Ted Chiang’s collection of his stories published between 1990 and 2002 is now one of my favorite books ever, full of some of my favorite stories ever. There is not one story in this collection I did not enjoy, and all of them left me in awe. Yes, I’m going to be a little breathless with this review, but it’s how I’ve been feeling for days now ever since I started reading Stories of Your Life and Others.
These stories are about people who find themselves on sudden exponential journeys into the future. They soon discover that such journeys are both isolating and actualizing. Sometimes these are physical journeys, like Hillalum climbing the “Tower of Babylon” but more frequently these are mental or spiritual journeys, including Leon’s intelligence enhancement in “Understand” and Neil Fisk’s love of God in “Hell Is the Absence of God.” Always these are stories about the pursuit of knowledge, no matter where that knowledge leads. Each story moves forward with increasing momentum and speed, resulting in my heart racing, my eyes widening, and my jaw dropping (I told you this would be a breathless review.)
I purchased this collection for “Story of Your Life”, soon to be a major motion picture. That story alone is worth the price of the book. It brings together the very personal with the sudden arrival to Earth of aliens, and its journey is through both linguistics and physics, leading to a tremendous and unexpected ending. I have no idea how the sheer brilliance of this complex literary masterpiece can be dramatized on the big screen, but with early reviews suggesting a cinematic masterpiece, perhaps the filmmakers have succeeded.
While reading “Tower of Babylon”, I realized I had read it before in a recent magazine issue. It is even better the second time around. Every step of the journey is invigorating. “Understand” explores topics and themes I’m particularly excited about and I sped through the pages at what felt like supercomputer speed. “Seventy-Two Letters” is so well-researched and expertly crafted that I wanted to cry with joy and appreciation, long before the genius, inevitable, but still unexpected ending left my jaw on the floor. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” is an oral history about a specific future technology; there are many perspectives about that technology collected in the story but there is also a through-story that focuses on one woman and her own insights about the technology. It’s incredible.
Chiang’s gift is that he seems to select a single compelling idea and then pursues that idea wherever it leads him, in a completely rational and logical manner that still leads to very surprising and shocking revelations. He grasps an idea in his hand and rotates it to find, I think, every possible beautiful and horrifying facet. He also selects the perfect characters to tell personal stories related to the idea, and he’s not afraid to suddenly expand into social, cultural, even cosmic dimensions, before returning to the personal.
Here’s where I get even more breathless: he includes “Story Notes” with a brief summary for what inspired him to write each story! After reading all the great stories, those notes were like an extra special bonus, just a little more information about their genesis to make me even more appreciative. For example, “Division by Zero” is another great story in the collection and he explains how he was amazed by a particular famous mathematics equation and began to wonder what it would be like if someone discovered that the “wondrous beauty” of mathematics “was just an illusion.” From such a story spark to a heartbreaking exploration of a relationship.
I cannot recommend this collection of stories enough. I’m still reeling. This is what I want from science fiction: stories that captivate me from the opening words, surprise and delight me along the way, that stay with me after the end, and that feel like they are actively changing me. I feel changed as a reader, a writer, and, well, a person! I feel like I might be on my own sudden exponential journey into the future and it is exhilarating and horrifying. I cannot wait to read more of Chiang’s exceptional work. Yes, I’m out of breath. Ted Chiang is now one of my absolute favorite authors, right up there with Ursula K. Le Guin, Nancy Kress, and Vernor Vinge.