34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2010
As I say in my Amazon Home Page I'm a sci-fi fan, nevertheless Ted Chiang was unknown to me. This year I've started to attend a seminar on "Creative Writing & Sci-Fi" and this author was introduced to us.
"Stories of Your Life and Others" (2002) is a wonderful collection of short stories of such quality I haven't seen since Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith or Octavia Butler. Engaging, intelligent, well researched, creative, puzzling amongst many other adjectives may be attributed to this book!
I'll detail each story with comment & evaluation.
"Tower of Babylon" (1990) Nebula Award winner is a kind of Sumerian-sci-fi! The construction of the famed Tower is in its way nearing completion and miners from Elam and Egypt are convoked to penetrate Heaven's Dome. The story chronicles their lengthy ascent giving way to unexpected results. 5 stars.
"Understand" (1991) have some points in common with Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon" (1959 and 1966) versions; nevertheless enhanced human intelligence is boarded from a very different point, confronting selfish and altruistic positions. IMHO this is one of the best of the volume. 5 stars plus.
"Division by Zero" (1991) with a deep mathematical basement, it is an interesting tale, just a little too complex for my taste. 4 stars.
"Story of Your Life" (1998) is an incredible good story about deciphering alien communications. Not a new theme in sci-fi but extraordinarily solved by Chiang, earned for his author Nebula Award and T. Sturgeon Memorial Award. 5 stars plus.
"Seventy-Two Letters" (2000) aka "Vanishing Acts", Sidewise Award winner is a story situated in an alternative Victorian era, populated with golems and the power of written names. 4 stars.
"The Evolution of Humana Science" (2000) aka "Catching Crumbs from the Table" it is an ultra-short tale, effective but not my cup of tea. 3 and a half stars.
"Hell is the Absence of God" (2001) a weird and delightful mix of alternate universe and religious beliefs; angels and miracles; healing and death; Hugo, Locus and Nebula Awards winner. What else you may ask to certify quality? 5 stars plus.
"Liking What You See: A Documentary" (2002) first published in this book it is about beauty and its perception and influence. 3 and a half stars.
This book is a real gem and I fervently hope Mr. Chiang will continue giving life to more magnificent stories (and to a long novel, perhaps). Not only sci-fi fans may appreciate it, general (open-minded) public too!
Reviewed by Max Yofre.
46 of 52 people found the following review helpful
I gave up a decade ago on trying to keep up with the science fiction magazines, so I only recently became aware of Ted Chiang's wide range of ideas and considerable proficiency at communicating them. There are eight stories in this anthology; all of them are at least good and several are excellent. Perhaps the best is the title piece, "Story of Your Life," which is also the only one I had previously read. It's about simultaneity vs. sequentiality and free will vs. predestination, with a strong taste of the sort of notions regarding time that Vonnegut originally made use of in _Slaughterhouse Five_. "Tower of Babylon" is sort of Babylonian science fiction, about the building of a mud-brick tower that takes four months to ascend and which reaches all the way to the vaults of heaven. An intriguing yarn, though the ending is a little weak. "Understand" is an interesting kind of riff on "Flowers for Algernon," but with the implications very much updated. "Division by Zero" is about the effect on a woman mathematician who discovers (and proves) that the basic principals of math are quite arbitrary and inconsistent. While it's a good psychological portrait, and also vividly presents some (to me) novel ideas, the math and the character development really have nothing to do with each other. "Seventy-Two Letters" is set in an alternate Victorian London in which nomenclature, the act of bestowing names on things, has become an experimental science. There's a certain Bruce Sterling flavor here, but it's really not at all derivative. "The Evolution of Human Science" is a short-short that originally appeared in NATURE. I'm not sure I got the point of it, frankly, though it has a rather neat twisty ending. "Hell Is the Absence of God" is another terrific tale of an alternate world in which the souls of the deceased can be seen ascending or descending, Hell is often visible just below street level, and miracles are a regular news item. But a visitation by an angel (tracked by CB) is just as likely to kill an innocent bystander with an exploding window as to restore sight to the blind. Moreover, the whole God and salvation thing is entirely happenstantial, arbitrary, and without justice of any kind; a convicted child-killer who sees the Light goes to Heaven after his execution, while the victim of two previous miracles -- the first crippling, the second restorative -- receives a wasted third miracle she doesn't want or need. This is a quietly angry story and, as a thoroughgoing secularist who is frequently put off by smug santimony, I really enjoyed it. "Liking What You See: A Documentary" is a very thoughtful and insightful examination of the misuse of beauty, of the effects of "lookism," and of the ruthlessness of media advertising. Very nicely done. In all, I have to say that while Chiang doesn't always get it quite right, he's certainly well above the average. I'm definitely going to have to keep up with his future work.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
This is some of the best SF being written today. The stories are uniformly good, and some of them are spectacular. Every one of them has an idea at its core, and the ideas will remain with you after you finish reading. That's one of the things that SF is supposed to do (but usually doesn't).
