REVIEW: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Dear Mr. Chiang,
After seeing Arrival, the movie which is based on your novella, Story of Your Life, I was eager to read the source material and reserved this collection at the library. The novella did not disappoint, and I went on to read the other stories in the collection. My reviews of all eight stories follow.
Tower of Babylon
From the Tower of Babel (Babylon) myth springs this fully developed fantasy novelette. The protagonist of Tower of Babylon is Hillalum, a miner from Elam and a member of a group of miners who have come to Babylon to mine the vault of heaven near the top of the tower.
The tower has taken centuries to build and is almost unimaginably tall. Hillalum is afraid to climb it—as his friend Nanni says, going up to dig seems unnatural—but climb it he does. Climbing the tower takes up a good portion of the novelette, but reading about it never gets dull because the tower is a world to itself, and there are wonders all along the way. For example:
Within the passage of weeks, the sun and moon peaked lower and lower in their daily journeys. The moon flooded the south side of the tower with its silver radiance, glowing like the eye of Yahweh peering at them. Before long, they were precisely at the same level as the moon when it passed; they had reached the height of the first celestial bodies. They squinted at the moon’s pitted face, marveled at its stately motion that scorned any support.
The story’s central theme revolves around man’s relationship to God. Is the tower a symbol of man’s devotion to God, his wish to be closer to his creator? Or is the tower a symbol of hubris, as God cannot be understood and for man to attempt it is to reveal his lack of humility? Hillalum grapples with his doubts even as he climbs.
As for what he finds at the top of the tower, I will not reveal it, except to say that the ending was as unexpected and imaginative as the rest of the story.
This first person science fiction novelette is narrated entirely in the point of view of Leon, a man who suffered brain damage and was given an experimental treatment, hormone K therapy. The therapy regenerated his damaged neurons, but an unforeseen side effect was that they came back with many more dendrites, raising Leon’s intelligence and motor skills considerably. When Leon’s doctor asks him to participate in a study in which he will be given additional treatments of hormone K, Leon quickly agrees.
Initially, I was reminded of Daniel Keyes’ classic SF short story, Flowers for Algernon, but Understand quickly turns in a different direction. Leon becomes addicted to the gestalts resulting from his intelligence gains, so much so that he steals an ampule of hormone K from the FDA and runs afoul of the CIA. Holing up in a hotel and later a New York apartment, Leon invents new languages in a quest to understand and envision more and more. As his skills grow and grow, he comes to care less and less about normal people; eventually this threatens his quest for the ultimate gestalt.
This novelette was fascinating but also disturbing. I spent much of it wondering just how unreliable a narrator Leon might be—whether what he was telling the reader was true, or whether his hormone K treatment had rendered him paranoid and delusional. The story went in a different direction than I expected. I appreciated the imagination it must have taken to conceive of what it would be like to operate at Leon’s level.
Division by Zero
This short story examines the marriage of two professors. Renee is a brilliant mathematician whose recent suicide attempt is related to her work (I don’t want to reveal how); her husband Carl is a biologist. Many years ago Carl made a suicide attempt of his own; he has since been emotionally healed.
The story begins when Renee is released from the psychiatric ward where she has been under observation following her attempt to kill herself, and then flashes back to the past. As Renee begins to recover, Carl recalls his attempts to understand and relate to what she has been going through—but here he hits his own limitations.
At the core of the story is mathematics. Each numbered section begins with a brief section narrated in omniscient voice by a narrator who reveals some facts about mathematics. We then get a section in Renee’s third person POV, followed by one in Carl’s. This only changes at the very end.
The facts about mathematics are fascinating, especially as they pertain to the conflict in Renee and Carl’s marriage. I found this story not just intellectually interesting, but also poignant, though I was skeptical that the conclusions Carl draws late in the story were enough to result in what happened to him.
Story of Your Life
This was the science fiction novella that inspired the movie Arrival and it really is outstanding. It is narrated in first person by Louise, a linguistics expert who is asked by the military to serve as a translator between aliens and humans.
The novella begins a few years after that event, when Louise and her unnamed husband are about to conceive a child, and it alternates between sections in second person narration in future tense (Louise speaking to her future daughter) and the more typical first person past tense (in these sections Louise describes her encounters with the aliens and with Gary, a physicist who works alongside Louise during this time).
The aliens, whom the humans call heptapods because they possess seven limbs, have different grammars for spoken language and for writing. One of Louise’s first breakthroughs comes from understanding how their written language is constructed:
“Uh-oh.” I took another look at the writing for the simple noun-verb examples, the ones that had seemed inconsistent before. Now I realized all of them actually did contain the logogram for “heptapod”; some were rotated and distorted by being combined with the various verbs, so I hadn’t recognized them at first. “You guys have got to be kidding,” I muttered.
“What’s wrong?” asked Gary.
