Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

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.

Ted Chiang“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.

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. 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.

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

This is another one of those classics of SF literature that I have somehow missed reading over the years. Had I been more of an active reader in the nineties, I’m sure I would’ve come to it much sooner. Thankfully, I finally got there, and Hyperion was not what I expected, in the best way possible. It’s most often compared to Dune, The Book of the New Sun, or other great works of Science Fantasy. Obviously, coming into the novel my expectations were high, and I knew the most basic gist of the plot: a pilgrimage across a world to meet an unimaginable being. What I got was partly what I anticipated, but in a very left-field form, which was such a refreshing subversion of my what I thought I was getting myself into. It delivered on what I thought it was, but in a way I never imagined, and it was fantastic.

Dan SimmonsInstead of straight-forward narrative momentum, Hyperion is almost entirely the backstories of these pilgrims. It’s heavily character based, and the only book I can honestly say is 100% both a novel, and a story collection. These stories are more technically novellas, because of their length, but you get what I’m saying. Each story genuinely adds to the forward narrative, by going backward. It’s really quite breathtaking to see this done so well. I’ve read other collections that are also novels, but they’re always more one or the other. This is equally both.

Each tale feels like a slightly different genre married to science fiction, and the interstitial sections weave them together tightly. Only one of them fell slightly flat for me. Mostly because it was more akin to cyberpunk than anything else, and I have a real love/hate affair with cyberpunk. I tend to judge the genre entirely too harshly at times, mostly because if I have any sort of professional knowledge, it’s in the Information Technology arena, and I have a difficult time suspending my disbelief about the realities of virtual worlds in regards to how they’re represented in cyberpunk. That’s a topic for another day.

Hyperion has that indescribable, almost lovecraftian terror, dread and brooding present throughout, and one tale in particular left me unbearably heartbroken. There’s honestly only one thing I can objectively complain about here, and it’s more endemic to the genre during the time period this was written in than anything else: the way the narrator spends an inordinate amount of time describing women’s bodies, broken down into parts, particularly breasts and nipples. It’s just kind of eye-roll pervy, but it’s my only real gripe. Thankfully, it’s not quite at a Haruki Murakami level, and this doesn’t much happen anymore in the really well written stuff of the genre, but I’m more embarrassed for the author than anything else, award winning fiction like this is fairly written in stone for future generations to examine.

I was torn whether or not to dig straight into The Fall of Hyperion after finishing this, but ultimately I decided not to just yet. I want to let this percolate and grow in my mind, but mostly I’m one of those anti-bingeing types that prefers to spread great stories out over a long period of time, to elongate my enjoyment of them, and better unpack their themes. I think it’s time for a non-genre novel, and then I’ll dig back in when the time is right. That being said, I can’t wait to come back to the world of Hyperion, and see what new terrors await these fantastic characters.