In the case of the story collection/novellas “Stories of Your Life and Others”, I must make an exception and immediately state my verdict… well, my final impression. That is – I do not recommend buying this book at full price. There, I’ve said it, at the risk of people who have already read these stories abandoning this review, but I hope not the entire blog. 😅 But first, let me do what any brave human being would do. Stand in my defense, panicked and tearfully.
Ted Chiang is, undoubtedly, an intelligent guy (for his youthful half-century of life). He graduated in cybernetics. He works in the software industry. His wife is a supermodel (well, she’s not… actually, I don’t even know if he has a wife).
This collection contains eight award-winning stories, which have won various awards in the field of science fiction (“Nebula”, “Hugo”, “Locus”…). So, the man is the Michael Phelps of Sci-Fi stories. Now, you’re probably wondering, what authority do I have to start a review so harshly when so many critics have praised and awarded him? Well, ladies and gentlemen, as the most eminent and most qualified… and the sole member of the jury – Ted Chiang does not receive the “Kafa i Knjiga” (“Coffee and Book”) award. I have no doubt he will be very disappointed when he finds out. 🤣
Now, a bit more seriously. Yes, Ted is a talented writer. Are all his stories good? No. But, Chiang still thrills the reader in many ways. For starters, his stories are something you don’t come across often. The first thing I thought was: “Indeed, this man writes differently.” The stories are intelligently written, and it’s evident that he has studied the subjects he later transformed into stories. His science fiction (which occasionally sails into fantasy waters) is quite subtle, which, you may agree, is somewhat unusual for this genre. No massive spaceships, epic battles, Transformers, parallel worlds, or time travel. The SF elements are subtle, with the focus on humans.
The themes he touches upon are no less intriguing. The Tower of Babel, communication with aliens, visible Heaven and Hell, neurological modifications of humans… there’s everything here. His stories proceed at a standard (and somewhat inscrutable) pace, and then the next moment blow you away with something unexpected, which is most often your realization of the real point of the story.
Someone might say: “Silly man, then what’s wrong? Perhaps you’re not intelligent enough to understand Ted’s genius?” Maybe. Although I think I am intelligent and well-read enough because, after all, I followed, without much effort, the technical terms mentioned in these stories. Uh, more-less… 😁
Here’s the thing… When I reached the end of the book, I realized that the greatest virtues of these stories had also become their biggest flaws. If you’re looking for light reading, then forget this book. If you really want to understand these stories (including the technical terminology that constantly runs through them), you’ll have to delve a little deeper. I couldn’t escape the feeling that the stories had become too intelligent for their own good. And, to be honest, I couldn’t escape the feeling that these stories were written more with the mind of a scientist than the heart of a writer. The narration itself could often be monotonous. Imagine Morgan Freeman on sedatives reading these stories, uniformly and without a surge of emotion. At first, it might be interesting to you because the topics are such (and because the narrator is Morgan Freeman 🙂), but over time, it becomes more monotonous and confusing, until at one point you get as bored as a lifeguard at the Olympic Games during the 100m butterfly stroke competition.
But, in my opinion, the biggest flaw is the selection of stories. That spoiled my impression the most. The first four stories simply blow you away and launch you into the stratosphere… and then the next four start plummeting you into the abyss. What I want to say… had the collection contained only the first four stories, I wouldn’t have any criticism to write.
Shall we touch upon the stories themselves a bit?
“The Tower of Babel” – a slightly different approach to the famous biblical legend, more based on the “what if” principle. The story follows a religious but pragmatic miner, Hilalum, who is sent to work on the Tower of Babel. But our guy doesn’t go digging downward, but upward. Yes, you read that correctly. And did you know that many families live in the Tower of Babel, and that at quite considerable heights? So, how tall is this tower? And wasn’t it destroyed for defying God? Well… that’s something you’ll have to read about. Along the way, you’ll also engage with Hilalum’s thoughts on the topic of the tower. All in all, a very good story, but with a lukewarm ending.
