Stories of Your Life and Others

Ted Chiang

Book cover

Awesome, awesome stuff. I am always on the lookout for good modern sci-fi, and this is absolutely it. Like many people, I picked up this book after watching the film “Arrival,” which is pretty closely based on the titular story “Story of Your Life”. (I loved the movie but it did add just a couple of obligatory Hollywood things that the story doesn’t need.) That story was definitely good, although I’m sure I lost out on much of the reading experience by having already seen the film and being aware of the basic structure from the beginning. However, there are several other extremely strong stories in the collection, and zero that fell flat for me.

My favorite other stories in this collection were:
-“Seventy-Two Letters,” set in an alternate timeline at the dawn of the industrial revolution, except that science in this world is based on the principle that drives the Golem; i.e. writing specific combinations of Hebrew letters breathes life into things to make them working automatons.
-“Babylon,” which is a reimagining of the story of the construction of the Tower of Babel with fantastical elements.
-“Hell Is The Absence Of God,” set in an alternate modern world where Hell and Heaven are essentially known, verifiable facts of the world, and “visitations” by angels are frequent occurrences that can cause both miraculous healing and destruction.
-“Liking What You See: A Documentary” was my absolute favorite of the collection. It is also set in an alternate modern world where neuroscientists have discovered how to induce a condition called “calliagnosia” (or “calli”), in which a person’s brain does not register whether a given human face is attractive/beautiful or not. The story is set up as a series of interviews from a documentary in which various people, mostly centering around a college, express their views on the desirability or otherwise of having the calli procedure done. It’s an extremely interesting philosophical question, and Chiang does a wonderful job of bringing the issue to life with a series of very believable characters and scenarios that they talk about. The story also ties into issues of corporate power and the morality of advertising in a very powerful and nuanced way.

For me, this book was right up there with Le Guin and Jemisin in terms of great sci fi that starts with a basic twist on the world but follows it through to its impact on individual human lives. One of my favorite parts of the book was the “Story Notes” at the end, where Chiang gives a paragraph or so of commentary on each story, relating to where he got the idea from and why he felt compelled to write about it. It was super interesting to me to get a little window onto his creative process, and I honestly could have read about ten times as much of it!

I was surprised to learn that all these stories were published by 2003, with several dating from the early 90s. Chiang has published a few more stories since then, and I am planning on seeking them out!

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars