Review: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Minimal spoilers only – no major twists, but does reveal headline content and comments on characterisation, quality of endings and so forth.

A brilliant collection of science-fiction short stories. Includes three Nebula Award winners and one Hugo Award winner; the title story, Story of Your Life, was the basis for the major 2016 film, Arrival.

The stories are a little longer than most short-stories, typically 40-60 pages and are well plotted, deeply imaginative and have excellent characterisation. Most are set in the near future or even an alternate past (and all on Earth) and are unusually broad-ranging: breakthroughs in linguistics, pure mathematics and more are used as the basis for the stories, as opposed to the more traditional hard sciences. Three can only be described as theological speculative fiction, where it is a change in the underlying physics of the cosmos that is the point of departure from our world.

The stories tend to describe the issue itself in a fair degree of (very accessible) detail and tend to focus on the impact of the change, or discovery, upon individuals and upon our society, rather than adventures or action. Both of these work very well.

A brief outline of each is below:

Tower of Babel: This can only be described as bronze-age science fiction. It follows the story of a miner on the Tower of Babel, seeking to tunnel into the vault of heaven, in a world in which the story of the Tower of Babel (and traditional mythological Hebrew cosmos) is literally true. Manages to feel astoundingly rooted and realistic. 5/5

Understand: Explores extreme scientific enhancement of intelligence. The only story I didn’t care for; I found the description of the enhancement implausible, both in what could be achieved theoretically in mathematics, cognition, computer science and in the person’s real world abilities (as someone who is intelligent, I’m very conscious that simply being aware of what the correct thing to say/do to achieve a result doesn’t translate into the emotional/physical/etc ability to actually do so). 2/5

Division by Zero: One of the very few science-fiction stories I’ve read based solely upon a breakthrough in pure mathematics. I liked almost all of this, but am taking off a point for the characterisation of the husband, who I found unsympathetic to the point of feeling his actions were near unforgivable. 4/5.

Story of Your Life: This was a beautiful fusion of deep physical theories, such as the Principal of Least Action, and advanced linguistics to explore an astoundingly compelling hypothesis. The aliens themselves are barely on screen but are still powerfully rendered – there’s a similarity here to The Three Body Problem, where the most important protagonists are also never seen. Added to this is a powerful emotional story which makes full use of the scientific revelation. It reminds me, in an odd way, of Foundation – I remember reading an essay by Asimov where he wondered why people liked it, as there was no action and just had people sitting around talking. In the same way, this story consists mainly of people talking about linguistics, yet is both gripping and emotionally moving. 5/5

Seventy Two Letters: This starts off with a Victorian culture using sacred names of God to animate golems and rapidly moves to exploring a world in which preformationism and other debunked reproductive ideas are literally true, with dire consequences. Not quite as emotionally punchy as some of the others, but a gloriously imaginative rollercoaster ride. (4/5)

The Evolution of Human Science: A very short article about whether human science would still be worthwhile in a world with superintelligences (‘metahumans’). Bonus points for use of the word hermeneutics. 3/5

Hell is the Absence of God: A fascinating story about a world very similar to ours except that hell, heaven and occasional angelic visitations are literally true. The commonplace, mundane and matter-of-fact way in which the story describes these events is the key to its success. The author describes it as a version of the Book of Job but without the uplifting bits (I paraphrase!). 5/5

Liking What You See: A Documentary: Told through interviews, news reports and sound bites, this explores the impact of a new technology that erases someone’s ability to perceive beauty and a growing campaign to make adoption of it mandatory. Like Brave New World, the story does a good job at making it hard to argue rationally whether this is dystopian or utopian – I felt through much of it that the author was leaning to the latter, but the ending (to my view) was a brutal counterstroke. Resonates strongly with current concerns over instagram, social media and digital manipulation; I also found the setting of what had been a niche woke campus issue suddenly hitting a tipping point and gaining wider traction to be very believable and relevant. 4/5

Overall, a superb collection, absolutely worth reading. 5/5.