I'd compare this book to Greg Egan's _Axiomatic_, another collection of fascinating idea-driven work. Chiang's vision is not as dark as Egan's, and he's not nearly as fixated on the idea of posthumanity, but his breadth is if anything greater. These stories range in type from the classical-SF ("Liking What You See") to charcter pieces ("Stories of Your Life") to alternative but utterly convincing societies ("72 Letters"). No, there are no space battles, no massive technical infodumps, and not a great deal of action here. Don't worry; you probably won't miss it.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on September 6, 2002
Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others collects all his fiction to date, including one new story. It is an excellent collection. I reread the earlier stories for the first time in a long time -- I was particularly impressed on rereading by "Tower of Babylon", which posits a cosmology in which a Tower of Babel could actually be successfully built. I admit I didn't quite get "Division by Zero", about a woman mathematician driven to despair when she proves that arithmetic is inconsistent. "Understand" is a nice, dark, story about a man who becomes a superman when he undergoes an experimental brain treatment -- and what happens when he finds another superman.
Of the later stories, "Story of Your Life" remains my favorite, both very very moving and mind-blowing as well, told in second person successfully (and for good reason). It accomplishes the rare feat of combining an interesting bit of SFnal speculation (concerning aliens who perceive time differently than we do), worth a story on its own merits, with a moving human story (about a woman and her daughter, who dies young), and using the SF ideas to really drive home the human themes. While at the same time maintaining interest as pure SF. I'm fond of saying that there are two types of SF: stories about the science, and stories which use the science to be about people. This is both types in one. "Seventy-Two Letters" has a great central idea, and it does some nice things working out the implications, but the story itself is resolved with too much actiony hugger-mugger. "Hell is the Absence of God" again has a neat central conceit, and is uncompromising in working it out -- but I admit I was confused by the ending. His Nature short-short is a nice speculation on the future of science in a "post-human" world. And the new story, "Liking What You See" (reminiscent (both in central idea and form) of Raphael Carter's "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation"), again takes a neat idea, the development of a means of making people unable to perceive human beauty, and extrapolates the consequences wonderfully. (I did think he cooked his argument a bit by having all the "opponents" of the side he seemed to favor being basically evil.)
So far Chiang hasn't been very prolific, but even so, 7 stories of this quality in just over a decade is better than most writers do in a career.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2003
For years I've been hearing wonderful things about this fantastic writer named Ted Chiang. Ted, the wunderkind whose first published story won a Nebula (accepted before he went to Clarion, even!) who keeps winning awards and is known by all and has the audacity to not write very many stories and not one novel. So, it was with some sense of anticipation that I picked up his first short story collection. I had heard of many of the stories in it--Tower of Babylon, Hell is the Absence of God, Story of Your Life--and was determined to like them.
Oddly, my reaction was mixed.
Part of this collection pleased me to no end; part of it elicited no more than a 'meh'. Why the mix? I'm not sure. The first three selections did not thrill me. I think that I felt as though the stories were high on the idea axis, but low on the other axes. In fact, when I finished reading Babylon I felt kind of cheated, as it seemed to me a long set-up for a punchline-type ending.
