on 2 March 2005
This has to be one of the best SF short story collections I've read in a long while. The concepts and McGuffins that drive the plots- from the disproving of arithmetic to an industrial revolution based around golems to a society that can prevent the perception of beauty- are novel and intricately thought out. Moreover, they provide a motor for human drama that stops them simply becoming cold philosophizing and makes them genuinely moving. Ted Chiang feels completely in control of his story-telling, relying on ingenuity and subtle writing, rather than bombastic fireworks, to incite wonder. Read it if at all possible!
on 6 December 2012
This might just be the best single-author SF collection I've ever read. Chiang isn't a typical SF author in at least two ways - he won the Nebula award for his first published story, and in over twenty years he's published fewer than twenty stories, in marked contrast to the genre's usual manic overproduction - but what a shame there aren't more like him. There are eight stories in this collection, namely:
Tower of Babylon
Division by Zero
Story of Your Life
The Evolution of Human Science
Hell is the Absence of God
Liking What You See: A Documentary
They're all completely different from each other, seven of them are masterpieces by any reasonable standard and the other ("The Evolution of Human Science"), a short-short, is damned good as short-shorts go. Despite their difference from each other, Chiang's stories are all characterised by lucid prose, deep humanity and amazing inventiveness. Way back in the seventies, Ed Ferman and Barry Malzberg produced an anthology, "Final Stage", which attempted to be the "ultimate" SF anthology, by asking authors associated with particular SF themes to produce the definitive story in that category. The results then were patchy at best, but damned if Chiang hasn't pretty much done the job single-handedly.
In other words:
"Tower of Babylon", though you may not spot it at first, is an absolutely classic space exploration narrative, albeit one where the cosmology is utterly different from our own universe. "Understand" is a gripping riff on superhuman powers, so smartly done it takes a while to notice it's kinda Prof X versus Magneto writ large. "Division by Zero" is a New Wave story, in which scientific theory is a metaphor for a very human problem (a distant relative of Pamela Zoline's "The Heat Death of the Universe", for those with long memories). "Story of Your Life" combines the first contact, alien language and conceptual breakthrough motifs to shattering, somewhwat Tiptree-esque, effect. "Seventy-Two Letters" mashes up Steampunk with the "what if magic was a logical, rigorous science" idea. "Liking What You See: A Documentary" is clever social satire notable for its compassion to people on both sides of the argument. As for "Hell is the Absence of God", it's absolutely sui generis - is it SF, slipstream, fantasy, fabulation, magical realism, New Weird or what? It doesn't matter. It's a brilliant, totally original idea and a profoundly moving story.
But then they're all moving. What differentiates Chiang from almost all the other SF writers out there is not just how wild yet well-worked his ideas are (which is plenty), but also how well he integrates them into human dilemmas involving characters you genuinely feel for. There's no-one like him, and he's displaced Howard Waldrop - who's been in place for over twenty years - as my choice for a Desert Island single-author collection.
PS Please note there's a very minor, slightly annoying formatting issue with the Kindle edition (it randomly prompts you to click to footnotes).
on 24 October 2013
I first came across Ted Chiang when I read one of his stories 'The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate' which was included in the great collection 'The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction - Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology'. (It seems it is expensive to buy this story on its own so if you want to read it you might be better getting it as part of the anthology Very Best Fantasy Science Fiction I thought it was a great story and I loved the writing style. It reminded me somewhat of Jorge Luis Borges who is my favourite short story writer. I eagerly looked up more of Ted Chiang's work and bought 'Stories of Your Life: And Others' as it has everything except the latest story 'The Lifecycle of Software Objects' and the aforementioned ''The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate'. Each story is brilliant and mind-expanding, they mainly have a hook of an alternate model of the universe or an interesting perspective on the world and are mathematical and science based often with a religious or psychological theme. Chiang seems to have total and precise control of language, it has that crystalline quality and you sense these stories are the tip of the iceberg and that the vast mechanics of the planning and the rest of the self contained universes in the stories is below the surface. The ideas contained in the stories make you ponder the world in a new way. For me this is what a good story should do as well as have a cathartic effect. I highly recommend this collection as essential for all short story and science fiction and fantasy fans and indeed for all fans of good writing. If you can get the other two stories not included here I recommend them also although this is the best starting place. Highly recommended.