“Their script isn’t word divided; a sentence is written by joining the logograms for the constituent words. They join the logograms by rotating and modifying them. Take a look.” I showed him how the logograms were rotated.
Meanwhile, Louise’s conversations with her yet-unconceived daughter also compel the reader forward, because Louise seems to remember the future (“I remember a conversation we’ll have when you’re in your junior year of high school,” one section begins), and that future is not free of heartache. Louise’s love for her child is as obvious as her protectiveness and her worry for her daughter.
Further reading reveals more about the aliens and about Louise’s personal life. The two storylines intersect late in the novella, which examines the differences between causal and teleological interpretations of events, and imagines a universe in which determinism can co-exist with free will.
Story of Your Life is a beautiful novella but my appreciation may have been hampered, as well as enhanced, by my having seen the movie first. Having seen the movie made it easier to visualize the aliens and their logograms, but I also focused on the differences in the two, as well as the differences between my “reading” of the film characters’ motives, and the actual motives given in the novella. Regardless, the novella is imaginative, moving, and well-deserving of the accolades and awards it has received.
This fantasy novella, set in an alternate Victorian England, begins in Robert Stratton’s childhood. As a boy, Robert is fascinated by his toy automatons’ ability to move powered only by seventy-two letter names inserted into them via paper slips.
In boarding school, Robert befriends Lionel, a day pupil who shares his love of science. In Lionel’s home lab is a cucurbit with unusual contents:
At first it appeared to be nothing more than foam, a dollop of suds that might have dripped off a pint of stout. But as he looked closer, he realized that what he thought were bubbles were actually the interstices of a glistening latticework. The froth consisted of homunculi: tiny seminal foetuses. Their bodies were transparent individually, but collectively their bulbous heads and strandlike limbs adhered to form a pale, dense foam.
Lionel explains that the temperature and mix of nutrients has to be just right to keep the sperm growing. Too thin a mix, and the seminal fetuses will starve; too rich, and they’ll start fighting one another. But they’re likely to die soon regardless, for lack of an egg.
Robert stared at the foam, remembering the doctrine of preformation that Master Trevelyan had drilled into them: all living things had been created at the same time, long ago, and births today were merely enlargements of the previously imperceptible. Although they appeared newly created, these homounculi were countless years old; for all of human history they had lain nested within generations of their ancestors, waiting for their turn to be born.
Robert’s childhood fascination with automata persists, and he studies nomenclature at Cambridge, then works at a manufactory. There, Robert alienates Harold Willoughby, Master Sculptor, by creating a name capable of not just of powering automata, but of making them dextrous.
Robert’s ultimate goal is to bring about the cheap manufacture of automatous engines to liberate weavers from the horrific working conditions in textile mills and empower them to start their own businesses. He has therefore made his automaton capable of casting other automatons. Willoughby feels this threatens his job and calls on all the members of the sculptors’ trade union to withhold their cooperation from Robert.
Lord Fieldhurst, a respected scientist and president of the Royal Society, offers Robert the society’s help, provided that he take on a second project. Fieldhurst reveals a shocking secret: two Parisian naturalists have discovered that mankind has no more than five generations of sperm left. Within a century, humanity will go extinct.
A solution must be found, and the only one in sight involves nomenclature. For this, Fieldhurst and his friends need Robert’s help. But will Robert’s conflict with the sculptors get in the way?
This was a truly mindbending story, almost as unsettling as it was imaginative. As with “Tower of Babylon,” this fantasy world brims with detail that brings it to life, even though the “science” of the story is fantastical. Robert was neither particularly sympathetic nor particularly unsympathetic, an interesting choice that felt right for the story. I wished there had been at least one female character in a story that deals with reproduction; given the subject, the all-male cast of characters was almost alienating.
The Evolution of Human Science
This is a very short story, only a few pages long, and written in the form of an editorial from a scientific journal. The subject of the editorial is the gap between the scientific achievements of DNT(digital neural transfer)-capable “metahumans” and the regular humans’ ability to grasp these.
There are no characters in this story, and it’s not a story in the traditional sense of a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. If there is an epiphany, it is intended for readers to have. The concept behind this story is similar to one I’d encountered before in Nancy Kress’s novella (and following novel), Beggars in Spain, and for that reason it didn’t seem as fresh as the other stories in the collection.
Hell is the Absence of God
This novelette is probably categorized as fantasy, genre-wise. But to me it read more like literary fabulism or absurdist fiction. It takes place in a world in which God exists, and Hell is a plane below the ground, occasionally revealed to people on the mortal plane as if through a glass floor. Hell is also the plane that houses those are not devout descend after their death. There is a Heaven, too, widely assumed to be better although less is known about it.
The world in which the story takes place has commonalities with our own, except that there are also visitations from angels that manifest like natural disasters. Sometimes those who are present for a visitation receive unexpected gifts during such an event; other times they are injured, or even die. Other people still remain completely unaffected. The reasons for this aren’t known, although most people have their theories.
