From Goodreads: Ted Chiang’s first published story, “Tower of Babylon,” won the Nebula Award in 1990. Subsequent stories have won the Asimov’s SF Magazine reader poll, a second Nebula Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and the Sidewise Award for alternate history. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1992. Story for story, he is the most honored young writer in modern SF.
Now, collected here for the first time are all seven of this extraordinary writer’s stories so far-plus an eighth story written especially for this volume.
What if men built a tower from Earth to Heaven-and broke through to Heaven’s other side? What if we discovered that the fundamentals of mathematics were arbitrary and inconsistent? What if there were a science of naming things that calls life into being from inanimate matter? What if exposure to an alien language forever changed our perception of time? What if all the beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity were literally true, and the sight of sinners being swallowed into fiery pits were a routine event on city streets? These are the kinds of outrageous questions posed by the stories of Ted Chiang. Stories of your life . . . and others.
Note: Contains spoilers for the movie, Arrival, and the short story, “The Story of Your Life”.
I’ve mentioned before that Arrival was one of my favorite films of 2016, so I was anxious to read the short story, “The Story of Your Life” after I bought the book Stories of Your Life and Others.
This can be a mind-blowing book.
The first story, “Tower of Babylon” can be described as Babylonian Science Fiction, as it takes place during the multi-generational building of the mythical Tower of Babel. In this tale, thought, God does not strike the tower down as the builders ascend toward the vault of heaven, nor do the builders despair despite the fact that many of them life their entire lives on the edges of the tower, with no hope of reaching the top or descending back to the city of Babylon. The end of the story is utterly unexpected and as amazing as one could hope for in a short story. I can see why it won an award as prestigious as the Nebula.
“The Story of Your Life” was the one I looked forward to the most, as it is the basis for Arrival. My reaction to it was unexpected. I enjoyed it and found it as strangely satisfying as the movie, but I found that I prefer the story of Arrival to that of “The Story of Your Life”, despite the fact that the plot is almost exactly the same. In both film and story, the arrival of an alien species that humans call ‘heptapods’ brings the linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, into contact with the heptapods as the government wants her to figure out a way to communicate with the aliens. Banks figures out how to do so, and this understanding of their language causes a change in her brain that allows her to understand time the way the heptapods do- not as a series of events experienced one after another, but as a sort of circle, where the present and the future co-mingle to the point where you already know what the story of your life will be before you’ve lived it- like reading a book for the second time, when you already know what will happen, but you continue reading because you want to experience it again.
In both book and film, too, the story of Banks’s unraveling of the heptapods’ language is concurrent with the story of her daughter’s life, from start to early, abrupt end. The ‘you’ in “The Story of Your Life” is Banks’s daughter, and she addresses ‘you’ throughout the story. Because Banks met her daughter’s father while working with the heptapods, and because it was the heptapods’ language that allowed Banks to perceive time differently, the story of the daughter’s life is part and parcel to the story of the heptapods. There are things that Banks ‘remembers’ from her future that help her to decipher Heptapod B, but Banks could ‘remember’ the future without having first deciphered the language.
So which came first? The language or the future?
It’s impossible to say for sure, but personally, I think the film did a better job of explaining this change in Banks’s perception. In Arrival, you begin with snippets of the daughter’s life, right up to her early death from an illness during her teens. In the following scenes, you see Banks, alone in her house, and you assume that she’s grieving after the death of her daughter. As the movie progresses, you see what seem to be flashbacks– Banks’s apparent memories of her daughter and her failed marriage– and, as in the story, these flashbacks help Banks understand the heptapods’ language and their perception of time. After the flashbacks, Banks has this expression on her face that seems to be grief, but after a second viewing, you realize that it is confusion. There comes a point near the end, though, after Banks has experienced all these ‘memories’, that she asks, “whose child is this?”. And then you realize– as she does– that Banks has been peering into the future, and that she hasn’t had her child yet. All those experiences, both joyful and terrible, have yet to occur.
The short story explains this perfectly well, but not with the poignancy of the movie. In this case, there’s something about the visuals of the teenaged daughter, slowly dying in the hospital, that is more intense than the shock of the daughter’s accidental death at age 25 in the story. A lot of that, I think, comes from Amy Adams’s brilliant portrayal of Louise Banks. It is understated and minimal, and a comes with a wealth of interpretations. Is Banks confused or grieving? Exhausted or deep in thought? Determined or desperate?
Arrival adds an event that drives home the change in Banks’s perception. In “The Story of Your Life”, scientists around the world are working well together, and the governments don’t seem so upset about the heptapods’ presence. This is not true of the movie, which I think is more true to life– the scientists might want to work together, but their governments are deeply paranoid and often refuse to share information on the grounds of ‘military secrets’. This nearly leads to disaster after a small group of rogue soldiers bombs a heptapod ship, triggering a series of events that nearly ends in all-out war when the Chinese and the Russians move to attack the heptapod ships hovering over their lands.
Nearly leads to disaster. Acting on cues from several months into her future, when Banks meets with the general in charge of the Chinese military, she illegally calls the general on his personal phone and recites to him a secret that he himself will tell her in the future.
In other films, the addition of events like this are often superfluous, but it works in Arrival. Because we’ve already been seeing things from Banks’s future, seeing the general (who we’ve been hearing about all along) isn’t surprising or shocking, and the passing on of the phrase from future-Banks to past-Banks is a natural series of events. It’s also an elegant solution to the military build-up, as well as a clear illustration of how Banks’s perception of time has been altered.
I’m not sure if I wouldn’t have understood the circuitous nature of the events in “The Story of Your Life” had I not seen Arrival first. Given the short nature of the story, you can get through it in about half an hour, while the film is two hours long and has extra events to help you figure out the nature of Banks’s altered perception.
So while “The Story of Your Life” is an amazing story, in this instance I prefer the movie.
There are more stories in this collection, obviously, but those two capture my imagination the most. “Understand”, about a man who receives a new hormone therapy to treat brain damage and ultimately becomes a super-intelligent human who can learn anything in short order. But what happens to a mind like that if there’s no one to connect with, and no purpose for their intelligence to latch onto? And what happens if they encounter another super-intelligent human?
I didn’t really care for the story, “Seventy-Two Letters”. It is is rather dry compared to the others. It is a story set in an alternate 19th century and is largely about genetics (or at least an alternate understanding of genetics) and how a certain kind of magic is used in their everyday lives, and how it could be used to alter humanity’s destiny. The language is reminiscent of period-specific stories such as Doctor Jekyl and Mister Hyde, but lacks the underlying horror that makes such stories so lasting.
Overall, though, I enjoyed these stories, and the way it skews the worlds the characters inhabit so that you can look at your own perceptions– of time, of faith, of intelligence, etc. –in a different light.