Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang, is a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories. I’m not generally a short story reader, but I’ve had this on my shelves for a couple of years. It was an early installment in the Life’s Library book club, which I was a member of until it became apparent that the books would never arrive from the US in time for me to participate in the discussions. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. Overall, I enjoyed the collection very much – it’s beautifully written, and the stories are profoundly original. I’ve picked out a few to talk about below.
Seventy-two Letters is historical science fiction, set during the industrialial revolution and based on the theory of preformationism, which was popular at the time. Briefly, this theory was that everything develops from an image of itself – so sperm would have tiny human beings in them, which would only begin to develop when they encountered an egg and pick up maternal characteristics in the womb. This story is really all about the creation of new life, because the other element of it is the formation of automata that can be animated and driven to carry out simple tasks. Idealistic Robert Stratton, who wants to create cheap labour-saving automata for the working class so that children no longer die at cotton mills, gets drawn into a complex scientific conspiracy. I liked this story a lot. The idea of picking up a disproven theory and wondering what the consequences for humanity would be if it were true is a fun one. A minor nitpick – the setting was less consistently developed than those in the other stories. Sometimes it really did seem like an alternate history version of the 18th century, but other times characters talked as though it was the late 1990s. Overall, though, I really loved this story.
I would advise anyone who has loved ones with complex and enduring mental health problems to approach the story Division by Zero with caution. Although I enjoyed the collection, I wish I had steered clear of this one. This story of a maths professor who is admitted to a psychiatric ward, and the effect that has on her relationship with her husband, is miserable and hopeless. It also seems tailor-made to induce guilt in anyone who has wrestled with a change in relationship after a loved one has had a period of acute mental illness. One of the cruellest features of complex mental illness is the tendency of the unwell person to lash out at anyone who is trying to help – not always, of course, but in all of my experience. Afterwards, no matter what effort both parties put in to repair and restore the relationship, it will always be different because of that. Again, just my experience, but an experience I’ve had several times with different people. It’s rendered expertly here, in such a way that I regret having read it. It is an excellent story, so this is by no means criticism! Just, you know, handle with care.
Story of Your Life was adapted into the film Arrival, about developing communication with an alien race. I saw Arrival a few years ago and loved it, but the story it’s based on is better. I have never read any sci-fi where the science being fictionalised is linguistics – but it’s fascinating. I’m interested in linguistics and language development anyway, so that probably helps. Even if that’s not one of your interests, though, I think this collection is worth reading just for Story of Your Life. Chiang is interested in how the way we use language shapes and is shaped by our worldviews – individually, and collectively as a human race. What the (nameless) main character has to confront, as she tries to communicate with this alien species, is not so much differences in language, but differences in perception – in what the two species, human and heptapod, do with the information that is given to them. She has to understand that before she can truly communicate with them This is tied in with glimpses of the main character’s daughter growing up, and developing her own language skills and worldview. It’s done beautifully, and (other than Division by Zero) is probably the story I found most moving.
I couldn’t identify any particular theme to the stories, except that many of them seem to be about the nature of belief. What is common to all of them, though, is that Chiang seems to know his subject inside out, even though each of the short stories deals with a different field of science. At the end of the book, Chiang includes some story notes, dealing with the genesis of each story, and these support the idea that he has very diverse interests in various fields of science. One of the short-short stories is in the form of an editorial for a scientific journal (and he gets the style bang on), which suggests that Chiang reads academic science as well as popular science and fiction. This perhaps explains the focus in each story on the underpinning theories and technicalities of the science. The few fantasy stories in here didn’t do it for me as much as the science fiction, but they were still very good. If you like science fiction – especially hard science fiction with a lot of focus on worldbuilding – I highly recommend this collection. Chiang had a second collection, Exhalation, out last year, and I am very much looking forward to reading it.