There is almost no one writing like Ted Chiang today. He is famously unprolific, and yet almost every story he publishes receives accolades. Rather than sing vague exultations of him, though, let’s dive into his short story collection.
Tower of Babylon- This was his first published story (the stories here are in order of publication). It went on to win a Nebula award (not that I’m jealous or anything…). It follows a group of miners who ascend the Tower of Babylon. The reason miners are needed high in the sky? This world follows the Babylonian view of the world, so in addition to other bizarre sights, at the top of the tower they run into a stone barrier they need to break through. Probably one of my favorite stories here.
Understand- After a near-fatal drowning, a man is brought back through the use of a drug that makes him super smart. Smarter than the government…although the premise is cliché, Chiang pulls this off by making it less of a thriller and more of a thoughtful piece.
Division by Zero- A woman checks into a mental facility after she disproves a fundamental aspect of mathematics. As a professor, until then, mathematics had been her life. Her husband, meanwhile, has a change of opinion about something… Although it’s not speculative fiction as most people think of the genre, it provides something that had been missing in “Understand,” humanity. The relationship between husband and wife is more compelling than a supercomputer lying in his apartment.
Story of Your Life- The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a largely discredited theory in linguistics that a language shapes the speaker’s perceptions of the world. It still makes for compelling reading, though. Other examples of it in fiction include Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany and The Dispossessed by Ursula K. le Guin. I won’t spoil how Chiang handles it, but it’s an original way. The story itself is about a race of aliens who communicate with Earth. Linguists try to learn their language to understand what they’re doing, but the aliens’ motives remain elusive. Peppered throughout are the linguist’s reminisces about her daughter. One of the best here.
The Evolution of Human Sciences- A flash fiction piece. It concerns the idea that one day science might get too technical for anyone untrained to understand–taken to the extreme, of course. This one’s a little rough because beyond there’s little plot, little conflict. It’s just describing a possible future.
Seventy-Two Letters- This takes a myth and a discredited scientific theory and welds them together beautifully. This takes place around the early 1800s in an alternate version of England. Here, golems (like in Jewish lore) work is you discover the right permutation of letters to power them, and that humans have a fixed number of generations during which they can reproduce. In this is a scientist who wishes to improve the lives of the lower class. He quickly finds himself caught in the middle of a guild who does not want him to impinge upon their livelihood and a shadowy organization made up of high society members.
Hell is the Absence of God- What if angels were real and every time they appeared, explosions and miracles occurred, killing some but saving others? That’s the premise here. When a man loses his wife to an angel, he tries to forgive God and love Him so that he can follow her up into heaven, but he hates Him too much for taking away his love. Two other characters going through their own trials fill out this tale. Everyone seems to love this one (it won a number of awards, too) but I was not overly impressed. Sometimes when a writer has a very economical style, they can write a story using too few words, like there should have been more to fill it out. I had that problem here. The idea was thought provoking, but not enough time was spent developing the characters for me to be satisfied.
Liking What You See: A Documentary- It’s a documentary because the story is narrated through a ton of different voices, each one getting their own scenes. The premise is that a college wants to install a device in their students that filters out beauty, that is, they no longer recognize what faces are beautiful and which are ugly. Chiang was nominated for a Hugo award for this story but declined, saying that editorial pressure made him rush the story and it didn’t turn out how he wanted it, and this one did feel a little rougher. Although Chiang tries to give both sides of the issue proper arguments, in my eyes, he failed for the “against” side, the people who want to continue to see beauty and ugliness. Their arguments often come across as manipulative and one-dimensional, and when a story relies on being provoking new ideas rather than being gripping, that sort of thing just doesn’t work. A disappointing way to end the collection.
Over all, this is an amazing collection. Even the “missteps” are just average, not bad. Anyone with even a slight interest in science fiction needs to check out Chiang.