“Understand” – Wow… this story blew me away, and in my opinion, it’s the best of all in this collection! A man ends up with severe brain damage after an accident, and an experimental drug is tested on him. Our hero doesn’t mutate into some creature or Captain America, but the drug regenerates his damaged neurons. But that’s not all. He realizes (which hospital tests confirm) that he has become exceptionally intelligent. Furthermore, he’s offered the chance to participate in further experimental research on this drug. And what happens when they inject him with the drug again? Well, you’ve already guessed, haven’t you? He becomes even smarter. And then the rock ‘n’ roll starts. He realizes (since he’s now a really smart guy) that the CIA will certainly not let him walk among ordinary people that smart and buying stuff in local grocery store. So, our hero does the only smart thing – he flees. Outsmarting enemies is a child’s play for him because he can see patterns in everything – behavior, body language; his senses are sharpened, and he understands the full potential of his body. He can “compress” years of learning into a few weeks. And then he injects a new dose of the drug. He reaches new levels of self-awareness (it’s getting harder even for the reader to follow his thoughts). However, someone appears who can match him. And the outcome is a story in itself… By the way, does anyone remember the movie “Limitless”? 😉
“Division by Zero” – What happens when a scientist discovers that mathematics is not perfect and logical as it’s portrayed and when all theorems and axioms collapse like a house of cards? When it’s proven that mathematics is indeed inconsi… inconzi… inconf… contradictory to itself (and all those sufferings in math tests were ultimately unnecessary and in vain)? This discovery changes the life of our heroine radically. And what does her husband think and do about it? Is 9a = 9b in the end?
“Story of Your Life” – Indeed, the story was chosen to be the flagship of this collection for a reason. Dr. Louise Banks tells us two stories. One in the present and the other in the past, and the two stories are constantly intertwined. One is about Louise’s attempt to establish communication with two aliens in a research center, trying to understand their language (Heptapod A and B are, at first glance, very unusual aliens… as unusual as gelatinous barrels with an excess of arms and legs can be 😉), and in doing so, she slowly becomes aware that the concept of time may not be as we perceive it. The other story is about her daughter, where she talks about her growing up and her death. Yes, you read that correctly. You have the impression she is telling her unborn daughter her life. Confused? Ah, I was too, until I finished reading the story when all the pieces fell into place. And then you realize how truly sad and painful this story is. I can’t wait to watch the movie based on this story.
“Seventy-Two Letters” – And welcome to the world of my agony. The story that almost made me give up on further reading. Ok, it starts quite decent. An interesting period; the idea about golems and how assigning the right name can give them certain skills; an idealist scientist who discovered the name that gives golems (when the name is assigned, they become kinds of robots) almost human agility… yeap, that’s bad here… but why is it bad… wait, the one who was his friend has now become the new Hitler? They want to kill this scientist now? What’s happening here? And why is this going at such a dreary pace and completely nonsensical? Ugh…
“The Evolution of Human Science” – In the form of a short newspaper article/scientific paper. Totally uninteresting and unnecessary, at least to me…
“Hell Is the Absence of God” – Ah, the situation improves a bit here, though I would have preferred if this story was at the beginning of the book before the previous two killed the vibe of the book. This story is pure fantasy, not a bit of science fiction. Heaven, Hell, and God really exist, as does evidence of their existence. And you can get a unique opportunity to see them. Oh yes, angels often appear on Earth! However, they don’t land gracefully like a white swallow gently lowered to Earth by the wind… they are more like a flaming Boeing without a pilot plummeting to the planet. So, besides the possibility of receiving a vision, gift, or blessing, there’s also a high likelihood of ending up as collateral damage due to the explosion/radiation accompanying their landing, which will enable you to meet God faster than you think. The story follows Neil, who decided to love God, even though his wife died precisely because of an angel’s appearance. Sounds strange? It is, but you’ll see why Neil wants to give God a chance, and whether his intention is justified. His path will cross with Janice (who lost her blessing/curse and is now questioning her beliefs) and Ethan (who is in search of his purpose). However, these two are more present here to complete Neil’s story. And what do you think about the ending itself? Expected or not?
“Liking What You See: A Documentary” – summa summarum: an interesting topic about beauty written in an extremely boring and strenuous form of a bunch of shorter reports and opinions. This story finished me off (and in a very, very negative sense).
As an addition, you have the writer’s explanation of how he came up with the idea to write each story. Explained in a rather scientific manner. He should have kept this part to himself, to be honest…
So, as you can see, these are my impressions of “Stories of Your Life and Others”. The stories are literally in the category of “love it or hate it.” They’re not for everyone, especially if you’re looking for lighter reading material. Someone might comment that I don’t like intelligent stories (quite the contrary), but some of these stories really didn’t sit right with me.
They say Chiang still hasn’t written a novel… honestly, maybe that’s for the best.
Question for you: The best and worst story of this collection and why? And was I perhaps biased about any of them and why?
…well, those are two questions 🙂 …
(Originally reviewed: 16/09/2017)