Stories of Your Life and Others
By Ted Chiang
Amongst aficionados of the thinking-person branch of science-fiction Seattle-based Chiang has long been highly regarded, and he has a string of awards on his shelf. But he has never really broken through to the mainstream: perhaps because he only writes stories rather than novels, perhaps because the stories are complex and contemplative, or perhaps because he has little time for the celebrity-writer game.
This has changed – somewhat – with the release of the mesmerising movie Arrival, based on Chiang’s 1998 story, Story of Your Life, which is the centrepiece of this collection. There is a fair bit of difference between the short story and the movie (the screenplay was written by Eric Heisserer) but the basic idea and the spiralling, inside-out structure remains. The movie is a good adaptation, and director Denis Villeneuve obviously thought carefully about the tone. He also engaged Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (with whom he had worked on Sicario) to provide an other-worldly soundscape.
This reviewer will not give away the story of Story, as it would be a spoiler for anyone who has not seen the movie, but he can say that is a remarkable piece of work, clever without being condescending. Story also indicates Chiang’s interest in the problem of communication – in this case between unrelated species – which features regularly in this collection. In Understand, a person who has acquired super-intelligence finds himself unable to interact with ‘normals’, as life becomes a blur of Mandelbrot-style complexity. In Liking What You See, a new technology allows people to ‘turn off’ the part of their brain that decides whether a face is attractive or not. It’s a mixed blessing.
Chiang has a knack for creating a world which is recognisable but radically different. In Seventy-Two Letters, the main industry is the creation of golem-like ‘engines’ animated by increasingly complicated nomenclatures. Hell is the Absence of God features regularly-appearing angels who provide both miracles and disasters, although their purpose is obscure and the outcomes seemingly random. These stories bring to mind some of Steven Millhauser’s tales, the same willingness to follow an idea to wherever it leads.
One of the most interesting stories in this collection (the first story that Chiang published, in fact) has a more Borges-like quality. The Tower of Babylon comes at the biblical story from an angle both literal and bizarre. The huge tower does, eventually, grow tall enough to reach Heaven although God, as it turns out, is rather indifferent to the whole endeavour.
These stories are not easy: readers have to work out a lot for themselves. Well, good. People who want shoot-‘em-up sci-fi stories favouring action over thought will have no trouble finding them. But Chiang has shown that the genre can be more. Much more.