Ted Chiang is one of those science fiction writers whose work I’ve felt I should know more about, but not until reading and loving The Lifecycle of Software Objects did I finally add his first collection to my to-read stack. Stories of Your Life and Others (2002) is very good indeed, and while some of its tales failed to connect with me, ultimately I came away deeply impressed.
Chiang is the master of the idea story, every piece a rigorously examined thought experiment. I found that my appreciation for each story varied depending on my interest in the thought experiment. “Seventy-Two Letters,” for example, felt too clinical and distancing in the fleshing out of its premise; it never quite sold me on its world, and I found it a tough slog. On the other hand “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” which I thought lacked a strongly discernable plot, zipped along engrossingly nonetheless, a fascinating examination of what it would be like if the technology existed to “deactivate” the human ability to perceive beauty. Neither story worked for me as a story, really, but they’re both probing idea investigations; the former didn’t work for me, the latter most certainly did.
Part of what I liked most about The Lifecycle of Software Objects was that it so successfully married its ideas to its people — connected the intellectual to the emotional. Other stories in this collection succeed in executing this balance, to varying degrees. “Story of Your Life” is perhaps the single most successful story on that score, and perhaps the most satisfying overall; it’s a brilliantly unfolding novella about a linguist whose investigation of an alien language gives her a fascinating new view of reality. The language study in itself is intriguing enough, but what makes the story work is how powerfully the ideas are connected to the human story. I had a similar, if somewhat less pronounced, reaction to “Division by Zero,” in which a brilliant mathematician’s work profoundly alters her relationship with her husband. And “Hell is the Absence of God” is an inventive and fascinating theological study, depicting a world in which “acts of God” are literal manifestations of God’s existence. Like most of the stories in the book, this one sets out with the mission to examine its rich premise from every conceivable angle, and while at times this approach can be off-putting — short fiction via scientific method, almost — in this case idea connects with character strongly enough to succeed emotionally.
At the end of the collection, then, I have to concur: if you’re a science fiction writer, you should know Ted Chiang’s work, for the sheer scope of his ideas and his unmatched capacity for asking the next question in the examination of premise. Occasionally the prose can be stilted, and at times the material is a smidge beyond my comfortable comprehension, but overall it’s smart, thoughtful, and satisfying science fiction.