But then I read Story of Your Life and everything changed. Oh, how I loved that story. This is where I felt Chiang really got it right. The idea and the characters and the plot and the everything in perfect harmony. I also felt this way about Hell is the Absence of God and Liking What You See: A Documentary (even though this is, apparently, not one of Ted's favorite stories). With these three I saw all the marks of really great talent and storytelling.
Seventy-Two Letters and The Evolution of Science didn't hold any big fascination for me, but didn't produce the same disappointment as the first three I read did.
Chiang's reputation is well-deserved. These are fine stories, and good examples of what they are. Even the ones that I didn't like still had an energy to them that I can't help but admire. And they all had a quality of intelligence that is missing from so much fiction I read. Not talking down to an audience, but instead bringing them up a level or two.
This book is definitely recommended.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 2003
Ted Chiang has two gifts.
First, like Greg Egan, he has the uncanny ability to take a seemingly innocuous scientific fact and turn it into a story. You'd think that would be a given for sf writers but few can actually pull it off. The trick is to not show the reader what the world would be if some law were changed, but to make him think about it. Ted Chiang's stories are not rides, they're challenging, they change you while you read them. You quickly get into the main protagonist's frame of mind even when it's very alien (like the all-knowing character in "Understand" or the one who "chrono-synclastically" remembers the future in "Story of your Life") and you fully understand their problem. Moreover, you start to logically follow their train of thought, deftly guided by the author's hand.
Each one of these stories is built around a simple but brilliantly developed hypothesis (except for "72 Letters", which is built around two simple but brilliantly developed hypotheses, and that's maybe why it's the less emotionally engaging of the book): What if maths were inconsistent ("Division by Zero")? What if the tower of Babylon had reached Heaven ("Tower of Babylon")? What if you could choose not to perceive the beauty of a face ("Liking What You See: A Documentary")? What if Heaven was a certainty but you couldn't bring yourself to love God ("Hell Is the Absence of God")?
In an interview for Locus, Ted Chiang said that he aimed for the sense of wonder that discovery brings. That's exactly what I felt reading his stories: each time, I discovered something about the nature of an imaginary world and, conversely, about the nature of ours.
Ted Chiang's second gift is empathy. Not only do we understand why the protagonist has a weird predicament, but he also makes us care about it. The main idea of each story is so well intertwined with its protagonist's fate that the process of discovery is also a catharsis. Basically, Greg Egan's "Luminous" and Chiang's "Division by Zero" talk about the same thing: what is true in maths. But where Egan tickles our brains with images of waves of theorems competing for truth, Chiang pierces our hearts with the story of a woman wrecked by a discovery that even precludes her, in a perverse way, from ever finding solace.
Other reviewers have written here that these stories are bleak. They are not. They are true, which often means that they're tragic. The protagonist of "Tower of Babylon" sees the dreams of thousands of people shattered, yet does he feel despair? No, he is elated by the truth he's learnt. And so are we, thanks to Ted Chiang's gift.
Chiang's style is quasi-vonnegutian (an author he cites in his notes): short sections ranging from half a page to two pages, each bringing its own intellectual or emotional impact, adding a layer to the story. This style makes for easy reading and sometimes even becomes an effective storytelling technique (in "Division by Zero", "Story of Your Life" and "Liking What You See: A Documentary"). His prose is fluid except when he voluntarily obfuscates his subject ("The Evolution of Human Science") and he makes complex ideas easy to grasp and play with. This is not a surprise since most of his stories basically talk about language.
I've been using Amazon for years but it's the first book that compelled me to write a review.
"Stories of Your Life and Others" is the best sf book I have read in years.
This is what sf is about.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
If your SF preference is for space opera, aliens, galactic exploration, time travel, rocket ships or ray guns this collection might not be your cup of tea. But if you're looking for human truth and incredible depth of feeling found within the context of future science & technology, it is hard to do better than Ted Chiang's superb collection of short stories.
While all his stories are first-rate, my favorite so far is "Understand." This story is built on the not-so-original idea of an ordinary person developing super-human intelligence. Seems like this has been done many times before (Star Trek did it at least twice), but what Mr. Chiang does with it is simply astonishing. Here's what I believe to be profoundly unique about his treatment.
