I’ve a terrible memory for names, but I never forget a good story. So when I had finished this collection of shorts by Ted Chiang, I realised I had read him in other places a fair few times before. And it was no disappointment to read some of the tales a second time again, either. This collection, ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’, was released in 2002, and comes across as a ‘best of’, covering Chiang’s career from his first published piece, up to 2001. He’s still knocking them out now (indeed, I’m pretty sure that he has one in a forthcoming issue of SF&F magazine), and I shall make a point of hunting down his work in future.
What’s really good about his work, for me at least, is that it is ‘proper’ science fiction. The stories all feature either a scientifically-based premise or a coherent alternative reality. These are tales that hold their water without leaking.
The opener, Chiang’s debut story ‘Tower of Babylon’, fits into the latter category, being a mythical look at one of the oldest memes in storytelling that there is. Here one can also place ‘Seventy-Two Letters’ (an examination of the morality of cloning, ubiquitous robotics and social change, all encoded into an alternate Victorian Britain where engineering is replaced with Kabbalistic automaton animation), and ‘Hell is the Absence of God’ (a dark and very human examination of a world where manifestations of God and his angels have made theology and spirituality a very different proposition to what they are in our universe). In these scenarios, Chiang can really dig into complex philosophical themes; he manages to do so without being preachy, and with an insight into the human condition that would make a great many ‘literary’ writers jealous.
The other tales take technological or scientific ideas as their central premise. For example, ‘Division by Zero’ examines the ramifications of a great mathematician discovering by accident that her entire field of expertise can be proved irrelevant by its own rules. ‘Story of Your Life’ follows a linguistic professor who, while involved in a project to communicate with some enigmatic ET visitors to Earth, learns an alien semantic language that enables her to see the future of her own life. This poignant story weaves her visions of her unborn daughter’s life with the narrative of the translation project, and brims with fascinating insights into science and language without spilling over with infodump.
My personal favourite is probably ‘Understand’. This story is a first person narrative of a character who, after being saved from near-brain-death due to oxygen starvation by a new hormonal regenerative treatment, finds his intelligence is massively increased. He soon realises that he will become a lab-rat and government pawn, and makes himself scarce to continue his own personal ‘uplift’, using his new super-intellect to avoid capture and foil the authorities. It reminded me a great deal of the classic ‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes; the character’s apotheosis, his joy and awe at his new expanded condition, are brilliantly portrayed, right down to his inevitable feelings of distance from the rest of common humanity. Eventually, he meets another person who has been ‘boosted’ in the same way, and the tale wraps up in a dramatic fold, inevitable yet still surprising. Beneath the oh-so-SF tropes, there is a fascinating undertow of aspects of ther human condition, almost of character as destiny. Say what you like, this guy can write solid characters, and still use them as avatars for ideas.
Ted Chiang, as far as I can tell, knows how to craft a great short story, in the true science fiction idiom. I shall look forward to digging up more of his work in times to come.