Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stories of Your Life and Others - Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is an author who clearly puts quality over quantity. Since the publication of his first story, Tower of Babylon, in 1990 only eleven more of his stories have been published, none exceeding novella length. Stories of Your Life and Others contains all of his output between 1990 and 2002, when the original version of the collection was published by Tor. Chiang was not happy with the way Tor treated his work however. He felt he was rushed on the final story in the collection, a previously unpublished piece called Liking What You See: A Documentary and didn't like the cover art. I don't particularly dislike the original cover but I must admit the cover of the Small Beer Press edition, which Chiang commissioned himself, is a fine piece of art. The collection is packed with award-winning material. The eight stories won an incredible three Nebula's, a Hugo, a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, a Sidewise Award and Locus Award. The collection itself won a Locus as well. People must really like his work and I happen to agree with them.

Warning: I am not holding back on spoilers of this one.

The collection opens with Towers of Babylon (1990) is a retelling of the biblical tale included in the Book of Genesis. For generations people have been trying to get literally closer to God by building a tower that will reach heaven. Chiang examines this story from the point of view of the men who are hired to break through the vault of heaven. Chiang describes the final stages in constructing this miracle of engineering. It's a tale that could be as easily called fantastic as science fiction and one of a number of stories that have a religious theme to them. It reminded me most of the Exhalation (2007), a story not included in this collection, for it's mechanical world view. The end is not entirely unexpected, the reason why I think it is one of the lesser stories in the collection, but it is still a well-written and interesting tale.

Understand (1991) is the second story of the collection (it can be read online here). The main character is undergoing experimental treatment for severe brain trauma. The new drug restores his brain but it doesn't stop at just repairing damage. A noticeable increase in his intelligence is the result. So what if he took another dose? Chang sets himself a real challenge here. The main character's intelligence reaches frightening heights as the story progresses. He does a marvellous job of keeping it understandable to for the reader anyway. What struck me most about this story is the tragic ending. The way the eventual confrontation between two hyper-intelligent people plays out and their ultimate conclusion that their goals are not compatible are certainly food for thought. Each of them so confident in their abilities and the unshakable foundations of their insight that neither is willing to give way. Meeting someone who truly understands their insights is not a humbling or inspiring experience but a challenge and a threat. Did their experiences hiding from the authorities induce this mistrust? Would leaving them a choice besides running have lead to a different outcome?

The collection moves on to Division by Zero (1991), a story about mathematics and suicide (among other things). This story is also available online. What if you worked all your life as a mathematician, only to find out that it is possible to prove that any number is equal to any other number, or to put it in other words that arithmetic itself is inconsistent. Shit! Chiang describes the psychological effect the discovery has on mathematician Renee. He partly shows it to us form the perspective of her husband Carl. Someone to keep an eye on in this story. It is not as obvious as with Renee but there is a profound change taking place in his character. One of the things I particularly like about this story is the way Chiang switches between often quite emotionally charged scenes with Renee and Carl and short bit of text that show us how much trouble division by zero can be in mathematics and what it takes to find a proof of something as intuitively obvious as 1+1=2.

The fourth story in the collection is the one that gave it its name. Story of Your Life (1998) is probably the strongest piece in the collection. Chiang does so many interesting things with this 50 page text that I don't even know where to begin. At first glance it appears to be a first contact story. An alien race referred to as Heptapods land in various locations on earth. While the earth is holding its breath, The aliens seem happy just to wait and observe. That is not in humanity's nature however. Quickly scientists are summoned to try and communicate with them. One of them is linguist Louise Banks. Together with physicist Gary Donnely she tries to figure out a way to communicate with the Heptapods.

Linguistics is at the heart of the story. If it was the spoken language she was trying to learn, I'd say that what happens to Louise is an extreme version of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language affects the way people think. The Heptapods' language takes a more holistic approach than we're used to. Instead of cause and effect they perceive an action as a whole and as a consequence know both the initial condition and outcome before it is initiated. Chiang slowly develops this idea over the course of the story until the full impact of what Louise has learnt hits the reader. When it does, a second layer of the story, the sections written to her daughter in the future tense, fall into place. She knows and yet is willing to initiate the action. Would you be willing to go through with it, knowing so much heartache lay ahead? This story is a marvel of pacing. One of the best pieces of short fiction I have ever read.

