Stories of Your Life and Others

by Ted Chiang (2002)

9/10

The single quality that jumps out to me in Chiang’s stories, the common thread that unites all of them, is that they share a uniquely inventive vision from which Chiang examines his subject or phenomenon. His humanism and grasp of psychology enable him to then explore the subjects with an eye toward the uttermost realism possible. In addition, Chiang utilizes his scientific/mathematical knowledge not only to explore the topics from a more expert perspective than most fiction writers, but also to shape his very focus. All of these factors combined make for a wholly original and unforgettable reading experience.

My three favorite stories in the collection are those that excel with these qualities: “Understand,” “Hell is the Absence of God,” and “Like What You See: A Documentary.” Summaries are elsewhere, but at least in the case of the latter two I’ve never read anything like them, from premise to execution. “Like What You See” analyzed a bizarre neurotechnology breakthrough from what must be almost every human perspective imaginable — amazingly thorough. “Hell is the Absence of God” also packs the greatest emotional punch, along with “Story of Your Life” (which I actually liked less than the film adaptation). “Tower of Babylon” was also unique in its handling of the ancient myth, though the alien setting made it somewhat less engrossing.

That’s 5/8 of the book that is exceptionally memorable, a pretty impressive ratio for a short story collection. Among the others, the slight “The Evolution of Human Science” seems hardly worth mentioning, while “The Division of Zero” was an uninspiring letdown after the magnificent “Understand”. I wanted to like “Seventy-Two Letters” and did at first, but Chiang ended up cramming too much into it, trying to combine two simultaneously incredible premises into one forced story.

But yes, this is a profoundly impressive achievement as a debut collection, and I’m stunned to find that he hasn’t published anything else. I’ll be eagerly awaiting more stories from this original voice — as of now I don’t feel it exaggeration to place him next to other modern visionaries like Philip K. Dick and Octavia Butler (limiting the category to Earth-based sci-fi). I would highly recommend this book to literally anyone.

 

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