Stories of Your Life


Ted Chiang


Fantasy / Science Fiction


Date Reviewed:

July 30, 2004

tories of Your Life is a collection of short stories. Some are masterpieces, some are merely excellent. I couldn't decide if I should give this book a four or five star rating. Let me rate the stories individually:

Tower of Babylon This is a pretty neat idea. The story takes place in a world where the ancient view of the universe is correct - the sun and the moon orbit around the earth, and the stars circle further out beyond that. The roof the world is the vault of heaven. The citizens of Babylon have constructed a tower to reach the vault of heaven, and they plan to break through to visit God himself. This is the story of one of the miners who has been hired to delve into the vault of heaven. As he climbs to the top of the tower, Chiang gives us a description of the Babylonian universe. This story has a neat symmetry to it.

Understand The story of a supergenius, a man who receives a medical treatment to restore his damage neurons, only to find the cure has enhanced his mental capacity. So he gets a second dose. And then a third... I think it is impressive when an author can write about super smart people, and make them seem plausible. (Card succeeded in this with Ender Wiggins in Enders's Game and Speaker for the Dead, but failed with his Shadow of the Hegemon series.). What would YOU do if you suddenly found yourself much much smarter than everyone else. Well, not everyone - there could be another super smart individual out there...

Division by Zero A mathematician discovers a proof that math is an arbitrary construction used by humans, that it is not intrinsically true that 1 + 1 = 2. This leads to depression by the mathematician. Chiang does a nice job conveying the idea of how math might be arbitrary, but as a story, this is not so good. Great idea, weak plot.

Story of Your Life Can I give a story six stars, or is that cheating? I think I have read this story 3 times now, each time in a different Best of SF book. Did this win any awards? All the awards? It must have. Suppose humans perceived time all at once, rather than as a sequence of events stretching unknown into the future. If human perception of the universe was different, we would know everything that happens to us in our lives from the moment we are born until death. Free will is illusion. This is a difficult concept, but Chiang succeeds not only in clearly conveying the complex concept (oops, my alliteration filter must be off) but he even makes it seem like a plausible way to observe the universe. An inventive idea, a nice story. High praise indeed. One of the best short stories I have ever read.

Seventy-Two Letters This is sort of like the Tower of Babylon story, in which Chiang takes an ancient, but currently-believed-to-be-wrong, belief, and creates a universe in which that belief is the way things actually work. Chiang has taken the idea that inside each sperm is the completely defined human that will be born if that sperm cell is allowed to fertilize an egg. ie: the human ova is just a blank media, waiting to be imprinted by the completely defined human in the sperm. Chiang combines this idea with the concept that if you can "truly" name something, you can control that something. I think this is a Jewish belief, the 72 letters in the title refer to a way to perfectly name, and thus animate, clay figures, like the golem of Jewish legend. Sort of a neat idea, but not compelling story.

The Evolution of Human Science Unrated. This is just a little four page "surprise" story, not a real story at all. The surprise isn't all that amazing either

Hell is the Absence of God Chiang sure has some neat ideas. In this story, he imagines a society much like ours, except that manifestations of angels is a some-what common phenomena. No one has any trouble believing in God, but it is not enough to believe in God to get into heaven, but one must love God. That's is not so easy to do, even if you know he exists. Chiang throws out a bunch of ideas here, but does not do much for plot. This could be developed into a novel, but I suppose a lot of the ideas in this book could be easily expanded into full length novels. Chiang certainly is inventive!

Liking What You See: A Documentary Chiang asks the question: "What would society be like if we could not perceive beauty (or ugliness) in the faces of the humans around us?" People would be treated for who they are, not how they look. This is described as a documentary, because it certainly fails as a story. It gives the impression that Chiang had a great idea (about the role of the perception of beauty in society) but no plot, and thus wrote down these paragraphs to define the idea because he couldn't come up with a story. I guess the topic is interesting, but this fails as a story, and I think it is the weakest material in an other wise impressive book.