on 27 June 2013
Short stories in SciFi more than any other genre are seminal, a lot of the scifi films out there are drawn and inspired by scifi short stories, rather then novels. Good scifi presents a new concept and an idea to the world and in a way it expands our consciousness and in some cases our aspirations as a species.
A good SciFi story acts as a simulation for these concepts and ideas and then when you lay the book down you ponder them and they linger with you. SciFi short stories gives you a blast of a new concept, it makes you say wow, it feeds your imagination and gives you hope or despair for humanity. They are like those all night conversations we had as teenagers when all was possible.
But unfortunately the SciFi short story genre was dead for a long time There were some out there but none seems to rise to the mark of the stories from the scifi greats from the 50s and 60s. There are good scifi writers out there, but none seems to have a high regard for short stories. Perhaps the change in the publishing and magazine industry was to blame, I don't know.
BUT HELLO the short scifi short story genre is back, and this book shoots past the high mark. My only problem with this book was it ended too soon. I simply couldn't put it down, some of the stories are enthralling and linger with you way after you have finished them. I can't recommend this book enough and I hope Ted Chiang has more to offer.
on 23 August 2013
Ted Chiang's short stories can probably be classified as science fiction, although they are quite different from anything else I have read in the genre. The thoroughness of his research is quite incredible, and since he has decided, rather than to mine away at one particular small field of interest, but to make every story completely different to the last, you can understand why he has had such a small output of work over the last twenty years. The overall quality of the stories in this book is probably higher than that of any other science fiction anthology I've read, with the possible exception of "I Robot", which is going back a bit. In fact, Chiang reminded me of Asimov both in the level of his research and knowledge, and his ability to to tell you something you didn't know, and then make you feel that it is the most important thing in the world whilst you are reading it.
Each of the stories in the collection is quite different. The first story, for example, is a science fiction story set in biblical times about a worker on the Tower of Babel. Two things fascinate about this story: both the wealth of detail that really create a world that you can believe in, and also the suspense that the author creates as the tower gets further and further towards the vault of heaven. In "Understand", which is one of the two standout stories of the collection, Chiang looks at how increased intelligence might affect a human. I don't want to give more away, but the story is an incredible piece of writing: brimming with believable technical detail, but yet as exciting as any thriller you have ever read. The following two stories, "Division by Zero", and "Story of Your Life" are more thoughtful, but also concern, in their own way, the effect of knowledge on human beings, in these cases, mathematical, and linguistic. Once again, Chiang's remarkable ability to bring a technical vocabulary and depth of research to his subject means that these stories really convince you on a technical level. If Chiang has a flaw as a writer, it is that his characterisation is somewhat thin, and therefore his stories tend to lack some emotional resonance. This doesn't matter so much in a high concept story such as "Understand", but in the two stories just referred to, which rely on the emotional impact of events on characters, this makes them less affecting than they could be. Another aspect of this lack of characterisation is that Chiang describes places and objects with detail and precision, but you are left to guess what his people look like, and aren't given much clue to their wants and desires outside of the main object of the story. This flaw affects "Hell is the Absence of God", which is still a cracking Sci-Fi concept, with (as you might expect) theological ramifications. My favourite story in the book, however, was "72 Letters", which is a kind of Victorian steampunk story involving golems and scientists. I don't even like steampunk, but the wealth of thought and planning that has gone into the fictional world of this story is genuinely awesome, and on top of that, the story is gripping, the themes are intriguing and far-reaching, and it's a great thriller.
