Tor, 2002, 333 pages, C$21.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-30419-8
It’s a fact of today’s Science Fiction publishing environment that successful writers, almost by definition, write novels. Short stories may be where authors begin, but they’re not where authors make money. For every short-story specialist like Harlan Ellison, there are ten Robert Silverbergs who put food on the table thanks to novels. At best, you get people like Greg Egan, whose excellent short-story output complemented a steady stream of novels.
In this context, Ted Chiang is a bit of an oddity. In a career now spanning fifteen years (The earliest story in the volume was published in 1990), Chiang has found a place as an important writer of short stories. His first three published pieces alone netted him a total of two Nebula Awards and one Hugo nomination! At a time where short story anthologies by trade publishers are rare, his debut book was an anthology of eight pieces put out by no less a publishing house than Tor. With Stories of Your Life and others, Chiang reaches those SF readers (including your humble scribe) who would rather pick up a book than a series of magazines.
It’s one heck of an introduction. While claiming that “there’s not a bad story in the bunch” would over-estimate the impact of a few average pieces, there’s a lot to like in Stories of Your Life and Others. It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s more to like here than in several “best of” annual anthologies out there. Chiang makes up in quality what most others can’t do in quantity.
For instance, the very first piece in the book (his first published story), is a treatment of the “Tower of Babylon” myth in as realistic a fashion as would be possible. How could you build a tower to the sky? What if the sky was, could be breached? What would be mechanics of such a thing? Chiang treats the subject with a superbly entertaining mix of details and suppositions. Even guessing the end pages before it happens isn’t enough to sour the story’s considerable reading pleasure.
The second story of the volume, “Understand,” is a look at the possibilities offered by unlimited intelligence. Unlike the classic Flowers for Algernon, Chiang has little patience for sentiment, and more than a passing interest in showing us how unbelievably cool such intelligence could be. Mix in a few fascinating philosophical question and a bewildering accumulation of details and the result is almost too good for words. (Though it proved good enough for a Hugo nomination) More than that however, is the sentiment of having read an exhaustive story: if someone wants to write another story about heightened intelligence (or another story about the tower of Babylon, for that matter), they will have to write in reaction to Chiang’s work.
I didn’t find the rest of the book as fabulously interesting as its first two stories, but there are still plenty of great pieces later on. “The Evolution of Human Science” is a perfectly-paced text about post-singularity science. “Story of Your Life” made more sense to me the second time I read it, which is a strangely appropriate thing to say if you know about the story’s non-linear sense of time.
Even the fantasy stories contain a treasure trove of originality. I wasn’t so fond of “Seventy-Two Letters” in general, but the magical system explored in great detail throughout the novella is enough to make your mind go out for a spin. The Hugo-winning “Hell is the Absence of God” takes fundamentalist Christian mythology and runs away with it to literal extremes. What if the appearance of angels took on a terrifying arbitrary quality? Not bad at all, especially when it gets down to the fine distinction between religion and faith.
Even Chiang’s lesser stories still have a kick to them. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” runs about twice too long on an empty middle section, but the basic concept (what if there was a neural tweak to make you insensitive to beauty or lack thereof?) is well-explored. I may not care too much for the deliberately challenging end of “Division by Zero”, but the otherwise clean writing and the awe-inspiring premise makes it a joy to read.
I may have been sceptical about this collection’s hyperbolic reputation, but the end result is a very good anthology, well-worth reading for any fan of the genre. It remains to be seen whether Chiang will continue to release stories at the quiet rhythm of his first decade of work, or if he’ll go ahead and commit to a novel, but whatever he decides to do, I’ll be standing in line to buy his next book.