Like many people (I assume), I had never heard of author Ted Chiang before seeing the remarkable film Arrival, based off of his story “Story of Your Life”. But given my deep love of that film – and the heady, complex concepts it covers – I was intrigued to see what kind of story could have inspired such a complex piece of work. That only deepened as I heard more about Chiang – his astonishing reputation, the comments that the film was much more like the story than you might expect, etc.
Chiang isn’t exactly a prolific author; he mainly writes novellas and short stories, and it’s notable that this collection represents a large percentage of what he’s written, period. And yet, almost every one of these stories was released to astonishing acclaim, awards, and praise; what Chiang may lack in quantity, he more than makes up for in quality, given than this collection features some of the most fascinating, astonishing, thoughtful pieces of science fiction writing I have ever read, period.
Much like you might expect from Arrival, Chiang takes on complex, heady ideas, and runs with them in imaginative ways that push them to their utmost. The opening story, “Tower of Babylon,” is essentially a retelling of the Tower of Babel story…at first. But in Chiang’s rendition, the tower has reached Heaven. Entire communities exist at various points on the tower, adjusted to life at that point. Plants grow downward, in an effort to reach down to the sun, which the tower has surpassed. Stars crash into apartments. Bricks fall from the tower and are more heartbreaking to lose than people, simply because of the time to replace. And if all that’s not enough, there’s what’s waiting for them at the top, which is both astonishing and inevitable, adding even more complexity to Chiang’s rich world.
Or take “Seventy-Two Words,” in which Chiang imagines an alternate history in which the idea of the golem – an inanimate object brought to life by a sheet of paper with its name – becomes a field of study and a way of life. The nature of names becomes its own science, as automatons are shaped and reformed throughout generations. And what’s more, by understanding how these automatons work, we come to understand how human beings work, on a biological and spiritual level, in ways that we never imagined. Perhaps you’re more intrigued by “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” an oral history of a movement to shut off the parts of our brain that perceive physical beauty, and the social ramifications that follow. And if those aren’t enough, there’s the incredible “Hell is the Absence of God,” set in a world where divine appearances happen often, divine powers are applied inscrutably, and one man struggles with whether or not to believe in a God he perceives as cruel and heartless.
Chiang is a truly astonishing author, one whose ideas and worlds are so rich that they could sustain whole series of novels, not just short novellas. Even his shortest work, a faux scientific journal article that’s only a couple of pages long, gives hints about an entire alternative history of the world that he’s created in just a few pages. And yet, he never loses the chance to invest us in his characters and their worlds, filling his pages with moral questions, minor details, emotional beats, and more. That, of course, is much of what makes “Story of Your Life” so rich, as anyone who’s seen Arrival knows; that story marries rich, complex, thought-provoking ideas with an emotionally resonant, devastating hook that makes the story all the more powerful.
Chiang is that rarest of things: an incredible author who, like George Saunders, seems happiest working in short bursts, and yet one who constantly leaves you wanting more. The stories in this collection are, no exaggeration, some of the finest, richest storytelling I’ve read, leaving me thinking about their images, ideas, worlds, and characters long after I shut the book. It saddens me that there’s not much else out there of his to discover, but I’m excited to go see what I can find, and then join those who wait for his every new release.