First, the sequential increases in intelligence are laid out in a developmentally consistent manner where the main character never seems smarter on an earlier page than he becomes on a later page. This is no mean feat, especially when the descriptions quickly move beyond IQ ranges anyone has ever possessed.
Second, the increases in intelligence described are not linear but exponential. In most treatments of this subject, we typically end up with someone who is simply a smarter version of us; a better scientist, a better investor, a better card counter, etc... Early on the story contains some of those elements, but almost before you notice, the protagonist moves beyond all normal ways of interacting with the world. Very soon he is inventing new languages (because all the current ones are inadequate to his tasks), developing complete control of his body including all his physiological processes, seeing or sensing patterns in both science and society never before conceived of, and even seeing precisely how his own mind works and exploiting the benefits this conveys (some of the story's best speculations).
While being amazed by these orders-of-magnitude portrayals of growth in IQ, the analogy that came to my mind was of starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together. At some point a critical mass is reached where what results (fire) is entirely new and cannot be logically deduced (without prior experience or knowledge of chemistry) simply by observing what occurred beforehand. Since no one has ever had a four digit IQ (except maybe Mr. Chiang?), this is very impressive. And he does it not just once but over and over again. And because he is attempting to show us a mind that is beyond our comprehension, I was left with an unnerving feeling of awe that I can only imagine is similar to what my dog must think when I come home from the grocery store with bags of food in my arms: unable to conceptualize my amazing achievement, I imagine him simply thinking, "you are the greatest hunter I have ever seen."
Finally, I was completely bowled over by the (painfully) few short sentences where Mr. Chiang had the gall (and pulled it off!) to describe, or at least vividly hint at, what full, God-knowing, spiritual enlightenment would be like... and from a purely rational point of view. Are you kidding me?! After all that, the story's resolution had me wishing I was reading the last chapter in a dense novel instead of the last few pages of this sublime short story; one that left me feeling both more intelligent than I am (thank you endorphins!) and like a mere insect relative to what super-intelligence might be like.
Unlike the vast majority of SF writers, Mr. Chiang is an exquisite wordsmith. There were sentences of his that had me nearly grunting with pleasure, something I rarely if ever feel when reading science fiction (it was like reading a John Updike story). Curling up with some of the other stories in this collection was like listening to Beethoven chamber music (enjoying beautifully executed pieces built around one or two exhilarating ideas) whereas reading "Understand" was more like listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Bravo Mr. Chiang... encore, encore!!
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2009
I for one had never heard of Ted Chiang. I've always enjoyed science-fiction and all of its sub-genres, from the space opera to alternate history, but I wasn't one to seek it out. In fact, as I'd gotten older, science-fiction began to seem less essential to me. Unless I stumbled across a novel that had received rave reviews, I wouldn't consider it -- because as I grew older, I began to see the genre as so many snobs do -- as a secondary or even tertiary consideration when presented with the option to read a good book -- because science-fiction is for kids.
Of course, deep down I knew this wasn't always the case. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a perfect example of great science-fiction, and I mention Leibowitz only because it's a personal favorite. But it seemed harder and harder to discover good science-fiction by anything more than trial & error. And frankly, as the 80s wore into the 90s, I simply became tired of trying. It became a waste of time. There's so much more that is bad than good, and blurbs on a book can be so misleading. Oh, and mediocrity often sells best. The stuff I consider good simply doesn't populate shelves like mediocre efforts by mediocre writers.
Now who's sounding like a snob? Point taken.
But the internet has changed everything for someone like me. I can sift through blogs and forums and those more learned than I as to what constitutes the good stuff -- the stuff that received limited print runs -- or saw the light of day only in an obscure anthology -- or found its way on a library bookshelf, only to sit there in obscurity, unless the borrower already knew it was there in the first place -- can point me in the right directions.
Not that I always agree, but I think of blogs and review forums and the like as aggregates of good taste -- kind of like Metatcritic or Rotten Tomatoes -- so I find there to be less error in the trial and error process.
So to my point, which should be painfully obvious by now: Ted Chiang's obscure short story collection, Story of Your Life: And Others, which unfortunately seems out of print, is very much worth the effort to track down and read.
