Book Review: Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life

Stories of Your Life and Others (Ted Chiang, 2010) – The collection includes eight of Ted Chiang’s original published stories of remarkable wit and consistency.

Verdict

Meditating on the irresolvable meaning of humanity, Stories of Your Life and Others is an essential for keen readers of sci-fi, theology and philosophy.

5/5

Review

What if language has the power to change our perception? The story behind the acclaimed film Arrival owes its cerebral genre narrative to Ted Chiang’s source material. Story of Your Life tells of one woman’s account of her newfound perspective and resultant personal choices, positing how linguistics can shape civilisation.

The story is interestingly in itself, an experiment in language. Tenses shift between past, present, and future to untangle a complex yarn. Physics come into play with Fermat’s Principle of Least Time. But while rooted in vernacular and scientific technicalities, the speculative work is primarily philosophical, questioning the dichotomy of freewill and fate.

Equally thought-provoking themes can be found in the rest of the collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. Each of the eight short stories proves remarkable in their sophistication, accessibility, and rare originality.

Deservingly, author Ted Chiang has a shelf crammed full of prestigious accolades, including four Nebula awards, four Hugo awards, and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Exploring the uncommon ‘What Ifs’ of science and philosophy, the inventive writer seeks out little-asked questions in an often rule-abiding genre.

The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.

– Story of Your Life

His works blend hard science seamlessly into humanistic narratives, at times with a touch of fantasy. For instance, in Seventy-Two Letters, nomenclature is the life force behind artificially-made golems. Their Creation not only delves into the significance of language towards culture. It brings theology into the discussion, alongside science.

Theological debates gain more prominence in Tower of Babylon and Hell is the Absence of God. They question the purpose and implications of religion, in Man’s ceaseless quest to make sense of human suffering. Divinity, taken as reality, provokes thought into the reasoning, as well as potential ramifications of religious doctrines.

Would the children born under a solid sky scream if they saw the ground beneath their feet? Perhaps men were not meant to live in such a place. If their own natures restrained them from approaching heaven too closely, then men should remain on the earth.

– Tower of Babylon

Other stories are grounded in prominent moral concerns of the contemporary world. In Understand, a brain damaged patient Leon opens the door to enhanced intelligence and finds more than he bargains for. Thematically echoing Flowers of Algernon, the short examines if the desire to exceed human limits is worth the cost of empathy.

The society’s obsession with physical beauty inspires Liking What You See: A Documentary, where calliagnosia is introduced as a voluntary procedure that renders appearances meaningless. Structured like a real-time experiment in progress, college students are interviewed on their daily experiences with and without freewill in judgement, considering the intriguing implications.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects, the most prolific of Ted Chiang’s novellas, is perhaps his most riveting. In this, Ana raises a digital pet as she would a human child, building its consciousness from ground zero and forming a strong emotional bond over decades. The premise tackles missing pieces of fiction based on artificial intelligence, whose beginnings and growth are often neglected in fiction.

This unique perspective unveils Ted Chiang’s fascination with the harder questions, never shying away from the challenges of the unexplored. Often groundbreaking, his big ideas unfold with elegance and evoke strong emotions, leaving much about life to ponder upon.

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