Stories of Your Life, and Others by Chiang, Ted, 2002

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I know that I have made no secret of my love for the writings of Ted Chiang. And I hope at this point that you have at least read all the free Chiang stories that I have posted on my website. If you have not, you should go there now and do just that. In rereading in preparation for this week's book review I was reminded how strong an author Chiang really is. Chiang's ability to embrace the absurd and repackage it for the reader as if it were the truth is second to none. Even when, for example, he describes a brick and mortar tower that reaches from the floor of the Babylonian desert to the gates of heaven, his tongue is nowhere near his cheek. I am not aware of any other author who delivers such consistently excellent stories, save perhaps for one of my other favorite modern authors, David Marusek. It is painfully obvious to me how much work he puts into his writing. Each paragraph looks to me like a polished gem, and I am certain that he worries over each one, like a child, before it is published. After this there will only be two Chiang works left unreviewed here. I promise to get to them shortly. And I hear that he is working on two new stories! I can't wait to read them!

Tower of Babylon, 1990: In an effort to know the face of God, the Babylonians have constructed a tower of brick and mortar that rises from the desert floor all the way to heaven. It is an amazing construct with up-and-down staircases wrapped around it like a double helix, each with one wall exposed to the elements and with tunnels connecting the two. Entire villages of climbers live in the tunnels, with women and children remaining stationary while the men carry burdens up to the top in several month-long journeys. The Babylonians have come close to reaching the bottom of heaven, and have hired copper miners from Elam and quarrymen from Egypt to ascend to the top and break the gates of heaven. Hillalum is one of the Elaminte miners who has embarked on the long journey to the top. The trip is so far and the tower goes so high that they first pass the Moon, then the Sun (which thereafter shines upward towards their feet), then the stars, one of which accidentally strikes the tower. After months and months of climbing they come to the gates of Heaven, which are nothing more than an uninterrupted plain of polished white marble above their heads. Fearing that the marble holds back the remnants of the Great Deluge the miners set upon an ingenious system of switchbacks as they tunneled through the marble, while the Egyptians created a system of marble locks and plugs to stop water from passing certain points. Ultimately the Elamites did strike through, and the tunnels were flooded. Hillalum was trapped above the flood after a plug below him set into its seat, so he resigned to swim up towards Heaven. Upon the point of drowning he came to a dry cave and hauled himself out, and learned that he was back at the foot of the tower in Babylon.

Somehow, the vault of heaven lay beneath the earth. It was as if they lay against each other, though they were separated by many leagues. How could that be? How could such distant places touch? Hillalum's head hurt trying to think about it.

And then it came to him: a seal cylinder. When rolled upon a tablet of soft clay, the carved cylinder left an imprint that formed a picture. Two figures might appear at opposite ends of the tablet, though they stood side by side on the surface of the cylinder. All the world was such a cylinder. Men imagined heaven and earth as being the ends of a tablet, with sky and stars stretched between; yet the world was wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth touched.

It was clear now why Yahweh had not struck down the tower, had not punished men for wishing to reach beyond the bounds set for them: for the longest journey would merely return them to the place whence they'd come. Centuries of their labor would not reveal to them any more of Creation than they already knew. Yet through their endeavor, men would glimpse the unimaginable artistry of Yahwehís work, in seeing how ingeniously the world had been constructed. By this construction, Yahweh's work was indicated, and Yahweh's work was concealed.

This story does test one's faith, for certain. But in it Chiang expertly depicts the central tenant of many religions, which is that all we have to go on, and all we ever will have to go on is faith. Tower of Babylon also has more fantasy tropes in it then SF, but the engineering is enough to get it past the threshold. Still, even if fantasy is not your cup of tea it is amazingly well conceived and written.

