Ted Chiang’s name continually comes up in lists of great short stories. He’s never written a novel, but his short fiction has won nearly every SF award that exists. 4 Nebulas, 4 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 him as “the best SF writer”. I figured I should probably do myself a service and check this collection out.
After reading it, I have to agree that his writing is mind-blowing. High concept science fiction that is grounded heavily in the real world. A writer of ideas. 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 prose 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 impressed the hell out of me with every sentence.
“My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.”
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.
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. This was the basis for the Denis Villeneuve film Arrival.
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.