Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others

Ted Chiang’s name continually comes up in lists of great short stories. He’s never written a novel, but has won nearly every SF award that exists. 4 Nebulas, 3 Hugos, John W. Campbell, Locus, and on and on. He’s greatly admired among authors and almost entirely unknown by most readers. I’ve heard him referenced as an inspiration by several authors that I enjoy reading. Specifically Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (who collectively write the Expanse series under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey) cite this collection as massively influential. I figured I should probably do myself a service and at least check it out.

It turns out that It’s completely mind-blowing. High concept science fiction that is grounded heavily in the real world. Every single story is incredibly unique, tonally diverse and powerful in different ways. If the quality among these 8 stories wasn’t at such a consistently high level, I’d say that Chiang was merely a ghostwriting team, comprised of 8 different authors, all exceptionally talented, each with different interests, politics and writing styles. Every story genuinely feels like it could be penned by a different author. I’ve never come across a creative powerhouse like this guy. He’s impressing the hell out of me with every sentence.

Tower of Babylon: 5/5
Killer story. The Old Testament cosmology was especially fun to hear described–passing beyond the moon, sun and stars, etc. A telling of the construction and journey up the tower of Babylon, and what lies beyond the vault of heaven. Blew my mind right open. Seriously creative. I get why it won all kinds of awards.

Understand: 5/5
Again, with the unique approach to storytelling. While reading this one, I started realizing how some of these concepts have clearly influenced other stories. Most obviously, the movie ‘Limitless’ and the Max Barry novel Lexicon. I particularly liked how the language and vocabulary of the story evolves as the protagonist’s intelligence and recall increases.

Division By Zero: 4/5
An examination of loss of belief, mental illness, suicide and math. What happens when everything you’ve worked for in your life, every kind of order that you’ve relied on, is suddenly incorrect?

Story of Your Life: 6/5
Stop what you’re doing now and read this. This is the absolute best short story I have ever read. Chiang’s grasp on the English language is deeply integrated into the story itself, causality, and omniscience. It’s insanely good.

Seventy-Two Letters: 3/5
Interesting concepts, but storywise it was a little boring. The power of language to shape action and perception. Reminded me a lot of early 50s Asimov. All conceptual, not much character development.

The Evolution of Human Science: 3/5
Interesting and extremely short little tale about a scientific understanding breaking down between regular humans and meta-humans. Conceptually cool, but too short to really be that interesting.

Hell is the Absence of God: 5/5
The moral of the story? God is a maniacal motherfucker who doesn’t give a shit about humans, and you should love him unconditionally. This one was a real brain twister. I loved it.

Liking What You See: A Documentary: 5/5
Advertisers, elective localized brain damage, culture jamming, politics, coming of age, concepts of beauty, love, relationships. This was terrific and heavily subversive.

The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks

Synopsis: “The Culture–a humanoid/machine symbiotic society–has thrown up many great Game Players. One of the best is Jernau Morat Gurgeh, Player of Games, master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the Empire of Azad, cruel & incredibly wealthy, to try their fabulous game, a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game and with it the challenge of his life, and very possibly his death.” 

The Player of Games

The Player of Games

The first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, did a lot of world-building heavy lifting from a Culture antagonistic POV. Having read that previously, this one is allowed to come in and really flesh out the world from a pro-Culture POV, which was really fun. Reading them in order gave a sort of a pros-and-cons approach to their philosophy. We get all of the negative things about the Culture first, and then we start to see the positives in this book.

Big shocker, I really loved it. The complexities of the main character and his occasional slips into apathy and/or something much darker during his experiences playing the game and interacting with the foreign philosophy an actions of the Empire, were handled expertly and really made him feel flesh and blood.

Iain M. BanksUltimately, this story serves as an allegory for — and examination of — the ultimate cause of the baser desires of humanity. The Culture’s philosophy stands in for one possible method that these social terrors might be not only curtailed, but pretty much completely circumvented. Of course, this is a work of fiction, and this philosophy may not work so perfectly in practice. I do think there is at least a little truth to it though, but for it to function in practice we may need access to those pesky ‘unlimited resources’ that the Culture has.

