a scientific singularity? What then for the journals?

Hell is the Absence of God - Tied with Division By Zero for the top spot. God is real. We know this because we can see souls ascending to Heaven or descending to Hell. Hell can be seen underfoot at times, it's not so bad really, just mundane. Sometimes the dead come back to visit people. Angels are a frequent occurrence, but resemble natural disasters - people may get cured, or afflicted, but you can count on casualties from their appearance. Lightning, earthquake, fires. Oh, and those robbed of their eyes by a glimpse of Heaven's light when the angel crosses realms. Neil Fisk lost his wife when an angel appeared. She was killed by the explosion accompanying the angel's arrival; the window of the cafe she was in tore her apart. She ascended to Heaven. Neil can't love a God who would take his wife like that, but if he doesn't, he'll never join her in Heaven. The relentless internal logic of this tale gives it a real emotional impact, I really felt Neil's anger at his dilemma. The simple implications of a literal theology reminded me of Di Fillipo's A Year In Linear City, but with greater consequence. One of the best fantasies I've ever read.

Liking What You See: A Documentary - Stylistically different. This is a series of talking head interviews discussing the 'calli' phenomenon in an American college campus. Calliagnosia can be induced in anyone, but should everyone be freed from the bias of lookism, by having their reaction to facial beauty turned off by some minor, localised and reversible brain surgery? Wonderful range of voices here, from political student bodies, to neurologists, social commentators, vapid teenagers, etc A technical tour de force, dissecting a fictional issue from all angles in the guise of what would be a splendid documentary were it real, and doing so with such vivid characters, constrained to first person short passages. Made to look effortless, it takes a re-read to appreciate how smoothly this story is told within the chosen format.

Overall, very highly recommended.

Posted: Mon - May 3, 2004 at 03:35 AM