by Ted Chiang



333pp/$24.95/July 2002

Stories of Your Life and Others
Cover by Gregory Manchess

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Ted Chiang has been publishing novellas and novelettes for a little more than a decade, and has published fewer than ten stories during that time.  Nevertheless, Nick Gevers selected Chiang as one of the top ten contemporary SF and fantasy short story writers in a December 2001 article which appeared at Locus Online.  The publication of all of his stories in Stories of Your Life and Others will give readers who have managed not to notice Chiang a chance to discover why he has received so many nominations and critical praise.

As the title indicates, “Tower of Babylon” is about an attempt to build a tower to reach to the sky.  Unlike the Biblical story, the masons and minors of his world have succeeded.  Hillalum is a miner from Elam whose services have been hired to break through the Vault of Heaven.  "Tower of Babylon" is part travelogue as Hillalum and his companions spend four months climbing the tower to the sky, and part philosophical tale, as he reflects on what, exactly, he is doing and whether it is something which meets God's approval.  Chiang's denouement is not expected based on the original tale, nor telegraphed by Hillalum's story as he climbs ever higher.  Although Chiang only gives a sparse description of the various societies which have arisen on the tower, all of them based on the foundation society, he presents them in a believable manner which leaves the reader wanting to know more about them.

“Understand” is Chiang’s take on Daniel Keyes’s classic “Flowers for Algernon.”  Before the story opens, Leon Greco lapsed into a coma following an accident.  Treatment with hormone K has begun to raise his intelligence and capacity for learning.  Greco uses his newfound ability to look at the world in a different way and gain a more complete understanding of it.  At the same time, he grows bored with how easily he is able to understand what he sees and his newfound intelligence helps to disassociate him from the rest of the human race.  Chiang creates a human driven completely by intelligence, logic and a quest for information.  Whether the changes he has made to Leon Greco would give Greco the physical ability Chiang describes is up to the suspension of disbelief for the individual reader.  Eventually, Greco comes upon his own equal, or superior, who has not cut himself off from humanity.  Their conflicting world views provide the denouement for the increase in intelligence and breaks the story from Keyesian model.

“Division by Zero” is an hard science fiction story dealing with the science of mathematics.  In the middle of a brilliant career as a mathematician, Renee tries to commit suicide, in part because of her discovery that mathematics may not be as consistent as has always been believed.  As with “Story of Your Live,” Chiang combines the professional life with the personal one as Renee and her husband experience marital problems when her professional worries spill into her personal life.  Although Carl knows that he doesn’t fully understand his wife or her work, he clearly loves her and tries to help her come to terms with the debilitating discovery she has made.

“Story of Your Life” is an, at first, unlikely mix of Louise Banks reciting her daughter's biography interspersed with her descriptions of the linguistic work Banks is performing on the alien heptapods who have just made contact with earth.  Although the story is disorienting at first as Chiang switches back and forth between the action, eventually he manages to bring the two plotlines together in a manner which, while it doesn't explain everything, does provide the reader with the necessary clues to piece the story together in a logical manner.

“Seventy-Two Letters” is an alchemypunk story set in the Victorian era in which kabalah (mysticism) functions as a science.  As with earlier stories like “Division by Zero,” Chiang presents his protagonist, Robert Stratton, as a child first getting interested in experimentation with a toy golem.  These early views of Stratton’s life are later tied into his mature research.  Stratton, and through him Chiang, support the idea of cooperation in scientific endeavor, and when Stratton is denied the chance to cooperate his research stagnates.  Since his research indicates that there is a strong possibility of the human race become extinct, it is important to overcome the social and scientific (kabalistic) pressures which preclude cooperation.  Set in Victorian times, Chiang is able to bring up casual racism and classism in a non-offensive way, although it is clear that the problems are still with us.  Chiang’s story is gripping and clever and raises questions about both science, society and the way the two work together.

“The Evolution of Human Science” was originally published in Nature under the title  “Catching the Crumbs from the Table.”  In this short piece, Chiang looks at a world in which scientific achievement has moved beyond human understanding.  While he could have written this as a cautionary tale predicated on the idea that there were some things that man was not meant to know, he instead offers it as a natural extension of human inquisitiveness.

“Hell Is the Absence of God” postulates a world in which appearances by angels and views into Hell would seem to make faith a matter of fact.  Instead, people react to the knowledge of God's existence and an afterlife in a variety of ways.  The story focuses on Neil Fisk, a non-devout man who wife is killed during an angelic visitation.  While dealing with his grief, Fisk comes to the realization that if he is to be reunited with his wife in the afterlife, he must learn to love God.  Unfortunately, never having been devout before, he fails to see how he can love God now that his wife has been taken from him.  Fisk's quest for understanding brings him into contact with Janice Reilly, a woman whose physical infirmity was cured during a visitation, and Ethan Mead, whose own life was strangely unchanged by witnessing a visitation.  Chiang raises several questions about faith in this story with ends by breaking some of the rules Chiang had set up, but which increases the poignancy of the story.

Chiang has elected to close the collection with an original story, “Liking What You See:  A Documentary.”  The piece is written as a transcription of a film documentary, encompassing several characters with widely divergent viewpoints on the subject of calliagnosia, a means of allowing people to see what people look like without making any conscious or unconscious value judgments based on their appearance.  The crux of the story is the experiences of Tamara Lyons, a young girl who elects to stop using calli in order to learn more about the world around her.  While the specific issue Chiang addresses may be fictional, the manner in which he addresses it is balanced in a way which few debates seem to be these days.  Chiang presents a variety of points of view on the lookism, which can stand in for the racism and classism discussed in “Seventy-Two Letters,” and gives some insight into the mechanizations which go on behind the scenes during a public debate. 

For those who have read some or all of Ted Chiang's stories, Stories of Your Life and Others is a collection of those stories in one place so you can revisit all of his writing without having to dig through old anthologies and magazines.  For those who have not yet had the chance to read his work, Stories of Your Life and Others will open the door on one of the best new authors to hit the science fiction field in a long time.

Tower of Babylon Seventy-Two Letters
Understand The Evolution of Human Science
Division by Zero Hell is the Absence of God
Story of Your Life Liking What Your See:  A Documentary 

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