Book Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others, Ted Chiang

The predominant feeling I came away with after reading Stories of Your Life and Others is that Ted Chiang, the author, is infinitely smarter than me.  This was a good feeling; it was like being in a deep conversation with someone whose intellect and new, creative ideas astounded me.

This collection of short stories has been classified as science fiction, and it is, in that the stories deal with scientific advancements, first alien contact, and more, but this classification feels a bit too limiting.  The stories also address issues of religion, language, myth, and more.  This isn’t to say that more standard science fiction doesn’t address larger issues—it can and does, but the feel here is a bit different.  For instance, the first story, “The Tower of Babylon,” has none of the standard science fiction elements: It is instead a religious parable, a telling of the building of the Tower of Babylon and the nature of humans’ quests to contact God.  It was also my least favorite story in the bunch in part because it remained somewhat abstract and allegorical, more an experiment of ideas.

In truth, a few other stories in this collection feel the same way: Chiang working out a novel idea: “What would super intelligence look like?” (“Understand”) or “What if angels really did appear to humans?” (“Hell is the Absence of God”), but these ideas feel truly fresh and provocative in Chiang’s hands.

Many of the stories are a play on science fiction, taking old science or religion as their jumping off point of “reality.”  “Seventy-Two Letters” for instance has golems at its heart and takes now debunked science as a given, and “Hell is the Absence of God,” is Chiang in conversation with the story of Job in the Old Testament.

The best story in the collection is “Story of Your Life.”  It’s a first contact story: a linguist recounts her contact with the alien “heptapods,” whose language she learns in order to learn more about them.  In learning the language, the narrator’s worldview shifts, and in fact her entire perception of time shifts.  This notion, while not new, is fascinating in the particulars that Chiang provides.  It’s also a story of a mother/daughter relationship and becomes metaphorically about the inability to control other people, no matter how much we love them and the inevitability of death.  It’s also terribly moving, sad, and beautiful all at once.  And, because Chiang is so much more brilliant than me, it’s a hard story to encapsulate in few words.

A close second for “favorite” is “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” again a thought experiment that takes place as a kind of debate: against or in favor of a technology that inhibits the user’s ability to judge whether or not someone is attractive.  What I found so compelling about this story is that both sides were equally interesting, compelling, and convincing.  It’s a familiar theme: The idea of inner versus outer beauty, but here Chiang goes far beyond the cliché, and I appreciated getting to think anew about ideas that I thought I’d already pinned down.

All in all, this collection of short stories was one of the highlights of my year of reading.  Chiang has won a number of awards for his short stories, and I anxiously await coming work.


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