Simply put, one of the best short story collections I have ever read.
Ted Chiang is a sort of a unicorn in the world of science fiction – a writer whose oeuvre consists of only a few, sporadically published short stories, but who has been granted a king’s bounty of science fiction’s highest accolades. Even so, his limited output and low profile have kept him outside of the limelight until recently, when his short story Stories of Your Life was adapted into a critically acclaimed film, Arrival.
Stories of Your Life and Others is the collection of most of Chiang’s body of work: nine stories written across the span of a decade. Reading the collection, I was spellbound at just how great they all were. Each and every one of them is a brilliant gem of a story, combining a wildly imaginative speculative conceit with deep insight into facets of the human condition, written in limpid, flowing prose. I was awestruck by the consistency of their quality, and by how they all retained their kernels of humanity even as they reached for speculative heights.
The collection captivated me from the beginning with the wonderful Tower of Babylon, a story with an alternate cosmogony to our own – where the biblical account of the world is observable reality, where sun and moon revolve around earth, and where ancient Babylonians of this alternate reality build a tower so tall that it takes months to climb, in order to breach the vault of heaven and understand better their place in creation. It is an awe-inspiring conceit, but one that is grounded by the humanity of their striving for the ineffable, and by the fact that the laws of this alternate nature are consistent.
Understand is a mind-bending look into the mind of a superintelligent narrator, whose neural density has been exponentially fortified to the extent that his intellect is able to apprehend its own machinery – the mind – and in doing so, grant him control over his somatic functions, sort of like a cross between a Bene Gesserit and a mentat. Chiang’s prose makes a creditable effort at simulating the thought processes of its savant narrator, elevating the discourse to an at times almost frenetic cacophony of verbiage that skirts human comprehension.
Division by Zero dares us to imagine what happens if someone showed mathematics to be inconsistent, and by doing so, juxtaposes the ideal and Platonic consistency of mathematics with the messy inconstancy of human emotion. The structure works both on a narrative as well as textual level, telling the interleaving story of a couple – a mathematician, Renee, who is driven to the brink of suicide by her upsetting discovery of the inconsistency of mathematics, and her husband, Carl, who finds the constancy of his love for her flagging – alternating perspectives until the final convergence of views that shows the utter breakdown of their respective worldviews and senses of self. It is particularly distinguished because of the way in which it so seamlessly parallelizes both strands in a way that reveals a deep understanding of the paradox of empathy – that there is something self-serving about feeling deeply for another person, as if the act uplifts one’s narrow sense of self-worth, and sometimes empathy is something that divides rather than unites, by instilling clarity in how one should feel in respect to someone else.
Story of Your Life is the titular piece and the inspiration for the movie Arrival, and it concerns a linguist who learns how to communicate with an alien race, and in doing so finds that learning their language alters her perception of time, causing her to view time all at once, rather than sequentially. In doing so, she apprehends her future with a daughter whom she watches grow, only to be killed in a climbing accident at a young age. The story is suffused with a melancholic sense of inevitability, but also of a resolve for life, of a person who can read the book of ages but chooses, out of her own free will to live out the life foreordained for her in her sight, with its concomitant joys and tragedies.
Seventy-Two Letters is another alternate-reality story set in Victorian London, with the twist being that language has an animating effect on reality – and certain Victorian notions of biology – like preformation – are physical reality. This mind-bending conceit is essentially a steampunk version of the idea of DNA – the idea that some sort of encoding or code can contain the instructions for its own propagation within the body of its code – and thereby make autonomic reproduction possible. It is essentially one Victorian scientist’s herculean effort to save a humanity that reproduces by preformation by giving it the ability to reproduce by executing biological self-replicating codes inscribed on male spermatozoa by fine metal needles. If that’s not the most mind-bendingly original thing ever, I’m not sure what is.
The Evolution of Human Science is a short look into what scientific publishing would look like if we lived in a post-scarcity society where all intellectual effort was undertaken by a race of hyper-intelligent metahumans beyond human ken. Normal humanity would not need to do science, but would do science anyway – a perhaps utopian vision for the human capacity for self-actualisation in the midst of a future of plenty.
Hell is the Absence of God is another story that posits the physical reality of a theological worldview – a world where heaven and hell are indisputably real places, where God is a being, that by the rules of that reality, is inherently deserving of adoration and love, and where angels wreathed in fire occasionally descend to Earth like natural phenomena on their inscrutable business, granting miracles and causing collateral damage. The story, perhaps one of Chiang’s most brilliant, questions the theological message of Job by positing that loving a God that rewards you for that love is not true devotion – true devotion is to love a God that does nothing to justify that devotion. Hell is to love an absent God with every fibre of one’s being, an insight that presents a fresh new perspective on an age-old theodicy – if the object is to worship the divine, adversity is the precondition to make that adoration real – but that implies that the divine is not just or kind, because to remove that adversity would be to trivialise the devotion post hoc. What then, the point of worshipping the divine?
Finally, Liking What You See is a scintillatingly profound examination on the nature of physical attraction and its effect on society, especially in the age of the photoshop airbrush. What if you could switch off the neural pathways that enabled you to judge people by their appearances – the cleverly nomenclatured “calliagnosia” ? You could build a better society that way – one that isn’t bound by “lookism”, or discrimination against the plain or unattractive. But to do so would be to deny callis aesthetic appreciation of human beauty, and stymie the ability to develop a sense of maturity about other people’s looks. By making it a sort of transcript of a documentary about calliagnosia, Chiang delves deeply into the issue of human attractiveness, looking at it from a myriad of angles and possible points of discourse, from calliagnosia enabling people to be more resistant to advertising, to it taking people’s ability to recognise when discrimination based on physical appearance is taking place. This is science fiction at its most distilled form – a technological, speculative conceit that opens up new and unexpected pathways to apprehend a contemporary topic of discourse. It’s like Black Mirror times a thousand, minus the macabre element.
My advice to all: go read Ted Chiang, and appreciate what science fiction can achieve at its peak.
I give this collection: 5/5 looking glasses