Book Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

This is another book I’ve read as the result of a Sword and Laser book club pick.  It is the first time they’ve chosen a collection of short stories, so it was a nice change of pace from the more typical tomes that can double as bug-crushers.

The tales in Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang cover an interesting range of ideas, but the topics of math, genetics, language, and religion are fairly strong throughout.  I had a wide range of reactions to each of the stories in this collection, so I think it would be most fair for me to review each one individually.

Tower of Babylon

The Tower of Babylon follows the journey of two miners as they ascend the Tower of Babylon in the hopes of finding their way into the vault of heaven.  Much of the story is concerned with the practical issues of having a tower that is so tall, which I found mildly interesting.  The ending of the story is perhaps what ruins it for me – the realization of the main character and how he comes to his conclusion feel a bit forced, especially from a character that has felt a little flat the whole time.  Overall the story felt a bit long and drawn out, without an entirely satisfying conclusion.  Probably my least favorite in the entire collection.

Understand

Understand follows the story of a brain-damaged man who, upon receiving experimental medication, becomes a super genius.  I rather liked seeing how his mental state changed throughout the story; his progression felt like a natural path and didn’t seem awkward or forced.  The story felt like it built to a natural conclusion, albeit an interesting one.  I did feel that there was a bit too much explanation in this story, but then it was dealing with the academic thoughts of a hyper-intelligent being, so I’m not sure there would have been an easy way around that.  I liked this story quite a bit when I read it, but I am wondering if that is only because I found it much more enjoyable than the first story in the collection.  After some time away from it, I have to admit I wasn’t blown away by it.  I think the execution of the writing wasn’t quite up to the ideas contained within the story.  Because so much of this story takes place in one man’s head, I don’t know how you could get away from the fact that much of this story feels like you are being given an inadequate description of a mathematical process.  Also, although the tone of the writing changes slightly as the main character gains intelligence, I don’t know if the tone of the writing changes enough to really emphasize how drastic it is.  Although many of his behaviors are different, the character at the end still feels very much like the same person that existed on the first page, and I think someone experiencing the sorts of changes he is would have a more drastic change in personality.  I liked this story, but I think more could have been done with it.  It was interesting, but it hasn’t really stuck with me in the way that some of the other stories have.

Division by Zero

Division by Zero is the story of a woman who is driven to depression by her proof of the inconsistency of mathematics, and her husband, who is trying to understand her changing demeanor.  First of all, I have to say I really enjoyed this story.  It was one of the shorter stories in the collection, and it felt very concise, tight, and focused.  I enjoyed how the elements of the story were revealed, and how the segments added up to a complete view of the situation.  I always find it interesting to see what breaks people in a story, and I really enjoyed seeing the process from two perspectives.  Of course, it probably helped that I am something of a math person – the main character’s surly behavior during her research and extreme reaction to her changing world view wasn’t as incomprehensible to me as it was to the other characters in the story.  I sort of felt as though the reader was supposed to identify with the husband, but I found myself identifying more with the mathematician.  Perhaps not unexpected from spending too much time in higher education.  Anyway, I really liked this story, and I think it is one of the more enjoyable and accessible in the collection.

Story of Your Life

Story of Your Life is the story of a linguist who has recently lost her daughter, and is recalling moments from her daughter’s childhood, how she met her husband, and her work translating the language of a visiting alien species.  This was definitely one of the more successful stories in the collection.  Like Division by Zero, it focuses more on the people in the story, and allows the mathematical and scientific concepts to be interesting without taking precedence over the story itself.  I actually rather liked the way this story was structured and composed as well.  It had an appropriately somber tone, without being melodramatic or dull.  It felt like someone was wistfully remembering happier times from their past in the context of a recent tragedy.  For me this story was a highlight of the collection.

Seventy-Two Letters

Seventy-Two Letters is the story of a man who is working to create a dexterous automaton, and then gets involved in a project to create a way to propagate human life when it is discovered that the fertility of the human race is coming to an end.  In my opinion, this was one of the less successful stories in the book.  It wasn’t so much that the ideas of the story were bad (actually, I found the premise rather interesting), but I wasn’t very excited by the way the story progressed.  Too much time was spent discussing, explaining, or hypothesizing about the fictitious nomenclature system that would bring the automata to life.  The characters were rather dull, and the social and political implications of the research that were discussed in the story have been more successfully examined in other works of fiction.  It was a bit of a slog for me to get through this short story, and just when I was starting to get excited by the action, the main character “figured it out” and the story was over.  I thought the solution was sort of obvious, so the conclusion in itself wasn’t really enough to win me over, and the journey to the ending wasn’t all that enjoyable.  This story felt rushed in parts, and sluggish in others.  It either needed to be a much longer story (to give us more insight to the characters and make their journey as individuals more interesting), or it needed to be a much shorter one that didn’t spend so much time redundantly discussing ideas of the nomenclature system.  This is close to Tower of Babylon for me; I was only slightly more excited by this one because of the action sequence at the end.

