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Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Published by Tor Books

Edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Book design by Jane Adele Regina

Cover art by Gregory Manchess

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Ted Chiang has made his reputation on short stories that turn the reader's expectations upside-down. His very first, "Tower of Babylon," which is the first story in this collection, revisits the old Biblical story of the tower which was built to reach heaven. In this retelling, they have built it to such prodigious height that climbing it takes some forty-five days. The fact that great numbers of men are constantly carrying bricks to its summit and working there without having any problems keeping themselves supplied with food should be our clue that something odd is going on here. Yet when we hear that it has become so high that a star has imbedded itself in its side, we as modern readers nod with smug certainty in our scientific knowledge that it must in fact be a meteor that by chance happened to strike the tower, and not a star at all.

But then the protagonist reaches its top and our smug certainty is unseated by the discovery that the sky is in fact a ceiling of hard granite along which the sun, moon and stars traverse, and far from them being vast celestial bodies, they are devices rather like lamps of unusual brilliance that travel each day through the upper atmosphere. And the protagonist is going to help the Egyptian stoneworkers cut through the vault of heaven and reach the true heavens above.

All seems to be going well enough, and their protections against a possible disaster from piercing one of the reservoirs of water that caused the Great Flood seem to be working. But then, when it looks like they will actually break through to the true Heaven of Yahweh's court, it turns out that the Lord has a most wry sense of humor in dealing with pesky intrusive humans.

"Hell is the Absence of God" also explores a world in which certain religious beliefs prove to be literally true, although it takes place not in the Old Testament past, but in what appears to be contemporary America of TV's and SUV's. When the protagonist's wife is snatched from him during the apparition of an angel, he sets himself to the goal of reuniting himself with her. Since that means getting into Heaven, he decides that the best way to ensure his own admission is to have his own encounter with an angel, something he goes about in the most systematic way possible. However, the God of this story's world is not bound by rules, nor does he have the wry humor of the Yahweh of "Tower of Babylon." Thus the ending is particularly grim because it seems so grossly unfair and arbitrary, yet at another level one can see the rules that drive it to its logical conclusion.

"Story of Your Life," the title story and the one that won Chiang his second Nebula award, is an exploration of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis as applied to an alien language. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis holds that language shapes our thoughts, quite possibly to the point of limiting the range of thoughts we can form, and suggests that learning a new language could enable a person to think in new and different ways, and perhaps even transcend limits that were previously considered inviolable. Chiang isn't the first to suggest that learning an alien language could give a person extraordinary powers -- Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land featured a Martian Language that, if mastered, could give humans superhuman powers. But Chiang's treatment of the idea is noteworthy in its very literary handling, by which the results are an intensely personal transformation of one woman's life and perceptions that remain almost imperceptable to all those around her.

"Division by Zero" takes place in a contemporary setting, and deals with higher mathematics. In particular, what happens if one were to show that arithmetic were in fact naught but a collection of convenient mnemonics that enable us to deal with ordinary objects, and in fact higher mathematics were all contradictory. It's an interesting idea, and the handling of it is rather clever, but in many ways I find it one of the weakest stories in the entire collection, for the simple reason that it's all abstract conceit. The protagonist's discoveries have no real-world consequences. Mathematics is falling apart as a result of her formalism, yet nothing happens as a result. Calculators continue to give the same familiar results. People still count up the number of cans of pop in their fridges, the money in their wallets, etc. without any apparent difficulties. Even computers and high finance, both of which depend for their very function upon mathematics, continue to function as though nothing had changed -- yet we are supposed to believe that mathematics as we know it has come apart.

The most unusual story in this collection is the last one, "Liking What You See: A Documentary." It belongs to that quirky subgenre of "fictional non-fiction," that is, a story that uses the language and structure of non-fiction to tell the story in the form of a police report, or a scientific paper, or in this case, a documentary with interviews of various people as they explore the role of beauty in social relationships. It has been shown in a number of real-life studies that a person's appearance has a profound effect on his or her success in life, with attractive people routinely getting better jobs, better promotions and raises, and better terms on loans as well as more friendships and more dates. Chiang explores the consequences of a medical procedure that turns off a person's ability to perceive beauty without damaging the person's ability to recognize faces and use that recognition to identify people.

On the whole, there are several very strong stories here, as well as a couple I found weak and shaky.

Table of Contents

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

  • Story Notes
  • Acknowledgements.

Review posted January 4, 2009

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