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review 2018-04-11 00:40
Review: Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang
Stories of Your Life and Others - Ted Chiang
Each story in this book broke my heart in its own specific way, and for that reason alone I will love Ted Chiang forever. The fact that these stories are also all technical masterpieces and paragons of the genre is really just icing. I can be dazzled by masterly writing, but it's poignance that will earn a slot on my "favorites" shelf.
 
I like to think that I read science fiction because it expands my mind. Exposes me to cutting-edge theories and unconventional ideas. Shows me the universe and all its possibilities in fascinating new lights. But while all of that is true, it isn't enough. I read science fiction because it shows me what it means to be human: by deforming and transforming the worlds and bodies and ideologies we inhabit today.
 
Ted Chiang is better than any other writer I’ve read at plumbing these dual possibilities of the genre, especially in the short-story format. In amazingly few pages, he crams more character development, intricate plotting, and whiz-bang Big Ideas than most authors manage to fit into an entire novel. And yet his stories never feel oversaturated. He has an incredible talent for making his point with devastating precision; every detail he reveals is illuminating and necessary. And so human.
 
 
Take Division by Zero, which is about a math professor, Renee, whose life loses all meaning when she stumbles upon a proof that nullifies essentially all of mathematical theory. As she sinks into a deep and deadly depression, her husband Carl discovers the foundations of his reality crumbling too. The story itself takes on the form of the ominous proof Renee writes, showing that one number is equivalent to all other numbers. Renee's and Carl's experiences are equivalent too, although their respective disillusionments can only break them further and further apart from each other.
”It’s a feeling I can’t convey to you. It was something that I believed deeply, implicitly, and it’s not true, and I’m the one who demonstrated it.”
It's a story for everyone who has ever lost faith in something they had once built their world upon, whether that be a religion, a career path, a self-concept, or a relationship.
 
Just eighteen pages long, and it devastated me.
 
 
Or take Story of Your Life, the title track of this book and the inspiration for the movie Arrival. Its involuted structure makes it difficult to summarize: past and future tucked up together, bleeding into each other, leaving all kinds of disoriented verb tenses in their wake. Learning an alien language, it turns out, can do that to your worldview. But it essentially asks the question: If you remembered your own inescapable future, with all of its heartbreak and all of its beauty, would there still be purpose in living it?
"Eventually, many years from now, I’ll be without your father, and without you… So I pay close attention, and note every detail.”
I read this one twice, and both times it left me a sore and sputtering wreck, broken up on the shoals of my terror of the future. But it is beautiful, and true, and it's the story I needed to read at this point in my life.
 
 
Or take Hell is the Absence of God, whose premise is that the Bible is literally, tangibly, and horrifyingly true. Angelic visitations are common "natural disasters", and tend to leave people dead, damaged, and/or devout. After Neil Fisk's wife is killed during an appearance of the angel Nathanael, Neil realizes that despite his rage and pain he must find a way to love God. Witnesses had seen Sarah's soul ascend to Heaven, so he knows that truly loving God is the only chance he has of getting to see her again.
"Sarah had been the greatest blessing of his life, and God had taken her away. Now he was expected to love Him for it? For Neil, it was like having a kidnapper demand love as ransom for his wife's return. Obedience he might have managed, but sincere, heartfelt love? That was a ransom he couldn't pay."
The premise of this one is sure to be questionable or offensive to many readers, but again, it was the kind of story I needed to read right now. And, like so many others in this book, it takes a basic idea (what would the world be like if Babylonian cosmology/18th-Century preformationism/Old-Testament theology were scientific fact?) and considers it in detailed depth and breadth, while still telling a compassionate, profound story at its core.
 
 
Or take Seventy-Two Letters, which isn't as emotional as the three I've just mentioned, but still left me completely gobsmacked by the end of it. This one is pure science fiction at its finest, weird and wonderful and unforgettable. It takes place in a world where the 18th-Century idea that sperm cells contain a tiny homunculus, while a mother's womb provides the "spark of life" necessary for human development, is scientifically accurate. As well, the mythical golems of Jewish folklore actually exist, and most automated tasks are completed using automatons programmed with 72-letter Hebrew phrases. When scientists discover that human spermatozoa contain only a few more generations of human life, they must rush to find a new way of propagating the species.
 
This story is completely bizarre, and I was riveted. I had never read anything quite like it, couldn't predict any of the directions it took, and each new idea it presented hit me like a revelation. It's just beautifully done.
 
 
This review is getting long, so I won't keep singling out each story. But they are all incredible. I have never agreed more with a back-cover blurb than Cory Doctorow's "Each of those stories is a goddamned jewel."
 
Yes. Multifaceted and shining. I can't stop thinking about them.

 

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review 2018-01-31 17:34
Ted Chiang - Stories of Your Life and Others
Stories of Your Life and Others - Ted Chiang

 

Quite disappointing.

