Thistle (thistle_chaser) wrote,

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Book #22 of 2018: Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Traditional or self-published: Traditional
Rating: Loved (Hated-Disliked-Okay-Liked-Loved)

It's kind of scary to think how many amazing authors there are out in the world that you never heard of before. More than that, how many amazing authors are out there that you will never hear of before you die? I feel like I dodged a bullet -- I didn't miss out on experiencing Ted Chiang's writing.

An Amazon review compared his stories to Dark Mirror episodes, and I felt the same way. Each of his stories tackled a "What if?" question, often with a technology bend.

What if the phrase 'vault of heaven' wasn't just a phrase, was literally true?
What if it could be mathematically proven that 1 + 1 = something other than 2?
Countless studies have shown that beautiful people have more advantages in life, what would happen if someone invented a device that made us "blind" to beautiful faces?
What if god were real and angels visited the earth, with all the side effects of those force-of-nature angels? Like wings clipping buildings and bursts of light blinding people?

At first I had no idea why I had Stories of Your Life and Others on my Kindle. The title seems clunky as heck and wouldn't be something that would usually catch my attention, and the cover is just (in my opinion) horrible. It had fallen to the middle of my To Read pile, and I picked it at random to try. I figured maybe someone had recommended it to me. And, as I started reading, I kept thanking that person in my head.

This anthology contains eight stories ("novelettes" the author calls them). While some of them worked less well for me than others, every single one of them was outstanding. I'll give a brief description of each of them:

Tower of Babylon: For generations, man has been building a tower to reach the vault of heaven. The tower is so high, and people have been building it so long, that families of people live at various heights in the tower, never having set foot on the ground. What happens when man finally reaches the vault and cracks into it? Set in what seems a completely authentic ancient Babylon. Such an interesting and realistic and wonderful story to start with!

Understanding: After nearly dying, a man is given an experimental drug, and becomes the most intelligent man on the planet. Or is he? While the story worked less well for me than Tower had, I LOVED the writing in this. As the man got more and more intelligent, the writing changed. In the space of a book, it's very rare for me to have to look up a single word. But as this story went on, I had to look up more and more words, yet it felt genuine, not "author swallowed a thesaurus".

Division by Zero: This one probably worked least well in the whole book for me. The author played with time, moving back and forth without indication he was doing so, so I spent much of the first half of it completely lost (until I understood what he was doing, but by that point, I was already too frustrated to enjoy it). Plus math theory, which while somewhat interesting, isn't really an area I enjoy. Probably my least favorite story in the book, though not bad.

Story of Your Life: This is when I realized why I had downloaded this book. This is the story one of my favorite movies (Arrival) was based on! I wish I had read the story before seeing the movie, because I loved the movie so much, I nitpicked all the little differences and ended up liking the movie a lot more than the story. Oh well. Still a WONDERFUL story! It follows a scientist as she tries to communicate with aliens that landed on Earth.

Seventy-Two Letters: This story impressed me so much! I LOVED LOVED LOVED the worldbuilding and "science" of this story so much. It was based on golems and the Hebrew alphabet, a whole alternate universe "science" that was a mix of religion and magic. The plot kind of was the weak part of the story for me, but the "science" made this story completely worth reading.

The Evolution of Human Science: A very very short story (just a couple pages long), looking at the effects "metahumans" (superhumans) might have on science and technology.

Hell Is the Absence of God: Like many stories in this book, this story won multiple awards (Hugo Award, Locus Award, and Nebula Award), but it deserved even more. OH MY GOD, I loved this story so much. This was the "What if god were real and angels visited the earth?" one. Heaven and Hell were real (and I loved his worldbuilding around them), and eee I just loved everything about this story, especially the ending! Easily my favorite in the book.

Liking What You See: A Documentary: Set sometime in the future, science has come up with an implant that makes people "blind" to how other people look (beauty/ugly). You can still recognize people, but there's no awareness or reaction to how beautiful or ugly someone is. This was less a fiction story and more a... well, fictional documentary. It "interviewed" people on either side of the debate and showed advertisements and clips and interviews and such. It was interesting, but not one of my favorites of the book (I think the idea would have worked better for me in story format).


This author is so skilled in so many ways. He's a talented writer in general, but he also seems very smart in the sciences and math, and he's even better at worldbuilding. Each of these eight stories had as complex and believable world as any fantasy novel does. In most of them, he created a whole entire system of magic or a brand new science. In the others, he explained real world science/math in a way that made it world-buildy as well.

Oddly, the author seems to write very little. In 24 years he's wrote only four other short stories besides the ones in this book. Why? He's a tech writer by profession (like me!), but his fiction writing is so good! I wish he'd write more of it.

Highly, highly recommended. isiscolo, I bet you especially would like it.

Edit: Ah ha, maybe things like this are why he writes so slowly and wins so many awards. For just one of his short stories: "Chiang demonstrated his dedication to accuracy by spending four years studying linguistics to make the story more convincing."
Tags: 2018 books, book review, book: stories of your life and others
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