As part of Broken Forum’s Book of the Month Club, I read April’s entry, Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others (amazon.ca link). I’ve slightly reworked my review from BF below.
This is a collection of short stories so I’ll offer my thoughts on all eight.
First up is “Tower of Babylon”. An interesting riff on the construction of the wonder that focuses on the practical over the spiritual. The ending is appropriately fantastical.
“Division by Zero”. Math nerds would probably go nuts over this. Since I was anti-math in school (not by choice but by aptitude) I was less engaged, although I liked the base conceit of ‘everything we know about something big is wrong’ and the repercussions therein.
“Understand”. When brainiacs collide! This was good, as it surprised me by dropping in several red herrings that in some authors’ hands would have been trite plot turns. It also reminded me, oddly, of my 2012 NaNoWriMo novel which tackles a similar theme of how extraordinary power would be used differently based on one’s moral compass, to the betterment/detriment of humankind.
“Story of Your Life”. The science involved in the dual spoken and written languages of the aliens is complex, fascinating and well-presented. The recollections of the daughter never connected emotionally and felt tacked on, and the first contact itself seemed more a necessary backdrop to provide the examination of understanding languages rather than to explore first contact itself. Flawed but still well worth reading.
“The Evolution of Human Science”. I used to be a big fan of fictional articles but am less so now. This one didn’t do much to shift my position.
“Seventy Two Letters”. A delightfully off-kilter story combining the Victorian era with golems and class warfare. Chiang’s use of language here is studied without being too formal, capturing the flavor of the time. I enjoyed the alternate universe where animated dolls stand to better or worsen the human condition. The more sinister aspects with assassination attempts and break-ins felt a bit unfinished, hinting at a larger story.
“Hell is the Absence of God”. Basically a long way of saying “God isn’t fair, sucks to be you (or me)” but much like “Seventy Two Letters” the alternate universe where Heaven and Hell are literal places and angels are physical manifestations that trail destruction and death (and sometimes miracles) is fascinating and well-presented.
“Liking What You See”. On the other hand, the multiple viewpoints of this take on “lookism” was merely okay. It was overly long, I never felt much for any of the characters and while an examination of what constitutes beauty and how it affects western (and other) societies is a worthy subject, the presentation was a little flat.
Overall I enjoyed the collection. Chiang presents his visions clearly, paints alternate worlds effortlessly and does a fine job of exploring ideas, the hallmark of good (or great) science fiction. I felt his characters were sometimes flat and can’t recall any of the stories really sticking with me because of the people in them.