Stories of Your Life and Others

by Ted Chiang

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The divide between genre fiction and literary fiction is
blurry at best, and sometimes the most arbitrary
criteria are applied in deciding which section of the
bookstore will serve as a novel's home.  Despite the
well-known adage, I’m convinced that some books are
judged by their covers. Audrey Niffenegger's novel,
The Time Traveler's Wife was kept off the sci-fi
shelves—a remarkable achievement given its story
line—but this would have been impossible if, instead of
its soft-focus cover photo more suited for a childhood
memoir, it had one of those gaudy pulp fiction
monstrosities that most time
travel stories are given.  
The same could be said of
Slaughterhouse Five and
Time's Arrow.

I’m even more distressed,
however, by the fate of
genre stories that are as
well written as literary fiction,
but are exiled in the science
fiction ghetto—where they
are forced to peddle their
sophisticated wares to
adolescents and Trekkies.
In this regard, few authors
have been more unfairly treated than Ted Chiang.  
He should be writing for
The New Yorker and
interviewed in
The Paris Review.  But those periodicals
seem blissfully unaware of this richly talented writer;
instead, his lovingly crafted work shows up in
Asimov's
or
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  
Needless to say, when
The Best American Short
Stories
are selected each year, or the O'Henry
Awards handed out, Chiang is out of the running.

But readers, you shouldn't let your own mind be
ghettoized by the blindness of the reigning arbiters
of taste.  Chiang is the real deal.  His debut book
Stories of Your Life and Others is one of the finest
collections of short fiction I have read in the last
decade. These tales possess the imaginative
frisson
that is a trademark of the best conceptual fiction, but
also bespeak a confident prose style and a willingness
to take chances in tone and narrative structure that
one rarely encounters in genre writing.

The premises here are often quite simple. "The Tower
of Babylon," the opening story in the book, takes a
familiar Old Testament account and turns it into a
postmodern fable similar to what one might find in
José Saramago or even Franz Kafka.  Along the way,
Chiang constructs an alternative cosmology that is
both frightening and fanciful:  as his workers erect
higher and higher levels of the tower they have built
to reach heaven, they gradually rise above the level of
the sun, the moon and the stars.  Eventually they run
into a granite-hard ceiling to the universe—and need to
call for miners who can break through the rock barrier
and reach the divine presence beyond.

"Hell is the Absence of God" also takes its starting
point from scripture.  Here the visitations of angels are
an everyday event, but fraught with danger—their
appearance is akin to a natural disaster, with as many
casualties as miracles left in their wake.   The story is
provocative and extravagant…and likely to inspire
heated discussion about the nature of evil, the
meaning of love, and the underpinnings of belief.   

You may walk away from these stories without any
clear sense of Chiang's own religious leanings, but he
clearly believes in the power of
Logos, the creative
energy latent in the Word.  Several of the stories in this
collection approach this concept, each in a different way.  
In "Seventy-Two Letters," Chiang offers his personal
variant on Steampunk lit—here he envisions an
industrial England powered not by steam or coal,
rather by golem servants, each empowered with a
piece of parchment with a magical combination of
characters. Instead of
Intel Inside, they have
Incantations Inside.  New magical spells lead to new
technologies, and companies patent permutations of
letters the way biotech firms lock up genetic markers
and strands of DNA.  

In his story "Understand," Chiang adapts the storyline
of Daniel Keyes'
Flowers for Algernon, envisioning a
medical treatment that creates a super-intelligent
human being.   We follow this newly-minted genius as
he battles with healthcare professionals, government
agents, and eventually an even more intelligent rival.  
Again the
Logos makes its appearance: one of the
man's obsessions is to create a new language that will
help him understand not only his own inner workings,
but perhaps even the nature of existence.  Chiang is
operating at multiple levels here, as in so many of his
stories in this collection:  "Understand" can be read as
a bizarre variant of hard-boiled crime fiction or for its
speculative daring in re-imagining the boundaries of
consciousness and knowledge.  

As these abbreviated plot summaries make clear,
Chiang pursues bold, sometimes outlandish storylines.   
Another tale in this collection describes the mental
anguish of a great mathematician after she proves,
with the most rigorous logic, that 1 = 2.   In "Story of
Your Life" Chiang even presents an alternative way
of conceptualizing time and causality—showing how
radically different our existences might be if we
perceived events as teleologically-driven.  Of course,
this is a science fiction story not a philosophical treatise,
so Chiang embeds his alternative worldview into a tale
about creepy aliens arriving from another galaxy.   
Imagine a cross between Fermat's last theorem and
The War of the Worlds, and you will get some idea of
the flamboyant hybrids this author has created.

Even so, such thumbnail descriptions hardly do justice
to the riches of the stories themselves, which are not
just brilliantly conceived but also artfully executed.  
Indeed, I'm tempted to take copies of this volume out
of the science fiction section of the bookstore and slip
them in with the great works of literary fiction.  Trust
me, they won’t be out of place.  In the meantime, do
yourself the favor of making the acquaintance of
Chiang's work.  This author, whose tales come back again
and again to the power of the Word, has also made a
compelling case for the power of his own words.
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

_____


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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
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SF Signal
True Science Fiction
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