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Customer Review

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Collection, February 25, 2012
This review is from: Stories of Your Life and Others (Paperback)
Short story collections are often difficult things to review. Usually the stories in them are of mixed quality, a few gems surrounded by average or sub-par filler stories. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang is not that kind of collection. Every story in this book is absolutely worth reading, and a few of them are so incredible as to be some of my favorite short stories of all time. I've read a good number of science fiction short stories in my day, and this collection stands out as one of the best I've ever read.

Chiang's writing is absolutely stellar. He is able to perfectly capture the mood and tone of a particular place and time, making all of his worlds feel remarkably real. His characters have realistic voices and feel incredibly genuine. His writing style is just as beautiful as it is convincing and realistic. Always capable of finding just the right word or turn of phrase, his stories are a joy to read.

What really sticks out for me about Ted Chiang's stories is the way he integrates ideas and feelings, theory and life, into an emotionally and intellectually impactful whole. I've read science fiction stories that focus so much on ideas and speculation that they fall short in other areas, stimulating the mind but not the emotions. Chiang knows that theory and ideas are the things that people use to navigate the world, and that they should therefore have meaning to the characters, and the reader, outside of the simply mathematical and scientific. Ideas about numbers, language, or science should impact the way we think about ourselves and our relationships with other people. Chiang manages to show how this interaction shapes people's inner lives better than almost any other writer I know.

The ideas that Chiang writes into his stories are always fascinating. Story of Your Life, the story for which the collection was named, explores time perception, linguistics, memory, and free will through the lens of learning an alien language and the changes in perception that follow. That sounds really intellectual, and it is, but is also incredibly emotionally resonant. The main character, one of the most realistic female main characters written by a male writer that I've ever seen, and her relationship to her husband and daughter feel painfully real, the emotions portrayed hit home in ways I wouldn't have imagined. All of his stories left me both feeling and thinking log after they were done.

Other stories in the collection include:

Division by Zero, which explores mathematics, relationships, the value of empathy, and the importance of our core beliefs. What does it mean to really be there for someone? A hauntingly beautiful story, it somehow manages to connect mathematical principles and emotions in a way that is devastatingly honest.

The Tower of Babylon imagines the myth of the tower of Babylon from the perspective of one of the miners hired to crack the vault of heaven. A lyrical musing on motivation, home, and the shape of the universe, it reads like an old legend.

Seventy-Two Letters imagines a world where both Golems and homunculi are real, and where scientists manipulate names as a means of making automatons. An exploration of language, science, and to what lengths we should go to help humanity, this story was impossible to put down.

Liking What You See uses a series of fictional interviews, speeches, and news articles to explore a world in which people can choose to turn off their perception of the physical beauty of human faces. What moral and ethical questions come up around beauty? How does it affect our relationships and our ideas of self? This story felt all too real.

Hell is the Absence of God imagines a world in which God is empirically proven to be real and visitations by angels routinely and randomly cause both miracles and catastrophes. If loving God is the only way to enter heaven, can a man whose wife was killed in an angelic visitation ever see her again? This story takes an interesting and strange new perspective on the question of suffering, God, and fate.

Understand tells the story of a man given a treatment for brain damage, the side effects of that treatment, and the mental and moral implications of those side effects. A fast-paced thriller, it manages to be both philosophical and exciting.

The Evolution of Human Science imagines what science and discovery would mean in a world where human beings aren't making their own discoveries, but simply trying to understand and explain the science of beings of superior intelligence.

Every story in this collection is beautifully written, provocative, and intelligent. Ted Chiang has managed to write stories that have stuck with me and will influence my thinking for a long time. If you like short stories, science fiction or not, I absolutely recommend this collection.

Rating: 5 stars
Recommendations: Beautiful prose, realistic characters, interesting ideas, and emotional resonance. A book for everyone.
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