Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Life Stories (and Others)

A while back, I blogged about the short story "Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang, which was the basis of the movie Arrival (now Oscar nominated). I found that story in a science fiction collection of Chiang's work titled Stories of Your Life and Others, and I decided to go on and read the whole thing -- eight tales in all.

Ted Chiang is not an especially prolific writer. Although he's been writing for over 25 years, this collection represents fully half of his entire output. He's never pursued a full-length novel, staying with the shorter form and publishing mostly in magazines. Stories of Your Life and Others is the only collection to date of his work.

But what Chiang lacks in quantity, he makes up in quality -- in particular, the quality of his ideas. At the core of each of his stories is a Twilight Zone-like "in a world" concept. Sometimes he's imagining an entirely different Earth with fundamentally different technology or history; other times he's positing a major scientific breakthrough in our own world. In almost every case, he's unafraid to venture deep into the weeds, allowing sophisticated theories of mathematics or physics to play a major role in the story. His writing remains engaging, because the idea itself is so captivating.

Here's a quick summary/take on the stories in this collection:

Tower of Babylon. In ancient Babylonia, builders are creating a massive tower literally miles tall -- so big it takes months to climb. The goal: to reach heaven itself and reveal the true nature of the world. We follow one worker in particular as he makes a shocking discovery. I'm not entirely sure the payoff is as thrilling as the journey, but the story overall is a great way of settling in with Chiang's style. Grade: B

Understand. You've no doubt seen versions of the "person who gains super-intelligence" trope. This is Chiang's take, built around a character who discovers linkages in the world no one else can see, in pursuit of a grand unifying meaning to existence. Unlike movies about super-intelligence, the written form presents a great challenge in letting you inside the thoughts of growing genius. Chiang handles it capably. Grade: B+

Division by Zero. A couple's relationship begins to unravel after one of them uncovers a verifiable proof that mathematics aren't internally consistent. I'm not sure the science and the emotion merge effectively here (as, say, in Arrival / Story of Your Life), but the juxtaposition of these two things itself is quite clever. So is the intriguing narrative structure Chiang uses. Grade: B

Story of Your Life. As I noted earlier, this is the basis for the movie Arrival. You can read my spoiler thoughts here. Grade: B+

Seventy-Two Letters. This tale takes place in a world where golem animation exists, facilitated by slipping papers with 72 written characters into a would-be automaton. A global crisis also figures in the tale, driving the main character into an effort to crack the DNA-like code to humanity itself. This is perhaps the longest story in the collection, yet still feels cut short to me. It reaches a conclusion of sorts, yet I feel there was still more to mine from Chiang's fascinating premise. Grade: A-

The Evolution of Science. "Short story" scarcely fits -- this is "micro fiction." In a scant few paragraphs, Chiang examines how technology can divide society into have and have-nots, by examining a future tech that would divide more than anything else imaginable. I wish there was more of a narrative here, but the idea is once again tantalizing. Grade: B-

Hell Is the Absence of God. This time, the "in a world" world is one where God is known to be real, and His angels make regular visitations to Earth that bestow miracles and wreak horrible collateral damage. The protagonist of the story is a man whose wife was killed and sent to Heaven, a man who can't find it in himself to "love God" for taking his wife away. But if he can't find a way, he'll ultimately be sent to Hell and be separated from her forever. It's the darkest tale of the collection, but still compelling. Grade: B+

Liking What You See: A Documentary. Written as though it were a transcript of a documentary film, this story explores the controversy "in a world" where technology exists that eliminates the ability to perceive a person's appearance as "beautiful" or "ugly." For some, it represents the leveling of the playing field, removing the ability to get by on looks. For others, the costs of this tech are too great to overcome the purported benefits. Ted Chiang was later said to be disappointed by this story, having rushed it for inclusion in this book. But I do think he does a good job of exploring all the way around his central premise in surprising ways. Grade: A-.

Taken altogether, I'd give Stories of Your Life and Others a B+. If you're a science fiction fan who likes it extra science-y and "what if"fy, you should give the collection a try.

No comments: