Sometimes you need to read something that stretches you. Or at least, I do. Because reading is such a vital part of my life, and something to which I give such a large portion of my time, I try to read things on occasion that push me to think outside of myself. It’s been a long while since I found a book that did that as successfully as Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others. I felt as if I were trying to keep my head above water the entire time I was reading it, but in the best way possible. Chiang raises some truly profound moral, theological, and philosophical questions, and he does so in a way that doesn’t lead you to any specific conclusion. Sometimes it’s enough to think and to question, and Chiang’s stories give readers the freedom to do just that. It was completely unclear what type of worldview he was writing from, which I actually loved. More than one of these stories had some heavy religious connotations, but felt neither like proselytization or a subtle ridicule of believers. That is a very difficult balance to strike in one story, let along an entire collection. I am in awe of Chiang’s mind, and was equally awed by every single story housed in this book.
The opening story, “Tower of Babylon,” immediately gripped me. The idea of God allowing the completion of the Tower isn’t a new concept, but it’s never been handled in the way Chiang presented it. Here, the build is due to a reverence for Yahweh, not a belief in mankind’s ability to become His equal if they reach heaven. This story follows miners from other kingdoms who have come to break through the vault of Heaven now that the Tower has been completed. The questions asked along the way, and what our protagonist finds on the other side, were fascinating and truly profound.
“Understand” reminded me of Flowers for Algernon in the first few pages before jumping to Blake Crouch’s Upgrade, but much earlier and, in my opinion, far more successful despite (or maybe because of) its brevity. The ways in which we see our perspective character’s personality subtly but continually shift as his intelligence skyrockets were extremely interesting. The patterns he observed as his mind broadened were also very intriguing. And the conclusion was wild. The paranoia that almost always comes with such extreme intelligence is always fascinating to witness.
“Division by Zero” is probably the story that went the farthest over my head, due in large part to the fact that it centered around math. I did appreciate the discourse around how a faith disproven can break a person. It demonstrated how the hyper-fixation of a brilliant mind can wreck other aspects of their lives. But if I had to choose a least favorite story in the collection, it would be this one.
“Story of Your Life” is the entire reason I was interested in this collection in the first place. Arrival is one of my favorite sci-fi movies, so I was very excited to read the source material. The concepts of language and a less linear approach to time as viewed by the heptopods completely gripped my imagination. The idea of seeing all of life at once instead of experiencing it as it unfolds is a baffling but profound one, that gave me a lot of food for thought. I also love how original and utterly unique the heptopods are as an alien race, in every single aspect of themselves. Their form, their written language, and their cognition stretch the mind of our perspective character to its limits. The inclusion of said character’s life with her daughter was lovely and poignant.
What’s in a name, and what power can it contain? I’ve always found the idea of golems from Jewish tradition captivating, so “Seventy-Two Letters” really captured my mind, as well. This intersection of religion and technology speaks to me. Seeing belief used for practicality, how science and theology can not only co-exist but help bolster one another, was lovely and inspiring. But this story also shows how the “secularization of the sacred,” so to speak, can lead to man playing God.
“The Evolution of Human Science” is one of the shortest stories in the collection, and expresses a world in which the creation has surpassed the creators and rendered them somewhat obsolete. Here we have a world where meta-humans can function at a much higher level of cognition than humans, and their thought processes are baffling to the general population. Humans who were once among the most intelligent beings on the planet find trying to translate the works of meta-humans into something intelligible for the general population a full-time job, leaving their previous scientific jobs to those who are now more capable, all because of human intervention.
“Hell is the Absence of God” has to be one of the most profound stories I’ve ever read. In this world, not only is it completely unquestioned that God is real, angelic visitations are fairly common. While miracles accompany these visits, there is also tremendous fallout, leaving others dead or broken in the wake of the supernatural. Souls can also be visibly witnessed either ascending to Heaven or descending to its counterpart. The faith struggle of our main character was painful to witness, and the ending was bleak, but rarely in my life has any work of fiction made me think as deeply. This is undoubtedly a story that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
The format of “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” was a lot of fun. It truly was like reading a script for a documentary. I loved the idea behind this. There is an invention that allows you to see people outside of their level of physical attractiveness, and a debate is raging as one university campus tries to decide whether it should be a requirement for all of their students. Seeing so many sides of this debate was illuminating, and made me waver on whether or not I would choose calliagnosia for myself if it existed. I wouldn’t, as I would hate to miss appreciating any form of beauty, but it was interesting to consider.
Stories of Your Life and Others is one of the strongest short story collections I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The stories within it have won a multitude of awards, and been nominated for even more; every single win and nomination was much deserved. Reading this was not exactly fun, but it was rewarding. It was difficult, and I often felt like I wasn’t quite smart enough to grasp the concepts, but the writing itself kept things down-to-earth enough for me to follow. However, even as I struggled, I found each and every story immensely enriching to read. I feel like this collection made me grow, and that seems like a wonderful compliment to pay a book. I can’t recommend it highly enough, though I would like to caution against consuming it too quickly. Let these stories breathe, and give your mind this to ponder. Chiang’s incredible talent is worth giving his work more of your time.
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