Stories of your life and others by Ted Chiang

Title: Stories of Your Life and Others

Author: Ted Chiang

Genre: Science Fiction, Anthology

Year: 2002

Stories of Your Life and Others is a collection of eight short stories by author Ted Chiang. The stories are mostly science fiction, with one or two instances that verge more on the fantasy side. I’ll try to talk about each of the stories without getting into too many details, even though I’d love to discuss them further.

Tower of Babylon

This is a curious one. Everyone knows the story of the tower of Babel, and men’s attempt at reaching the Heavens. We also know that God apparently struck the tower and cursed the human race with hundreds of different languages, so that they couldn’t understand each other anymore and thus continue their work. But what if construction of the tower had gone on without interruption, and after generations, men had finally reached the vaults of Heaven?
This is the idea behind the story, and it’s really interesting. The tower is gargantuan in size, to the point where it takes months to reach the top; and once we get there, our protagonist in one of a group of miners tasked with the job of creating a passage through the vault – and into Heaven itself.
It’s interesting to see how the author imagines the lives of people who for generations haven’t been able to set foot on earth, or even see it from the heights of the tower they live in. It’s also extremely interesting the kind of technology used to mine. The only weak point of the story is maybe the ending itself; for some reason, I thought something like that was going to happen, so I wasn’t exactly surprised. An interesting concept, but not exceptionally surprising ending.

Understand

This story was mindblowing for me. The protagonist in injected a drug that’s supposed to restore his brain’s functionality after some kind of shock – cardiac arrest, oxygen deprivation, vegetative state due to some kind of accident, you can pick – and the result is that not only his neural capacity is back to normal levels, but it’s enhanced to superhuman levels, and things go astray when he decides he doesn’t want to be monitored by the doctors anymore.
I would talk about it further, but I don’t want to spoil the story if you plan to read it. It feels a little like Flowers for Algernon in the beginning, a little like Limitless (the movie, I haven’t read the book yet) in the middle, and the ending was absolutely genius. I am kind of obsessed with the idea of a superhuman intellect and ability to see the universe from a different level of understanding; just imagining what it would feel gives me the chills. One of my favourites of the collection.

Division by Zero

This one was weird. A mathematician comes up with an equation that allows her to equal every number with any other – and this shakes both her belief in mathematics and her view of reality.
The concept is super-interesting, but I think it lost some of its punch in the execution. I didn’t see the need to mix the marital situation into the story, nor did I really care about her husband. I just wanted to know more about the equation.
Maybe it was me. Maybe I didn’t really get it.

Story of Your Life

This is another one of my favourites. Aliens come in contact with the human race and groups of linguists are called to try and figure out their language, so that they can communicate with each other. But their language is so different, especially in its written form, that as the protagonist becomes more proficient in it, her perception of time itself begins to change.
Aside from the fact that I love languages and all that comes into studying and understanding them – the structure, the words, how they influence one another, the different alphabets – this was just so interesting. The Hectapod B (the written language of the aliens) sounds like a dream language to me. I also had a feeling I heard the concept before, and as it happens this story was the inspiration for the movie Arrival (2016). I’m not even sure I saw the movie in its entirety, but unless there’s another story with a similar concept out there, I guess I have seen at least parts of it.

Seventy-two letters

This one starts with a fantastic premise but develops it scientifically. It takes from the legend of golems – clay statues able to execute simple tasks written on pieces of paper inserted in them – and makes the writing of said letters a scientific branch. Given the right letters, the right modifiers, the right epithets, it’s possible to create very specific tasks for golems of different shapes and sizes. The protagonist is a skilled nomenclator and is contacted by the Royal Society, who is worried that the human race has reached its final generations and needs to find a way to ensure its existence in the future.
Uhm, I don’t think I explained this very well, but it’s hard to explain a short story without getting into the specifics and spoiling the whole plot. Anyway, the premise of this was really interesting, but it was also kind of predictable? Still a nice reading experience.

The evolution of human science

This was… not really a story. I mean, there might be a story to build out of this concept, but it’s basically written as an article a couple of pages long. The idea is, what if human could undergo a procedure as babies to become more intelligent, thus rendering normal human science obsolete? What would the “normal” humans do, then?

Hell is the Absence of God

Oh, where do I start with this one? In this world angel apparitions are fairly common occurrences, but they are more like natural disasters than quiet visitations: some people receive miracles, some people die, and a few lucky ones see the light of heaven that infuses them with the strongest love for God – and melts their eyes. The protagonist is the husband of one of the most recent victims of a visitation, and finds himself in a difficult position: he never cared for God, but his wife ascended to Heaven after her death, so if he wants to be back with her, he needs to find his love of God before he dies.
It was interesting, but at the same time I didn’t really care for the other two protagonists of the story, and the ending was baffling to say the least. It was… weird, but in a good way, I guess?

Liking What You See: A Documentary

Again, another really interesting concept. This one makes the top three of the collection for me.
In this world, it is possible to get a procedure that inhibits the perception of beauty, thus limiting the prejudices we create when looking at an attractive person or an ugly one. It is structured as a real documentary: there are students debating the impact of “calli”; there are advertisements, specialists, parents of children who were subjected to the procedure, people who decided to remove it or get it later in life, and all kind of different views and angles of such a subject. It was extremely interesting and well done, in my opinion, and it could be good point for a discussion about beauty at all costs and its implications.

Another interesting feature of the collection is that, at the end, there’s a section where the author discusses the inspiration for each story, and it’s fascinating seeing how seemingly unrelated subjects could bring about each of these stories. I really, really enjoyed this collection and will very soon (hopefully) be reading his newest one, Exhalation, that came out in spring 2019.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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