Bottom line, you should read this book. But you should also read Consider Phlebas first. Don’t be an idiot, read the books in publication order. There has never been a series that has ever benefited from being read/watched/listened to in any other order than the order it was published in.

Since I read this back to back with Consider Phlebas, think I’ll read a quick palette cleanser before moving on to Use of Weapons. This is heavy stuff, and I’m exhausted.

Axiomatic, by Greg Egan

Axiomatic, by Greg Egan

Axiomatic, by Greg Egan

Hugely original ideas, not every story is a home run but there are enough 5/5 stories here to make this very recommended for any fan of hard science fiction. The concepts are extremely unique even 20 years later. Very similar to Ted Chiang’s writing. I have no idea why Greg Egan isn’t a household name in SF.

“As the unknowable future becomes the unchangeable past, risk must collapse into certainty, one way or another.”

“We think of our lives as circumscribed by cultural and biological taboos, but if people really want to break them, they always seem to find a way. Human beings are capable of anything:torture, genocide, cannibalism, rape. After which — or so I’d heard — most can still be kind to children and animals, be moved to tears by music, and generally behave as if all their emotional faculties are intact.”

“I’d rather swim in this cacophony of a million contradictory voices the drown in the smooth and plausible lies of those genocidal authors of history.”

Individual story ratings:

The Infinite Assassin: 3/5
Multiverse drugs messing everything up all over the place.

The Hundred-Light-Year-Diary: 5/5
Existential, philosophical fiction.

Eugene: 2/5
Right when it got interesting it veered off to left field and ended abruptly.

Caress: 5/5
Creepy and awesome. Life imitates art. One of the most interesting characters I’ve ever encountered.

Blood Sisters: 3/5
Chrichtonesqe

Axiomatic: 5/5
Terrific.

Post Office Box: 5/5
A more practical quantum leap. Terrific story.

Seeing: 5/5
Brilliant concept, very well written.

A Kidnapping: 4/5
Egan is so clever.

Learning to be Me: 5/5
So uncomfortably, unnervingly good.

The Vat: 2/5
Clever, but this one was missing something for me.

The Walk: 5/5
Damn it Egan, quit writing such terrifically layered, philosophical, existential stories!

The Cutie: 3/5
Gross and Weird, awesome concept.

Into Darkness: 3/5
Great concept, story wasn’t that stellar though. This one would probably be the most likely pick to adapt into a film.

Appropriate Love: 3/5
Gross and Weird, awesome concept.

The Moral Virologist: 4/5
Total psycho – inspired by the AIDS virus – attempts to make a moral virus that only punishes adulterers, fails magnificently.

Closer: 3/5
Set in the same universe as ‘Learning to be Me’, a couple look for ways to become more like each other, in order to better understand each other’s perspective.

Unstable Orbits in the Space Of Lies: 3/5
Similar concept as ‘Closer’, except on a very large scale, and more about theology/religious/political views than individual perspectives.

The New and Improved Romie Futch, by Julia Elliott

 

 

Julia Elliott

Julia Elliott

Synopsis:

Meet the South’s newest antihero: Romie Futch. Down on his luck and pining for his ex-wife, the fortysomething taxidermist spends his evenings drunkenly surfing the Internet, then passing out on his couch. In a last-ditch attempt to pay his mortgage, he becomes a research subject at the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, where “scientists” download humanities disciplines into his brain. Suddenly, Romie and his fellow guinea pigs are speaking in hifalutin SAT words and hashing out the intricacies of postmodern subjectivity. With his new and improved brain, Romie hopes to reclaim his marriage, revolutionize his life, and revive his artistic aspirations. While tracking down specimens for elaborate animatronic taxidermy dioramas, he learns of “Hogzilla,” a thousand-pound feral hog with supernatural traits that has been terrorizing the locals. As his Ahab-caliber obsession with bagging the beast brings him closer and closer to this lab-spawned monster, Romie gets pulled into an absurd and murky underworld of biotech operatives, FDA agents, and environmental activists.
Part surreal satire, part Southern Gothic tall tale, The New and Improved Romie Futch is a disturbing yet hilarious romp through a strange New South where technology can change the structure of the human brain and genetically modified feral animals ravage the blighted landscape. In Romie Futch, Julia Elliott has created an unwitting and ill-equipped protagonist who nevertheless will win your heart.

