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.