Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

“Stories of Your Life and Others,” by Ted Chiang
8/10 — a collection of great idea-based SF stories

Ted Chiang sounds like a character in a story himself. “The best SF writer you’ve never heard of,” he’s called (by me, if nobody else), having published only eight stories in the last fifteen years or so. Of course, from those stories he’s won the Nebula (three times), Hugo, Sturgeon, Asimov, and Campbell awards. Seven of the stories are collected here, in a collection that is absolutely worth the money.

I tend to like character-based fiction these days, as I’ve mentioned before, but this collection reminds me why I started reading SF. Chiang reminds me of Avram Davidson or David Brin in the clear, pure originality of his ideas and the skill with which he constructs a story around them. Here is a story about the Tower of Babel and what they found at the top; here a story about golems in the Industrial Revolution; here a short piece about the evolution of scientists; here (one of the two most character-centric pieces) a story about what a scientist’s work means to her and her husband. Chiang combines the sciences of mathematics and language with a keen sense of history and religion to produce some truly original stories.

My favorite is “Story of Your Life,” in which a linguist communicating with aliens slowly learns their language and gains new insights into not just their behavior, but the world in general. It’s one of those great stories with a slow reveal and that feeling that you’re building toward something, and a terrific “a-ha!” when you figure it out. It’s the best character portrait in the book, and the most successful at melding scientific theory with the protagonist’s development as a character.

Chiang attempts that elsewhere with less successful results: the mathematical “Division By Zero” and the religious-historical “Tower of Babel” both felt like they were missing some dimension. “Understand,” on the other hand, is a great contrast in characters in a “Flowers For Algernon”-like narrative.

If you like the science fiction of ideas, you should not be without this book.

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