I so tire of those who consider "literary science-fiction" an oxymoron. They merely demonstrate ignorance.
That's not to say every story is a genius collection of words. Some I felt decidedly superior to others. But the collection of ideas here, some certainly not knew, but all presented in unique, original, timely ways, is simply one of the best collections of "ideas" that I've ever read.
Highly recommended. All here are above average, and several are decidedly brilliant. Ironically, let's hope a literary version of Chiang's invention -- calliagnosia, the idea at the center of the final story in this collection -- never appears.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2009
The stories in this book are among the most sublime and intriguing ever written in science fiction. They combine enthralling prose style, deep and fascinating philosophical questions, and always that brilliant twist at the end.
My favorite two are Understand and Story of Your Life.
Understand is probably my favorite science fiction story. It takes a familiar science fiction trope and gives it a clever new spin. I've read it numerous times and find interesting things in it frequently.
Story of Your Life is another extraordinary tale. It is the kind of story that just makes you think and ponder for months, even years, at least if you like language, as I do.
But what makes me irate about Chiang is that he's so stingy with his gift. He towers over nearly every other writer, in any genre. And he is certainly the best science fiction author writing today. He was given a remarkable talent that few, if anyone else, has: to fuse plot and style and rhythm and tone and language and thought and philosophy and imagery to create magnificent stories.
But he almost never publishes! He writes something like one short story a year. And he also does not write novels. I would like to see a novel of Understand, for example.
I realize that it takes a long time to craft one of these stories, but I still think he should publish more and write some novels too.
OK, since this is the internet I suppose I should say that I do not "hate" Chiang. I do wish, however that he would publish more, while he has the talent and ability to do so.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 2, 2004
To my taste, Ted Chiang is SF's preeminent working hard SF writer, and one of the best creators of thought experiments the genre has ever seen. He doesn't write much, and so far all he's produced has been short fiction; it's hard to imagine his particular techniques--and his focus on following premises to their logical conclusions, and not a word farther--working at greater length. I especially recommend him to people who like Connie Willis' "At the Rialto" and "Schwartzenchild Radius"; like Willis, he is very fond of structuring stories as the living exemplars of scientific theories. Depending on how you look at the stories, they are either using science as a metaphor for human experience--or using human experience as a metaphor for science.
There's one weak story here, "Understand," which wastes a very intriguing Flowers for Algernon/Camp Concentration-like setup of the creation of superintelligent beings on a cliched contest for supremacy among supermen: the notes indicate this was the earliest written, if not the earliest published. The earliest published was "Tower of Babylon," a matter-of-fact SF-like practical recounting of the construction of the Tower of Babel; it won a Nebula award. Other stories include "Seventy-Two Letters," a similarly SFnal investigation of a fantasy premise (What if medieval theories of human reproduction were true? And the answer is: If Nature hadn't invented DNA, humans would have had to); "Hell Is the Absence of God," a cruel, utterly matter-of-fact story set in the universe of fundamentalist Christianity; "Division by Zero," the story of a mathematician who learns mathematics is not true; and "The Evolution of Human Science," a scientific article wondering what's left for humans in a future where posthuman evolution (a la Ken MacLeod) has succeeded.
My two favorites are "Story of Your Life" and "Liking What You See: A Documentary." I especially recommend "Story of Your Life" to any story-structure geeks reading this: it is told by a woman who learns an alien language which changes her perception of time. It is about how the knowledge of a future outcome changes our perceptions of actions; it is about grief; it is about love. It works even if you think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is absurd.
"Liking What You See: A Documentary" (the only story original to the volume) posits that a way to deliberately and reversably induce "calliagnosia"--the inability to recognize human beauty. (Studies of brain damage indicate that facial recognition is a perception skill-set that's separate from the recognition of beauty; Chiang extrapolates from there.) A college campus debates making calliagnosia mandatory for all students, and a number of parties--students pro, students anti, a student who grew up in a calliagnostic community but opted for reversal on her 18th birthday, and, of course, advertising agencies--give their responses. Clever and thought-provoking, and it very nicely uses the "ivory tower" to show that it's not possible to examine such theses thoroughly without investigating likely uses and misuses by outside forces.