Stories of Your Life and Others

February 21, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads)

storiesStories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

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Arrival would have been reason enough for me to read this book, had I not already owned a copy. The Lifecycle of Software Objects was enough for me to add this book to my list ahead of the movie, but not enough to relegate it above adding it to my list in the hopes of reading it in the future. The movie bumped it up in my list.

“Tower of Babylon” is an allegorical tale that’s in itself a riff on the Tower of Babel myth. This time, the tower has made it all the way up to the vault of heaven, and two miners are traveling to the top of the tower to break through. It will take them about four months to make it all the way to the top. This was a winner of the Nebula Award in 1990, but for some reason it didn’t speak much to me.

“Understand” is about a man who becomes suddenly superintelligent after having an experimental drug bring him back from being brain-dead. At first, I thought this was going to be a retelling of Flowers for Algernon, but Chiang takes the story in a different direction. It’s definitely a literary child of that book, but it’s so different that it’s in a class all its own. It’s everything that Lucy should have been, with a plausible reason for opening one’s consciousness to the universe.

“Division by Zero” is about a mathematics professor who is able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that 1=2, by using accepted theorems and proofs of general mathematics. The realization drives her mad, which drives a wedge between her and her husband. As is the case with his other stories, the science parallels the story, with one being the allegory for the other. It’s not my favorite of the collection, but I liked how Chiang put the two together.

I actually read “Story of Your Life” last year, shortly after seeing Arrival. I’d had the book for a while before seeing the movie, but after the movie had such an effect on me, I went ahead and read the story to see how they compared. They differ in significant ways, but the message of the story remains. Like the movie, this is a fantastic story about time, memories, and truth, told against the backdrop of a peaceful alien invasion.

“Seventy-Two Letters” is a story about golems and self-replicating machines. It’s intriguing, but it was a bit of a chore for me to get through it. The myth of golems have never appealed to me, which could be part of it, but the story didn’t feel engaging to me. As is usual for Chiang, he parallels science with the message of his story.

“The Evolution of Human Science” is a short-short which was originally published in Nature, as part of a series about examinations of future technologies. This one looks at humans changing into metahumans, and how the method for storing information changes from normal print methods to a neural network. It’s definitely a think piece more than a story, and it gets you thinking.

“Hell Is the Absence of God” is an interesting look at religion and faith, in a world where angels are vividly real — their visitations are accompanied by disasters, death, and miracles, both good and bad. Hell also becomes visible at random times throughout the months, so one can see what it’s like to displease God. The main character in the story of a man who loses his wife to one of those miracles, and struggles to find the will to love God so that he may rejoin his wife when he dies.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary” is a fictional documentary about a neurological implant that prevents people from being able to recognize beauty. Chiang examines the phenomenon from several different angles, positive and negative, in an epistolary style that will keep you engaged, and wondering how he will conclude the events. He doesn’t let you down.

After doing a little bit of research into Chiang, I realized there were only a handful of his stories not included in this book, and that most of them are available online. I read those, and I’ve included my thoughts on those stories here as a bonus.

“What’s expected of us” is a another one-page story published in the journal Nature, but has enough behind it to keep you thinking for a very long time. The premise is simple: What would happen if we played with a device that could predict our actions? The conclusion, though, might keep you up at night.

Exhalation” is an examination of consciousness, existence, and the universe, told from the perspective of an other. It’s fascinating how Chiang can reflect everything that makes us human in something that, in the end, is so alien.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling was published by Subterranean Press, the same publisher who brought us The Lifecycle of Software Objects, so I figured it was going to be good, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s about a technology that allows people perfect recall of all their memories, but it’s also about the purpose of memory in relationships in how we recall what’s happened to us. What happens when we’re given perfect recall of our entire lives? How does it affect our lives and the lives of everyone we know?

The Great Silence” is a short story that asks a simple question, posed in the editor’s note of the ebook: “Why are we so interested in finding intelligence in the starts and so deaf to the many species who manifest it here on earth?”

Chiang writes with an economy that presents his points effectively without sacrificing his story. His style covers complex scientific concepts in a way that makes them accessible, as well as presenting people as fully realized characters whom you connect with over the course of the events. I understand Chiang does a lot of research into his topics before writing about them, and I think that’s why he’s able to get his science and stories across so easily. Given that he’s only written fifteen pieces of fiction in over 25 years of writing, it’s clear he does a lot of research, and when you look at the accolades he’s received for his fiction, it’s clear that it’s worth it.

This collection reminds me a lot of Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, in that the stories are as thoughtful as they are engaging, and they present a fiction that’s challenging as well as accessible. The authors’ focuses are different, but their themes are similar, especially in the ways the two writers combine science with human drama. If I had to recommend one over the other, I think I would have to give the nod to Liu, but that’s only if I had to; as far as I’m concerned, both books are required reading.

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