Sunday, June 19, 2011

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I have a very poor concept of what is science fiction.  It is ironic considering I think the vast majority of everything written is some form of fantasy hiding behind a multitude of guises.  Aliens, outer-space, interstellar warfare, Starwars: that's what immediately comes to mind when I think of science fiction.  I know I'm wrong (and shallow), but for me those elements are such a turn off and have left such an impression that I mistakenly pan the whole genre.  Stories of Your Life and Others is marked as science fiction and all the praise on the back and inside of the book seems to mention the genre as well.  I didn't read a single one of the stories included as science fiction.  They all made me think and forced the use of my imagination.  Perhaps my definition of fantasy is so all encompassing that science fiction has become part of the meld.  I now feel I've done my due diligence with this up front disclaimer concerning myself and the genre.
The best stories in this collection share a feeling of plausibility and those that aren't quite as strong as the best still manage to impart, at minimum, a powerful verisimilitude of profundity.  I would describe Chiang as a confident writer, one who thoroughly believes in his abilities and has achieved an uncanny measure of erudition in the medium he has chosen to work in.  His success in achieving an almost instantaneous acceptance in whatever we should deem, 'fantastic' has to do with the immediacy he brings up a topic, the nonchalant manner in which it is mentioned, and most importantly in how the incredible or unrealistic isn't dwelled on: the characters involved believe in whatever the issue is and move on.  So does the reader.  Instead of trying to invest the reader in what is fantastic or making them 'buy into' the premise he just moves on; stating the issue as fact and never looking back.  It works.
From the most scientific (Seventy-Two Letters) to the least (Tower of Babylon), more than a character or setting Chiang writes about ideas.  There is a certain amount of active reader participation that he demands. That is not to say his writing is difficult but you do have to be willing to impart some of your own brain power to fully enjoy what he is trying to write about.  Every story in the collection embraces the idea of 'what if…' and then ask the reader to think things through morally, problematically, socially sometimes even religiously.  Chiang is always there to guide us with suggestions for new lines of thought and more often than not takes definitive measures for the sake of the narrative.  
Understand is about about a man who experiences severe brain damage after a traumatic accident that left him in a coma.  He is given an experimental growth hormone treatment that proves to re-grow previously damaged parts of his brain.  Is that really too far fetched to believe?  Division by Zero is about a fundamental truth that a woman discovers that upends everything known about mathematics and a good deal of the fundamentals thought to be natural law.  The story is also of her slow decent into madness as only she and a handful of others can fully comprehend what she has discovered.  These stories illustrate Chiang's ability to suggest to all readers what is left undiscovered in our world: a simple--plausible--'what if' developed logically, or perhaps it is proper to say 'scientifically' into a narrative.  Despite all the examples and proofs offered to support his premises all of his stories have a very humane element to them.
Hell is the Absence of God deals with the most basic of storytelling elements that never fail to arouse interest: the afterlife, and the mysterious ways of God's existence (in this particular story there definitively is a God).  Though all of the stories here are independent of one another, if there were a unifying element it could be argued that many share a strong theme of personal decay or degradation unto the point of loss though not always death where an individual gains a new perspective by way of Pyrrhic achievement as in The Tower of Babylon, Understand, Division by Zero and Story of your Life.  
As introspective as Chiang's characters seem to be, I feel he was at his strongest in the concluding story, Liking what you see: A Documentary, where there isn't a central character as in standard storytelling rather a host of vignettes from multiple outlets.  Calliagnosia is the ability to turn off facial recognition features that people define as attractive or not-so-much.  We hear thoughts from different age groups and perspectives and by the end you shouldn't be surprised to find yourself debating the merits and flaws of completely made up cosmetic treatment.  
I had no expectations going into this book as I had previously only read one story by the author that was not collected here.  (Too many times have I been led astray by one amazing story to a collection of FAIL, but such is not the case with Chiang.)  Upon finishing the book I still have no clear definition of science fiction, though I think I like the trendy, internet, hipster term 'speculative fiction' as it seems incongruously both more general and specific.  However you want to brand Ted Chiang or his writing he should be thought of as a writer whose works are not only seminal for his 'genre' but necessary reading to further the quality of all others.     


Maria said...

Glad to see you've read the book. It's definitely one of my all time favorites. I particularly like Stories of your Life, though many others are very interesting too.

I would also highly recommend The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate as well.

Chad Hull said...

While there was definitely one that was my least favorite, I honestly found all the others to be equally awesome.

I first read The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume II. That is the story that put Chiang on my map.