Sunday, November 20, 2016

Interrogating Ideas: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others includes several excellent stories/novelettes/novellas (including "Story of Your Life," which is the basis for the film Arrival).  In addition to the good ones, a few more are okay, and there's one I didn't care for.

Ted Chiang is the opposite of prolific, having only published about a dozen works of short fiction in the last 25 years, but he's one of the best when it comes to using science fiction and fantasy to interrogate ideas.  There are nice little notes on each story in the back of the book in which Chiang tells you which ideas inspired the stories (sometimes it's surprising).  It's no wonder his work is a top pick for Eric Schwitzgebel's list of philosophers' favorite science fiction.

Here's a bit on each work in this collection...

"Tower of Babylon"

This story is okay, but I didn't love it.  The idea is interesting (an impossibly tall tower under construction in a fantastical version of the ancient world), but I had trouble getting into it.


I really enjoyed this one.  A man trying an experimental drug to combat brain damage becomes hyper-intelligent.  It's reminiscent of "Flowers for Algernon," but with some twists of its own.

"Division by Zero"

A mathematician's life unravels when she proves that arithmetic is inconsistent.  Maybe the math is fantastical, but the meditation on how devotion to ideas or systems keeps our lives together is all too real.

"Story of Your Life"

My favorite in this volume, maybe one of my all time favorite works of science fiction.  This is also the basis for the movie Arrival.  It's a fascinating, heart breaking exploration of language, our perceptions of time, and how encountering the Other (in the form of aliens here) can teach us about ourselves and the meaning of life.  See my review of Arrival, which discusses how the film differs from the novella (one big one is that the novella includes a lot more detail about physics and a bit more on linguistics).

"Seventy-Two Letters"

By far my least favorite of the volume.  It's a weird steampunkish story about Victorian scientists in a world where golems and archaic biological theories are real.  Just didn't work for me.  I'm not sure why, but the central ideas never crystallized for me.

"The Evolution of Human Science"

This one's a short, sweet treatment of a world where humans are out-done by "meta-humans," just as we all will be by our children and descendants, I suppose.  But it's also a bizarre defense of the value of hermeneutics.

"Hell is the Absence of God"

Another great one.  This is probably one of the best literary treatments of the problem of evil/suffering I've ever read.  Why would an all-good, omnipresent, omnipotent God allow suffering?  Could we answer this question even in a world where the existence of God, angels, and souls is obvious?  Here's something fun to think about: Is this story a defense of theism (maybe even skeptical theism, in particular)?  Is it atheistic?  Is it ambivalent?  Is it merely presenting the issue?  For my part, I find the precise point of the story to be a difficult nut to crack, which makes it all the more fun.

"Liking What You See: A Documentary"

Many people (including apparently Chiang himself) don't like this one, but I love it.  Given the fact that attractive people receive all sorts of unfair preferential treatment, would it be a good idea if we could turn off our ability to perceive physical attractiveness?  Would life be more fair?  Would we lose something vital in the appreciation of beauty, or gain in appreciation of other types of beauty?  Does this dramatize the tension between the physical and the intellectual?

I didn't love all the stories, but I loved enough of them deeply enough that I wholeheartedly recommend this collection.  (You should also see Arrival, which is an excellent adaptation of "Story of Your Life" and a beautiful work of art in its own right).

Rating: 92/100

(See also my Goodreads review)

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