The main character is Neil Fisk, a man with a congenital abnormality of the femur which has no connection to a visitation, though people frequently assume otherwise. Neil doesn’t love God, and expects to go to Hell after his death. He’s fine with that, until his beloved and devout wife, Sarah, dies in a visitation and ascends to Heaven. Neil may not love God, but he does love Sarah, and he wants to spend eternity with her. The only way to do so is to come to love God, too.
Neil’s journey to loving God intersects with those of two others—Janice Reilly, a motivational speaker who has been without legs ever since a visitation her mother experienced while Janice was still in the womb, and who was recently gifted with legs for reasons she can’t fathom but wants to understand, and Ethan Mead, a would-be preacher in search of an important lesson to attribute to a visitation he has experienced. The three characters all attend the self-help group meetings for visitation survivors held in church basements, but none of them find satisfying answers to the dilemmas facing them.
Hell is the Absence of God is, more than anything, an exploration of man’s need to come up with explanations for the inexplicable. As such I found it startling, yet while the world depicted in the story is surreal, the characters’ responses to it are familiar and utterly convincing.
The novelette also explores people’s differing reactions to disability, in a way I found interesting, although I cringed a few times at the use of the word “handicapped.” I cut the story a little slack for having been published in 2001, but it was still discomfiting in a story that otherwise made some good points on this topic. The story’s ending was nothing I expected, though in truth, it was hard to predict what would happen in this world—and I appreciated that.
Liking What You See: A Documentary
This story explores a future world in which scientific progress in the field of neurology has made it possible to induce calliagnosia, a condition which makes it possible to look at beautiful people and remain unmoved by their beauty. Centering on a college campus’s debate on whether to require all students to have calliagnosia for the duration of their education at the university, the story is written in the form of a documentary screenplay.
We meet a number of students, two or three professors, a neurologist and industry advocates as well as activists, but if there’s a central figure it is Tamera Lyons. Tamera is a newly arrived freshman who had calliagnosia for most of her childhood, having previously been enrolled by her parents at a private school, Saybrook, where all the students had it, before coming to Pembleton University, where a similar policy is now being debated.
Tamera is vehemently opposed to “calli.” Others profiled in the documentary also offer their thoughts on the procedure’s merits, and the debate delves into lookism, or discrimination against the plain. Ethics, choice, and the joys of appreciating beauty are also among the issues being debated and explored in this novelette.
The story is thought-provoking if not, perhaps, as surprising as some of the others in the anthology, and the characters are all believable. There’s a plot twist near the end of the novelette that sheds new light on the discussion, before Tamera’s final interview closes the documentary on a satisfying note.
Stories of Your Life and Others is the work a prodigious imagination. All the stories in it are not only inventive, but written with precision and detail. Some are unsettling or discomfiting, while others are poignant, though never in a way that feels manipulative or heart-tugging.
Generally speaking, the characters don’t seem to be written with an eye toward engendering reader sympathy, but most are not deliberately off-putting either. Instead, they feel like real people who do their best to grapple with the extraordinary when they come face to face with it. Though firmly rooted in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, the collection reminded me of works of literary fiction as well. While there are no romantic elements, at least not in the HEA sense, I am glad I read the anthology and I recommend it to readers of FSF. B+/A-.
Thanks for the review Janine.
I bought this book many years ago and still haven’t read it. I bought it for my brother, who asked for it for Christmas – when I got to his place in CA, I saw a lovely new hardback version sitting on the table. I was annoyed. (I also had to scramble for a present – I gave him one of the paperbacks I’d brought to read – Trader by Charles de Lint, grrr).
So I took it back to Chicago and I read one story, Understand – I found it disturbing but very well written and it’s stayed with me. I had trouble getting into The Tower of Babylon and I set it aside. This was several years ago. And now I can’t find it – after Arrival came out, I thought I’d pick it up again. But I’m pretty sure it didn’t survive the great living room clean-up / book purge of 2016.
Based on your review, I think I probably put it down because I like characters to be more relatable – especially these last few years when I’ve been craving books that take me for an emotional ride rather than just make me think. (Oops. That makes me sound anti-intellectual and I’m not, but I do prefer art that I can relate to both emotionally and intellectually and lately I’ve been needing the emotional more).
Thanks, Cleo. For what it’s worth, I think the narrator of Understand was the least relatable character in the anthology, especially once he had altered himself the way he did. Some of the others are actually pretty relatable or at least were to me. As for an emotional ride, there are emotional aspects to some of the stories, but the emotions are generally less positive than those one feels reading romance, emotions like dismay, fear, awe, uneasiness, or grief. The stories definitely make one think, too. I don’t know if this anthology would appeal to most romance readers, and even in my case, I would say my grade is based on appreciation rather than pure enjoyment. I recommend the book to readers of fantasy and science fiction, and readers of speculative literary fiction.