Highly recommend this anthology to fans of speculative fiction, to rediscover the sense of wonder that you had reading sci fi as a young teenager.
on 1 June 2004
For those who enjoy the mind-boggling SF of Greg Egan, you must try this fantastic collection of short stories and novellas by US-based Ted Chiang. Where Egan concentrates on biology and physics at the bleeding edge of the imaginable, Chiang focuses on mathematics, linguistics and religion. A brilliant collection - 'Story of Your Life' and 'Hell is the Abscence of God' in particular are marvellous, marvellous stories.
on 14 May 2013
This is one of the best books I've stumbled upon for a very long time. Ted's ideas are brilliant, his use of language is exquisite and the stories stick in the mind. It's one of those books you call friends to tell them about, so they can read it. He deserves to be known by a much wider audience! Get it. Read it. You won't regret it.
on 18 October 2009
This book collects Ted Chiang's output from his first published story, 1990's "The Tower of Babylon", to 2001's "Hell is the Absence of God", plus "Liking What You See: A Documentary", which is original to this collection. That's a mere eight stories in eleven years -- but what stories!
Chiang is obviously most comfortable writing novelette-length short stories, thus enabling him to fully explore all the angles of his ideas. And this is most certainly idea-driven fiction, with stories like "Hell is the Absence of God", "Liking What You See" and "Understand" taking a single idea and thoroughly exploring its moral, social, cultural and philosophical implications. (Taking those three stories in order, that's: the impact of random, life-changing but potentially-devastating Divine "miracles"; the invention of a process that removes the ability to judge how good-looking people are; and the development of super-intelligence.) This really is speculative fiction.
But it is also science fiction in the truest sense, as Chiang takes scientific ideas and uses them as metaphors to take a new look at human life and human stories. So, in "Division By Zero", we see how a nonsensical but logical proof affects the mathematician who discovers it, and in "Stories of Your Life", how a person's life can be viewed from a completely new, and intensely poignant perspective. "Stories of Your Life" just also happens to be about that perennial science fictional concept, alien first contact; "Division By Zero" contains no fantastical element, but nevertheless fits perfectly into the collection.
Religion makes its presence felt in several stories, but always with a very balanced viewpoint, neither for nor against, but taking a thoroughly humanistic stance. The opener, "Tower of Babylon" is an almost Borgesian fable about the building of the legendary tower, and what happens when the builders finally reach their limit at the ceiling of the world. "Hell is the Absence of God" is an amazing look at people's reactions to sudden, devastating and incomprehensible changes in their lives, and how even the verifiable presence of God, angels, Heaven and Hell, can still leave room for doubt and difficulties. "Seventy-two Letters", meanwhile, takes the religious and scientific views of the Victorian Age and extrapolates them into a world in which golem-building is a major industry. But as well as religion, there's a lot about language -- in particular, the insufficiency of our human languages for understanding or expressing some of the more advanced ideas of science or philosophy -- and there's also a lot about simply being human, and trying to live an ordinary life in the face of all this.
Ted Chiang doesn't write a lot, but what he does write really counts. Every story in this collection feels like a thorough exploration of its idea, taking its initial premise places you just won't expect. And on top of the ideas, there's a real emotional poetry, sometimes embedded in the very form in which the stories are told ("Stories of Your Life" being a case in point -- no precis can equal the effect this story achieves through its intertwining of storylines, you just have to read it!)
Highly recommended for anyone who likes speculative-, science-, or just plain fiction.
on 15 September 2012
Exceptionally intelligent writing from a brilliant author. Each story is unique and thought provoking. Along with Jorge Luis Borges these are some of the best short stories I have ever read. Highly recommended, these stories will stick in the memory and are very intellectually satisfying.
on 14 May 2013
Some of the most interesting and exciting ideas-based sci-fi I've ever read. Chiang explores the philosophy of mathematics, science, linguistics, and ponders a lot of fantastic "what if" alternate realities.
I'm recommending this book to all my friends.