Thursday, March 20, 2014

Review of Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s writing is a voice, an extremely strong voice, in support of the idea of quality over quantity.  The opposite of prolific, Chiang has published precisely fifteen pieces of short fiction in a space of time covering slightly longer than two decades (as of Sept. 2013).  That’s less than one story per year.  But each is so lovingly crafted, so coherently whole, so multi-faceted and multi-layered, so grounded in the most basic aspects of being human that they take on dimensions greater than the sum of their parts.  Stories of Your Life and Others (2002) collects the first eight stories Chiang published, and remains his only full-length publication to date. 

Every selection (save one) either nominated for or winning an award, the collection is a superb mix of short stories, novelettes and novellas.  Working within science fiction, fantasy, and the liminal areas between, each is a singular piece that stands out from the others.  Indeed, if it weren’t for the consistency of Chiang’s style, the collection would feel like an anthology.  There remain, however, single-color threads running through the stories.  “Division by Zero”, Story of Your Life, and “Hell is the Absence of God” feature characters dealing with loss.  “Tower of Babylon”, “Understand”, “The Evolution of Human Science”, Seventy-Two Letters, and Liking What You See: A Documentary involve people pushing limits of what it means to be human.  In “Division by Zero”, “Tower of Babylon”, and Story of Your Life there is open discussion that science may not be as airtight as many believe it to be, i.e. a strong post-modern concern for relativity.

But if there is anything that can be said to be common to every piece, it would be a sense of balance.  For every push there is a pull, and if humanity is to understand the uncertainty, the bittersweetness, the subjectivity of the pushes and pulls in relation to time, we need to take a step back to get an overview of the ideas and emotions underlying the surface.  The outward appearance can therefore be a fantastical tower to the heavens, steampunk golems, accelerated intelligence, beauty blinders, or angels visiting Earth.  But to achieve context, one must peel back those layers to see the actuality inside.

The following is a brief summary of each of the eight stories in the collection:

Chiang’s first published story, “Tower of Babylon” fittingly opens the collection. Though Biblical in tone, the story of the miner Hillalum and his journey to the top of the tower of Babylon to mine the vault of heaven is anything but Biblical in meaning, and may have more in common with 1,001 Arabian Nights.  Ripe with symbolism, the novelette is a profound tale that opens itself to a couple of interpretations, the strongest of which seems set on the cyclical rather than the lineal movement of time.

Cerebral in the literal and figurative senses of the word, “Understand” is the story of a brain damaged man who, in the process of taking experimental drugs to recover, becomes incredibly intelligent.  Additional doses of the hormone only making him even more intelligent, his escape from himself and from the researchers that would seek to use his brains for their own devising is compelling.  Not the best of the collection, the breakneck-paced story nevertheless grabs the reader and won’t let go.

The pure intersection of mathematics and life, “Division by Zero” is the story of Carl and his relationship with Renee, a renowned mathematician.  Interestingly exploiting gaps in mathematical logic rather than filling holes with speculation, Chiang parallels the history and understanding of science with the couple’s relationship, particularly the troubles that arise the deeper Renee digs into the paradoxes of her work.  In this case, ‘math fiction’ seems better nomenclature than ‘science fiction’.  (Fans of Greg Egan’s “Dark Integers” may enjoy this story.)

Story of Your Life forms one half of the heart of this collection.  The novella is the story of Dr. Louise Banks.  One of the world’s leading philologists, she is contacted by the military one day and asked to help communicate with aliens who have arrived in Earth’s orbit and sent communicator pods to the surface.  Chiang drawing in Banks’ tragic backstory alongside linguistic theory and physics as she slowly develops a channel of communication with the seven-legged creatures, the story ends up on a higher plane, particularly regarding the idea of free will.  Combining hard and soft science fiction effortlessly, this is a superb novella worthy of the annals of the genre.  (For a more in depth review of the novella on this blog, see here.)

Steampunk through and through, Seventy-Two Letters is the story of Robert Stratton, a golem animator working to integrate his mindless automatons into society to reduce manual labor.  It is also the other half of the heart of this collection.  Contacted by a pair of scientists working with reproduction, Stratton’s work soon finds itself forking down the path of human procreation, particularly the control or lack thereof, all arriving at a bittersweet conclusion. (For a more in depth review of the novella on this blog, see here.)

 “The Evolution of Human Science” (aka “Catching Crumbs from the Table”) opens with the question: “what is the role of human scientists in an age when the frontiers of scientific inquiry have moved beyond the comprehensibility of humans?”  The four page piece is able to be understood on two levels: a discussion of the increasing distance modern science places between itself and quotidian understanding of research these days, and, a pat on the back that no matter how intelligent some humans may become, they will still be human.

“Hell Is the Absence of God” is a fantasy story that examines the relativity and value of belief through the lives of three people, Neil, Janice, and Ethan.  Heaven and hell, god and angels real, Neil’s wife is collateral damage in the visitation of an angel one day.  The juxtaposition of her death against the miracles performed upon those around her throw Neil into a tailspin of belief, something he tries to remediate through group therapy. In the meetings he encounters Janice, a woman born without legs but who was miraculously healed in a separate visitation and now is a motivational speaker.  Feeling he is destined for something divine, Ethan has been tracking angelic visitations with the hope of having his purpose revealed, and in the process meets Janice.  Chiang resolving the three’s spiritual quandaries in sublime fashion, a sense of universal spirituality rather than anything more narrowly interpreted permeates this fine story.

Liking What You See:A Documentary is a fascinating look at beauty through the lens of a simple but highly effective science fiction premise.  Calliagnosia is a neurological means of turning off/on a person’s ability to see beauty in the human face.  This is not to say everyone looks like a lemming, rather that the specific node of the brain which registers beauty and ugliness is manipulated, leaving the recognition of physical features intact.  Structured like a documentary film, the transitions are noted like subtitles via the interviewee’s name, the content thereafter like an answer to an interview question.  Fully unpacking the idea, there are two sub-stories: an eighteen year old girl who has her calli turned off and corporate reaction to a proposal to introduce calli to every student at a university. (For a more in depth review of the novella on this blog, see here.)

In the end, Stories of Your Life and Others is a high quality collection that pushes Chiang near the front of all writers of speculative fiction today despite the relative paucity of output.  Many of the stories possess a moral dimension, and all a fundamentally human one.  Fleshing out the remainder is a variety of genre motifs—some original, some familiar—motivated by intelligent, well-intentioned premises.  Not nihilistic commentaries on humanity, the stories are imbued with a touch of that bittersweet something which makes life real in fiction, giving the collection its success.


  1. This collection should be required reading for any SF-fan. I was deeply impressed when I first read it. Chiang certainly makes a good case for quality over quantity. Have you read his novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects as well?

    1. Agreed, agreed, and agreed. And yes, I have read Lifecycle of Software Objects. A review will come someday.

      I think I've read everything by Chiang. He still doesn't have quite enough for a complete second collection, but is close. His short story "Exhalation" is one of if not the best short story I've ever read, and it will be a welcome moment when it appears in that second collection.