 

A glorious postmodern southern gothic tale of a mid-south middle-aged burnout divorcee taxidermist who hits rock bottom and answers a classified ad to become a guinea pig for some experimental neurological enhancements. It’s incredibly good writing, while being effortlessly engaging, humorous, poignant and actually kind of endearing too.

The New and Improved Romie FutchJulia Elliot’s impressive prose evolves as the novel builds, expertly juxtaposing the realities and habits of uneducated southern life with the transformative power, and self reflection that accompanies an acquisition of knowledge. She crafts characters that drip with such potent realism, I swear these are actual people – some of whom I absolutely know from the mid-size mid-south town I currently reside in.

It’s a smidge of Flowers for Algernon, a little bit of Moby-Dick, and possibly even some Max Barry thrown in, and the whole thing is romantic and realistic while simultaneously bringing the fantastical to life.

P.S. Have a dictionary handy, and you may want to brush up on your Baudrillard, postmodernist theory, and various mythologies.

The Stars are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

“We all create the stories we need to survive.”

Synopsis:

Set within a system of decaying world-ships travelling through deep space, this breakout novel of epic science fiction follows a pair of sisters who must wrest control of their war-torn legion of worlds—and may have to destroy everything they know in order to survive.

On the outer rim of the universe, a galactic war has been waged for centuries upon hundreds of world-ships. But these worlds will continue to die through decay and constant war unless a desperate plan succeeds.

Anat, leader of the Katazyrna world-ship and the most fearsome raiding force on the Outer Rim, wants peace. To do so she offers the hand of her daughter, Jayd, to her rival. Jayd has dreamed about leading her mother’s armies to victory her whole life—but she has a unique ability, and that makes her leverage, not a leader. As Anat convinces her to spend the rest of her life wed to her family’s greatest enemy, it is up to Jayd’s sister Zan—with no stomach for war—to lead the cast off warriors she has banded together to victory and rescue Jayd. But the war does not go at all as planned…

In the tradition of The Fall of Hyperion and Dune, The Stars are Legion is an epic and thrilling tale about familial love, revenge, and war as imagined by one of the genre’s most imaginative new writers.

 

This one was, wow, very interesting. I won’t be forgetting this one any time soon. It’s going to be very divisive. It had some interesting pacing, and a couple plot holes, but nothing I can’t overlook. The ideas and resolution were wild as hell, and that is where the novel really shined. It really did feel like it was written during the New Wave era of the late 60s/early 70s; some weird combination between Joanna Russ and Iain M. Banks. I’m thinking of some elements of Matter by Iain M. Banks specifically, but structured more like Consider Phlebas.

None of the characters are likable in any way, but that’s a good thing. They’re not meant to be your friends, they’re meant to be brutal. There’s a goal that a few factions are trying to reach, and I found myself not particularly caring who achieved it in the end, because everyone seemed to me to be equally shitty. Honestly, it’s more realistic that way. I really liked that.

Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley

There is just a metric fuck-ton of gore and blood and nasty, disturbing, bizarre shit in this thing. People eating their deformed babies, guns that fire squid-like creatures for ammo, organic ships with asexually reproducing characters who birth whatever the ship needs at that moment. It’s wild stuff, really interesting.

I really enjoyed the decision to not elaborate too much on the world building for the readers sake, it’s just presented to you, and a lot of it is weird as hell, but you sort of feel it out and figure it out as you go along. A few of the characters took way too long to discover basic things that I thought were glaringly obvious to the reader, and the prose was just okay, but the story is just wild and huge and definitely worth checking out.