Visions of Paradise

Friday, August 12, 2011

Stories of Your Life and Others

Ted Chiang is perhaps the best science fiction writer who has never written a novel. I realize a few people reading this might be thinking Ray Bradbury (who has written at least 6 novels) or Harlan Ellison (at least 5 novels, all written early in his career). But there is nothing wrong with mentioning Chiang in the same breath as Bradbury or Ellison, since he is as fine a writer as they were in their prime, and all three writers have at least one similarity: none of them are routine story-tellers.

Ray Bradbury began writing with a strong interest in horror fiction, and his first collection Dark Carnival showed that. But even as he matured into romantic fantasies, Bradbury was still primarily interested in arousing emotions in his reader rather than telling a story.

Harlan Ellison’s stories have also been highly emotionally-charged, and while he never wrote straight horror per se, his stories frequently aroused the same type of sharp emotions in his readers as the best horror fiction did.

Ted Chiang is not interested in arousing emotions, but rather arousing intellectual curiosity in his readers. A typical Chiang story starts with some speculative concept, then explores it through his characters. He rarely bothers with deep characterization, nor much detailed plotting, but arouses intellectual sense of wonder about as well as any writer possibly could.

If you still doubt that Ted Chiang deserves being mentioned in the same breath as grandmasters Bradbury and Ellison, consider this: since his first publication in 2001, Chiang has published 12 stories, 9 of which have been nominated for major awards (Nebula, Hugo or Sturgeon), and he has won 4 Nebula Awards, 3 Hugo Awards and 1 Sturgeon Award.

As for my own opinion of Chiang, he has had 3 stories on my best-of-the-decade lists already, 1 of which was my favorite story of the 1990s. So it will not be surprising when I mention early in this review that his first collection of short fiction Stories of Your Life and Others ranks with such debut sf collections as Roger Zelazny’s Four For Tomorrow, Samuel R. Delany’s Driftglass, and John Varley’s The Persistence of Vision.

The first story in the collection, which was Chiang’s first publication and a Nebula winner, is “Tower of Babylon,” which examines what it was like for the builders of the immense tower which took several centuries to complete and who basically spent their entire lives living in the tower itself, raising families which in some instances have never seen the ground. The story’s climax, in which the tower finally reaches heaven itself, is interesting, as is the Babylonian cosmology which is an intricate part of the story.

“Story of Your Life,” which was my favorite piece of short fiction for the 1990s, tells about an alien race which arrives in Earth orbit and establishes contact with humans. It is basically the story of two scientists, a male physicist and a female linguist, who attempt to communicate with the aliens. The linguist is the viewpoint character who discovers that the aliens’ language is not linear, but holistic, and as she immerses herself in it, her own worldview begins changing (not surprisingly, since linguists rightfully claim that a culture’s language is very influential on their view of the world). The alternating passages of the linguist’s personal life seem a bit misplaced at first, but as her worldview changes, the connection becomes both obvious and startling. An outstanding story.

“Hell is the Absence of God” takes the premise that God exists without any doubt, and whose angels periodically manifest themselves in our physical world, during which they occasionally cause great damage by their very passing through, but at other times they create miracles. Add to this the fact that when a person dies, their soul can be seen either rising to heaven or descending to hell. Chiang does an excellent job examining the life and emotional struggles of a man whose beloved wife has died and whose soul has risen to heaven. But he has never felt particularly close to God and thus fears his soul will descend to hell when he dies, thus cutting him off from his wife for all eternity.

Outstanding as these three stories are, there are four other fine stories in the book as well:

• “Understand” tells of a man who undergoes an experimental treatment for brain damage which makes him the most advanced mind in the world;
• “Division by Zero” tells the story of a brilliant mathematician whose entire world is shattered when she discovers a proof which destroys the underlying foundations of all mathematics;
• “Seventy-Two Letters” examines a world in which golems do exist, which has profound effects on the shape of 19th century life (this story would be considered “steampunk” were it published nowadays);
• “Liking What You See: A Documentary” examines a scientific technique which removes a person’s ability to differentiate the esthetics of other people’s faces, spurring a potential movement on campuses to equalize all students’ beauty in each other’s eyes, while causing great concern in the cosmetics industry.

Stories of Your Life is a fabulous collection, but keep in mind that characterization and routine story-telling are not Chiang’s main concern. He is an old-fashioned “hard” science fiction writer who is examining ideas first and foremost, but doing so about as well as I have ever seen it done. I recommend this collection very highly.


  • I have heard many good things about this author but have never read any of his work. I will add this collection to my list of books to pick up. Based on your review I would think that Ted will be a new favorite of mine.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 8:11 AM  

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