 

While technically well written and exhibiting a certain elegance in structure, Chiang's stories suffer from a lack of passion. With the sole exception of Understand, which serves at least a bit of juicy pulp towards the end, Chiang's offering are as dry as a decade old elephant's bone found in the Kalahari. Why should I care about a story, about characters, about relationships, if the author apparently doesn't give a fuck?

 

The other obstacle was the frequent blend of science and religious concepts. That's something I simply don't want to read. (Exceptions always proof the rule.)

 

Chiang might be what all the geek kids are raving about. I didn't find anything thought-proving or poignant or deep in his stories. For the most part I was just mildly bored. Oh well, I'll just go back into my New Wave corner – ludicrous science, but with passion! (and sex, and drugs, and acid jazz)

 

Ratings for the individual stories:

 

The Tower of Babylon: ***

Well executed, but not very exciting. Nor very original.

Understand: ****

By far my most favourite story in this collection. Reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon, but with a different ending and much more pulpy. I especially liked the confrontation in the end.

Division by Zero: **

Too much math. The relationship is underdeveloped. Did Chiang have one single human emotion in his whole life? Because he sure doesn't know how to write about them.

Story of Your Life: ***

Blasphemy! Blasphemy! I liked the film better. The linguistics are more sound here, but this story suffers the most from Chiang's inability to present believable emotions.

Seventy-Two Letters: **

The weakest offering in the collection. Interesting premise, but too long, too wordy, and boring.

The Evolution of Human Science: ?

A blink and you'll miss it-piece on what human scientist will do when science as surpassed human understanding, too short to rate meaningfully. I have read better examples of exploring this particular problem.

Hell is the Absence of God: ****

[at first] I read about three pages before I decided to skip this, for reasons mentioned above: Please keep faith and gods out of my science fiction (except they're Greek gods and have a lot of queer sex. Then you can keep them.)

A few weeks later I got stuck in waiting-room limbo, read the story out of boredom - and yeah, I'm eating crow. It's one of the strongest offerings in this collection, unflinchingly following its premise.

Liking What You See: A Documentary: ***

Very timely, and it will probably stay timely for quite some, erm, time. But ultimately too simplistic and too superficial (kinda ironic, really); that's starts with reducing beauty to commercial beauty, ignoring the difference between beauty and sexual attractiveness (or desirability), and ends with mostly ignoring biological arguments for the sake of social justice. Oh well... The presentation of arguments made me suspect that Chiang's in favour of calligniosa, which – spoilers! - he admits to in his afterword. A bit more balance would have been nice.

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review 2018-01-14 15:56
Good
The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

Le Carre’s book is more a collection of essays that may or may not be true (at least according to his disclaimer).  The essays range from the very personal (about his father) to the funny (about a credit card) to the historic (about Philby).  There are stories about the development of his novels for movies – including stories about Burton and Guinness.  There is a funny bit about Robert Redford.

 

                But Le Carre’s boo isn’t just name dropping, or to be more exact, it’s not about name dropping at all.  In part, Le Carre talks about his thinking, about how he sees things, flaws and all.  And while he doesn’t have the easy-going style of Neil Simon’s memoirs, there is a charm and breeziness to the essays. 

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review 2017-12-12 12:55
Casting your brain into big questions
Stories of Your Life and Others - Ted Chiang

I went in all big eyes and heavy heart and cheating, starting with the story I was curious about after watching the movie. It was sadder in it's determinism, but it was all that (and it had emotion, lordy, did it have emotion).

 

About half way through this book (and with my brain much hurting, I get so immersed into these Big Question explorations), LeGuin's introduction for The Left Hand of Darkness (I was very much taken by them, book and intro) kept popping into my thoughts. The part where she says taking a concept to it's maximum expression is like concentrating any chemical element: it causes cancer.

 

The stories vary in nature and theme, they are interesting, and unique. And in a sense, bleak. Lacking in hope, some in sentiment, some in... something. I can't quite put my finger on it, but while amazing, thought-provoking explorations that filled me with wonder or questions, each tale left me with this vague sense of depression. Which had little to do with whether they had happy ending or not (most are a dagger), since Le Guin does that, you blubber like a fool, and still makes you love it and leave bittersweet hopeful. So, not the presence of pain. Maybe more like a general lack of joy to balance them (for the most part).

 

Anyway, it is a really good book to think about or discuss, and it delves into some interesting territories (I'm itching for some looong research and reading on some things that went over my head). Different and exhausting. Will read more of the author.

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text 2017-11-26 22:16
Reading progress update: I've read 35%.
Stories of Your Life and Others - Ted Chiang

I'm reading out of order, so I'm starting on "Understand". Two things strike me starting off the bat: I would NEVER admit to memorizing those 14 digits so fast and well as to recall them backwards (I realize that I might be a paranoid "too-genre-savvy" book-worm, but still); and (given that phone-call) this guy is about to find out what a social curse true high intellect is.

 

Aaaannnd right after the guy asks for it. Goodness! This guy has never read or watched any sci-fi, or wish-fulfillment stories.

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