Seventy-Two Letters, the fifth story (it can be read here) in the collection is quite a different piece. It has an steampunkish atmosphere to it. The story is set in Victorian London where kabbalism and strange science are practised and where the true name of objects can animate them to an extent. I didn't think it was the most exciting story in the collection but I loved the way Chiang works in some of the prejudice of those days into the story as well as the references to the Luddites and to the belief that a sperm contained a fully formed human. The author picked some strange elements to build this particular tale.

Chaing, to date, has published two of his short stories in Nature. This collection contains one of them: The Evolution of Human Science. The premise of this story is somewhat disturbing. He imagines a future in which humanity has been intellectually outpaced by meta-humans. It has been decades since a human has been able to contribute any original research. It's a very short work, four pages, and I am not quite sure what to make of it. Perhaps a comment on the development that it takes a lifetime of dedicated study to be able to keep up with even a small sub field in one of the sciences?

Like the opening story, Hell is the Absence of God has a distinct religious theme. Angels visit the earth regularly performing miracles but also killing people in the process. People who can then be seen to either descend to hell or rise to heaven. Hell is not the inferno Dante described but rather a place where the influence of God is completely absent. This not a deterrent for everyone and there are quite a few people are not overly religious. Neil Fisk is one of them but after his wife Sarah is killed in a visitation and ascends to heaven, the only way to be reunited with her is by getting into God's good graces. It's a tragedy really, God doesn't turn out to be a nice guy. But then, Neil is not a model believer either. There are some interesting ideas on God and what hell might be in this story, ideas that could probably provoke a strong reaction in the truly religious. I'm not one of those people however. Although it is a well written story it didn't have quite the impact on me other pieces in this collection have.

The final story is Liking What You See: A Documentary. It is the only one original to this collection and the one Chiang felt he was being rushed on. He even turned down a Hugo nomination for it because it didn't turn out the way he wanted. I have no idea what Chiang would have liked to change about the story but I think it is one of the strongest pieces in this collection. It deals with beauty and people's reaction to it. It has long been known that beautiful people are better liked, more successful, earn higher salaries etc. What if there was a procedure that would shut down this response to a pretty face in brain? What would children growing up being able to see beauty but without the instant reaction to it grow up like?

Liking What You See: A Documentary explores this question in a series of interviews with people who are in some way involved in a vote on a university to make this treatment called calliagnosia mandatory for all students. The thoughts of first year student Tamera Lyons, a girl grown up with calliagnosia, are the backbone of the story. She's curious to find out what the world looks like without part of her brain disconnected but clearly a lot of people see the benefits. The statements of various people involved, are brief and to the point, sketching in a few lines the basic position of the speaker. The statements are political, theological, philosophical or just very personal and the entire story carries an undercurrent of economic interests. The procedure is almost without side-effects, something that seems a bit unlikely to me. It does not suppress sexual attraction between people for instance, or make the patient completely unaware of beauty. I guess it is the author's way of keeping us focussed on the dilemma the treatment causes. Everybody intellectually knows we respond to beauty and that the choices we make because of it are not always wise or fair and that is is responsible for some deep wounds in the psyche of people who don't come close the the ideal. On the other hand, would you really want to go without that? And would you accept someone deciding for you in this matter?

Stories of Your Life and Others contains a number of amazing stories. Chiang has filled this collection with intelligent, multi-layered and thought-provoking stories. The truckload of awards these stories gathered should have been some indication, they can't all be wrong, but it still impressed me mightily. It's a collection any fan of science fiction or short fiction in general ought to read. The stories are polished to perfection by the author. Chiang produces stories to be cherished. I'd be tempted to say I wish he'd write more, but if I look at the gems he produces writing one story every other year or so, I would not care to rush him.

Book Details
Title: Stories of Your Life and Others
Author: Ted Chiang
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Pages: 281
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-193152072-0
First published: 2002


  1. I have the hardcover one myself and I'm planning to read it right after I finish my collection of Howard Waldrop. Looking forward to it!

  2. Your review on WWE brought me here. I heard the audiobook version. Chiang became an instant favorite. I found another short story he published as a podcast: Exhalation - It also garnered a bunch of awards.

    Anyhow, thanks for the individual story reviews.