Updated on April 5, 2017
14. ‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ by Ted Chiang
When I read a short story collection, I take notes about every story, and if I really like a story I’ll put a ★ next to it. Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others is the first collection where I’ve put a star next to nearly every story. Only two out of eight stories went unstarred, and they weren’t bad by any means, they just couldn’t stand up to the brilliance of the others.
Of course my main draw to this collection was ‘Story of Your Life’, the short story upon which the film Arrival is based. I really really love that film (I watched it again just a few days ago and it’s so good I could cry), and so I was intrigued to take a look at the source material. Well, it too is excellent, but in slightly different ways. In ‘Story of Your Life’ you don’t get the big egg-shaped spaceships, or the more ‘Hollywood’ elements of the plot: the daughter dies for a different reason (not a spoiler, it happens in the first few minutes of the film), and the aliens never give a reason for coming to Earth. Instead there is more insight into Louise’s mind; we feel more intimately what it is like to have the power that the aliens’ language conveys, and there is a greater exploration of the idea of determination vs. free will.
Ted Chiang’s stories are all highly intelligent and thought-provoking. They often deal with religious or scientific themes (or both), and many start from those ‘what if’ ideas of which I’m such a fan. What if we couldn’t see beauty? What if we built the Tower of Babylon? What if angels were real? Chiang takes these – on the face of it – simple ideas and expands them into great depth and detail. We discover a technology that can interfere with neural pathways to turn off perceptions of beauty; we see and feel and live in the Tower of Babylon; we understand the glory and trauma of seeing a real-life angel. Chiang isn’t afraid to confront difficult truths or even quite complex mathematical principles, but his writing is always accessible and magnetic enough to keep you reading. He really has incredible skill.
An added bonus that this collection has is a series of notes at the end, in which Chiang briefly explains what inspired each story. I find it fascinating to have that kind of insight into how stories are made, especially when Chiang explains how he wanted to write about something for a while, but couldn’t start a story about it until a certain idea or setting or character fell into place.
As for my favourite stories, of course there is ‘Story of Your Life’ – especially for its explanation of variational principles and light refraction in water (honestly, it’s a bit mind-blowing). I also have to mention ‘Tower of Babylon’, which is set in an alternative physical universe where humans were actually able to build a tower up to the Vault of Heaven, and ‘Division by Zero’, which is about a mathematician who logically proves that mathematics is an illusion. For me, those three are the really stand-out stories.
I can’t recommend Stories of Your Life and Others enough. If you like complex, philosophical, sometimes religious science fiction, then Ted Chiang has to be one of the best.
“The familiar was far away, while the bizarre was close at hand.” – ‘Story of Your Life’
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read it? You can buy Stories of Your Life and Others here.