This new edition of Ted Chiang's masterful first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, includes his first eight published stories. Combining the precision and scientific curiosity of Kim Stanley Robinson with Lorrie Moore's cool, clear love of language and narrative intricacy, this award-winning collection offers listeners the dual delights of the very, very strange and the heartbreakingly familiar. Stories of Your Life and Others presents characters who must confront sudden change-the inevitable rise of automatons or the appearance of aliens-while striving to maintain some sense of normalcy. In the amazing and much-lauded title story (the basis for the 2016 movie Arrival), a grieving mother copes with divorce and the death of her daughter by drawing on her knowledge of alien languages and non-linear memory recollection. A clever pastiche of news reports and interviews chronicles a college's initiative to "turn off" the human ability to recognize beauty in "Liking What You See: A Documentary." With sharp intelligence and humor, Chiang examines what it means to be alive in a world marked by uncertainty and constant change, and also by beauty and wonder.
"Chiang writes seldom, but his almost unfathomably wonderful stories tick away with the precision of a Swiss watch-and explode in your awareness with shocking, devastating force." (Kirkus, Starred Review)
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This was the September pick for the Sword and Laser book club
I have to admit that I was reluctant at first to give this book a try. First because I haven't read a lot of short stories so I wasn't sure this collection would grab me. Second, I went with the Audio version because my library didn't have it and I decided just to go with my Audible credit. The only other collection of short stories I've read recently was METAtropolis (also in audio) and while I enjoyed it, it didn't amaze me. Let me tell you, Stories of Your Life and Others might be the book that convinced me to try short stories more often.
The collection is fantastic, I wasn't even finished and I kept telling people they had to give it a try. While very different, the short stories flow nicely. The fact that this time there were all written by the same person is really evident, even though the voice on each story changes quite a bit changing point of views and even presenting one as a documentary.
Goodreads describes the collection as multiple stories where the characters encounter sudden change. However, more than just sudden change, I believe that the common thread that this collection has is preconceptions and destroying or debunking them. From the concept of beauty to mathematics and even procreation, Chiang gives a new light to all of these subjects with touches of science fiction and even a bit of fantasy.
All the worlds presented are beautifully constructed; at no point did I get the feeling that what was being presented made no sense in the respective universe, and this is extremely important to me. This is not to say that the elements that made these stories feel outside of our world weren't there. They are obviously there without making it feel overdone and so my mind entered each story smoothly.
As might be expected, I liked some of the stories better than other, my favorites being Story of your Life and Others, which deals with the concept of language and physics, and Liking what you See, which deals with the concept and perception of beauty. Extra points for Understand not using the "we only use 10% of our brains" trope and actually going with something different.
Both narrators did a terrific job. Only at Liking What you See do we get to hear them at almost the same time, but I think they were perfect choices all the way through.
TOWER OF BABYLON, UNDERSTAND, HELL IS THE ABSENCE OF GOD, LIKING WHAY YOU SEE This was a hard book to rate. It has eight stories or novelettes. Of the eight I absolutely loved the four stories mentioned above and the other four, bored me to tears. Chiang's writing is super intelligent, but most of the stories come off mostly as science papers, not stories. Chiang, digs into each subject with gusto and examines it from every angle. Basically if you like the subject matter, than you will love the paper, but if you are not interested to begin with, your not going to become interested. I will talk about the ones I loved and keep in mind I hated the others.
LIKING WHAT YOU SEE This was my favorite, mostly because it is a subject matter I have always been interested in and one in which most writers ignore. It is all about beauty, what is beauty, and how people react to beauty or lack of. In this futuristic story, a technology has been invented that makes people blind to beauty. Some societies have this tech installed in their kids and at eighteen they can decide if they want it removed. I think we all agree that our looks aid in our confidence and in our success or lack of. It affects how people are treated in society. A young good looking woman walks in a room and it is as if the other women don't even exist. As a sidebar, not talked about in this book, my son recently mentioned that the average height of American Men is 5'9". The woman in the room were surprised and thought that was a little on the short side. It occurred to me, that the reason they thought that was that when they see a shorter man, they don't see him. He is not significant, he is a non person and does not matter. He does not exist in their minds.
TOWER OF BABYLON This is the closest to a real story. As mentioned in the STORY NOTES, the Hebrews story of the Tower is more detailed, than what is in the bible. The Hebrew Tower, takes day to walk around and a year to climb. This all makes for a mind boggling picture in your head.
HELL IS THE ABSENCE OF GOD This is a kind of biblical, paranormal story with angels that do as much harm as good. It is also a very detailed and thoughtful look into faith.
UNDERSTAND I guess it takes a genius to write about being a genius. We are always being told we only use a small percentage of our brain. In this story Chiang explores what would happen if you could use your whole brain and it comes with a few twists.
The other stories I probably would have liked, had they been subject matter I cared about. Division by Zero, is very mathy and turned my brain to mush. My wife, who is a math teacher would have probably loved it. The Story of Your Life, is a linguistic study. It is a story about aliens and how we would learn to speak with them. Included in the story is a woman talking to her dead child. How these tied together, I don't know as I could not finish the story. While I am interested in how we could ever communicate with aliens, that are not humanoid in any way, I could not get into the nuts and bolts of it all. Seventy Two Letters is about golems, automatons and magic. In the Story Notes, Chiang mentions the Jewish Religion as the spark for the story. I should have been interested, but it just seemed like he sucked all the fun out of it. The Evolution of Human Science was written for the Journal, Nature. Thank God, it is very short, for it has the power to put the common layman into a coma.