The Evolution of Human Science

This story was originally published as a short piece in Nature under a different title (“Catching Crumbs from the Table”).  [Side note: Dear Nature editors, um, what?]  It is told as a futuristic journal article, discussing how regular humans need not worry about lacking the capabilities of the new metahumans, who can digitally download and share information.  Although short, I actually rather liked this piece – it felt like a futuristic op-ed column.  It was also sort of interesting putting it into perspective with today’s world, where the technology gap can be rather wide in some places.  I didn’t think this story was as strong as some of the others, but, for what it was, I did enjoy it.

Hell is the Absence of God

This is the story of how Neil Fisk lost his wife and found God.  It takes place in a world where angelic visitations are regular events, and hell is occasionally on display.  I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this story.  I found it compelling to read, and got through it quite quickly, but I still feel conflicted now that I’ve finished.  The funny thing is, I actually liked the ending.  It seemed fitting, and appropriate if you accepted the world that Chiang created.  Problem is, I don’t know if I fully accepted it.  I mean, I found the idea that angelic visitations would be something akin to natural disasters rather interesting, and the idea that they would bring a balance of creative and destructive forces made sense to me.  I also liked how Chiang sort of implied that these things could happen because heaven, mortality, and hell were intersecting planes of existence.  So I suppose I enjoyed the more scientific side of things.  The religious descriptions… made me oddly uncomfortable.  Which, I suppose, is good in a way.  I do think it is important to push yourself out of a comfort zone, at least occasionally.  I just don’t know if I like the direction this pushed me.  I don’t know.  I think if it was making me question my own beliefs or examine how I treat the beliefs of others I would feel differently about it, but I really just left the story thinking that I’d been preached at a bit too much, and that everyone got their just desserts at the end.  I think this story was successful in what it was trying to accomplish, I’m just not sure if I liked it.

Liking What You See: A Documentary

This was a documentary-style story about “lookisim” – judging people based on their looks – and finding ways to remove it from society.  Although I think Story of Your Life was probably the best executed story in this collection, Liking What You See was definitely my favorite.  It was the one story in the collection where I just sat, read, and enjoyed.  The concept was interesting (if we could turn off a portion of our brain that makes us consider people differently, would we?  Should we?), and the format was equally so.  Apparently this story was nominated for a Hugo, but Chiang refused the nomination because he felt the story was rushed by his publishers and not quite what he had envisioned.  Which is too bad, because I thought it was great.  The conversation within the story is exactly the sort of conversation people would be having if this were a possibility, and the emotions and actions of the characters are exactly how people would feel and behave.  As with so many scientific discoveries, the debate would soon turn to one that was much more political.  It felt very plausible to me, and the format of the story only elevated that believability.  Of all the stories, this one was probably the lightest in terms of scientific technicalities, but had the most depth when it came to how the characters were dealing with them.

Conclusions

I liked this story collection, but I did feel that some of the stories were not as enjoyable as others.  I feel that Chiang’s most successful stories focus on the people dealing with science/technology/math/religion, as opposed to the ones where the ideas take center stage.  Which is a bit funny, because I think his strong suit as a writer is examining interesting topics.  I suppose it comes down to one’s opinion on what constitutes good writing.  I’ve read enough science fiction and fantasy to be able to say that for me, a cool idea isn’t enough.  The way that idea is explored and presented matter a great in how receptive I am to the story as a whole.  Here, I thought the stories that allowed me to connect with the characters while discovering the concepts worked very well, and were actually quite enjoyable.  In other stories I felt that the information would have almost been more interesting if I were sitting in a lecture hall, rather than reading about characters that served little purpose other than as a means of expressing the idea behind the story.

I also had issues with the lengths of some (ok, many) of the stories.  Some felt too long, like they were dragged out to fulfill some arbitrary word count, or so he could reiterate the main scientific idea behind the story a few too many times.  Other stories felt too short, and I wish that either the characters or the idea had been developed into something longer and more substantial.  Perhaps because of this, the endings of many of these stories felt a bit rushed, as though the character made a huge discovery just so the story could end.  I found that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with many of the endings, not because of what happened, but because of the abruptness of how and when it happened.

Also, I realize that the stories were printed in chronological order, but I don’t know if that best-served the book as a whole.  I wasn’t very motivated by the first story; perhaps I would have been a bit more receptive to the work as a whole if it had been one of the others (actually, switching the first two would have probably made me much more excited for the rest of the book).  Similarly, it was rather disappointing to have one of what I consider the weaker stories (Seventy-Two Letters) following one of the strongest (Story of Your Life).  Perhaps using The Evolution of Human Science as a breather between those two stories might have helped it not feel like so much of a let down.  The placement of the other stories felt appropriate, and I suppose it would have been silly to rearrange only a few out of chronological order, but I can’t help but think that it might have given me a more favorable overall impression of the book.  I know one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (though this cover is actually really cool), or in this case a collection by its first story, but humans are sort of hard-wired to do that.  I don’t think the order necessarily ruined my enjoyment of the following stories, but I do think it set me up to look for issues of story construction that I otherwise might have ignored.

In the end, I’m glad I read this story collection.  Being something of a math and science geek, I found a lot of the topics in the stories really interesting, and despite my complaints, I actually really enjoyed a few of these stories.  I don’t know if I would recommend this collection of stories to everyone – I think you have to be able to nerd-out on some of the concepts when the storytelling gets a bit weak.  I would definitely recommend this book to fans of hard-core science fiction though, as it does examine topics of math and science in interesting ways.


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