Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Alternatively titled, Arrival. ★★★★★
Stories of Your Life and Others is a truly amazing collection of science fiction short stories. Between them, the stories have a huge array of award nominations, and I can completely see why. Really, the quality of this collection is remarkable.
The most famous story in the collection is probably the titular “Stories of Your Life,” which was recently turned into the first contact movie Arrival. While there’s obviously differences between the short story and the feature film length adaption, it turned out that the film stayed pretty close to the original. In “Stories of Your Life,” a linguist is contacted by the government to translate the aliens who have mysteriously arrived on Earth, purpose unknown. The story hinges around the idea of “linguistic relativity,” language shaping the speaker’s thoughts and worldview. I learned a little bit about the idea in high school and found it fascinating. “Stories of Your Life” takes it to the next level, where an alien language starts to give the narrator an alien view of time. I won’t say much more, but it’s worth reading the story or watching the movie adaption.
One story in the collection I’d actually read before – in a companion book to Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series of all places. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” is story told via the transcript of a documentary on calli, a reversible procedure that switches off people’s ability to perceive whether or not a person is beautiful. In this near future, calli is becoming a cultural force, with groups campaigning to make it mandatory for their colleges and others fighting against it. The supporters of calli argue that it combats lookism, supports social justice, and counters the un-achievable beauty norms set by the media and cosmetics industry. I have to admit, I’d be with the students against making it mandatory. I can see the benefits… but I wouldn’t want to see less beauty in the world. Anyway, it’s a really good story that got me thinking.
Another story in the collection I loved was “Seventy-Two Letters.” The story could be considered steampunk, as it’s set in an alternate vision of Victorian era London. However, instead of creations powered by machinery, this world is powered by golems and meticulously crafted names of seventy-two letters. The protagonist, Robert Stratton, has always been fascinated by golems, and he grows up to make a career out of creating them. He wants to revolutionize society by making golems affordable, thus improving the lot of the lower classes. One other major change dominates “Seventy-Two Letters”: in this world, a proto-evolutionary theory is correct. Humans and all other animals reproduce by containing within their eggs and sperm tiny reproductions of themselves, nestled together like Russian dolls, one inside the other. But here we get to the crux of the matter: scientists have discovered that the human species is within five generations of extinction. Robert Stratton is tasked with distilling humanity into seventy-two letters that can be imprinted on an egg, allowing humanity to continue artificially. The implications are vast, making “Seventy-Two Letters” a truly brilliant and unique story.
Chiang also delves into the mystical with his first published (and Nebula award winning) story, “Tower of Babylon.” In this story, the city of Babylon has built a tower so high it touches the vault of heaven. The protagonist is a stone mason, hired to ascend the tower and chisel into heaven itself. Most of the story is taken up with ascent up the tower, a journey that lasts months. Chiang’s vision of the tower was spellbinding, and the circular logic of the story’s ending was again brilliant.
In “Understand,” an ordinary man enters a drug trial to help him recover from a crash that damaged his brain. The drug turns out to not only heal his brain but to improve it, making him into a genius like no other. But he is not content with mere genius – he wants to be able to understand anything and everything, to see the totality of the connections that make up the world.
There were a couple of short stories that didn’t strike me the way the others did. In “Division by Zero,” a mathematician devises a formula that proves all of math is a lie and has a mental breakdown over the destruction of what she loves most. “The Evolution of Human Science” is written in the form of a journal article, looking at the scientific disparities between humans and “meta-humans.” Neither of these stories were bad, they just didn’t do anything for me. Luckily, they were both the shortest stories in the collection.
Throughout this review, I’ve repeatedly used the word “brilliant” because no other word can as succinctly explain this collection. Ted Chiang is a true master of his craft, and his stories should be required reading for anyone interested in speculative fiction or short fiction.