Understand, 1991: This is an amazing story of a superman whose gift is limitless intelligence. Leon Greco fell through a sheet of ice in Boston and died, but was revived ten minutes later. He was in a persistent vegetative state and had no hope of recovery, so he was given an experimental drug called formula K. The drug had no effect on those with no neurological damage, but in those who were so injured the drug re-grew neurons and gave them many, many more healthy dendrites than normal. As a result those who are more severely damaged benefit considerably more from the drug therapy. Leon was horribly damaged, so after he completed the therapy his cognitive abilities were orders of magnitude better than average. The scientists who delivered the drug were taken aback by Leon's increases, so they gave him another shot to see what would happen. Leon started to notice that he could comprehend everything he saw with just a glance, and things which were formerly beyond his intellectual grasp no longer were:

I'm reminded of my college days when I watch these specialists, each with a pet theory, each contorting the evidence to fit. I'm even less convinced by them now that I was back then; they still have nothing to teach me. None of their categorizations are fruitful in analyzing my performance, since - there's no point denying it - I'm equally good at everything.

I could be studying a new class of equation, or the grammar of a foreign language, or the operation of an engine; in each case, everything fits together, all the elements cooperate beautifully. In each case, I don't have to consciously memorize the rules, and then apply them mechanically. I just perceive how the system behaves as a whole, as an entity. Of course, I'm aware of all the details and individual steps, but they require so little concentration that they almost feel intuitive.

Leon went on to use his abilities to acquire years of education within weeks, and built his wealth up quickly gambling and in stocks. He also got another shot of formula K, which again radically changed him. Chiang here was interested in looking at the limits of human intelligence not so much in the context of some upper limit capacity to our brains, because he posits that there is not one here, but instead because of the limitations of language and mathematics and emotion. Out of necessity Leon developed a new language and new emotions, so that he could encode a new mathematics, and then even learned somatic control over his body.

As interesting and as well written as this story is, it feels to me like nothing more than an exercise Chiang put himself through to work out one thing that would probably have been better as an integrated element in a larger story. Chiang went to Clarion early on, so perhaps this is what he worked on there. This is not to say that the story is not excellent, because it is. It just does not feel complete, and I note that certain elements of it are more thoroughly worked through in the following three stories. Compare this work to Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon.

Division by Zero, 1991: Inconsistency is the hobgoblin of the mathematicianís world. That could be the one-sentence summary for this story. Itís about a young polymath named Renee who wrote a mathematical formalism that disproved all of mathematics otherwise. Renee worked out a proof that had stood for years, but had gaping holes. That proof held that one was equal to two. Once she worked out the formalism Renee became suicidal, and thought that life and the universe held no meaning for anybody any more.

Renee had barely been able to hear him speaking, and had mumbled that she would get back to him. Lately she had been having difficulty talking to people, especially since the argument with Carl; the other members of the department had taken to avoiding her. Her concentration was gone, and last night she had had a nightmare about discovering a formalism that let her translate arbitrary concepts into mathematical expressions: then she had proven that life and death were equivalent.

Carl was Renee's husband, and during his youth he had gone through a very real suicidal phase as well. He and Renee were the best of mates, but when she became suicidal he fell out of love with her, and planned on leaving her. But the relationship dynamics here was only a side story as Renee learned the true meaning of mathematical certainty in the universe.

She, like many, had always thought that mathematics did not derive its meaning from the universe, but rather imposed some meaning onto the universe. Physical entities were not greater or less than one another, not similar or dissimilar; they simply were, they existed. Mathematics was totally independent, but it virtually provided a semantic meaning for those entities, supplying categories and relationships. It didn't describe any intrinsic quality, merely a possible interpretation.

But no more. Mathematics was inconsistent once it was removed from physical entities, and a formal theory was nothing if not consistent. Math was empirical no more than that, and it held no interest for her.

I have always been at a loss as to what to say about this story. The theory is riveting, and the relationships are interesting enough. But in the end I have always thrown my hands up in the air and said, "so what?" The pretty young mathematician can no longer predict her reality. Can I sympathize? Sure. But at this point in my life, I may be too old to care. In the end I cannot say that I think Renee's reality has really been changed. She just got surprised by something that she failed to see, because she took a hard mathematical approach to everything in her life. Is it any surprise that everything will eventually fail?

Story of Your Life, 1998: I have read a ton of short stories in my life, and I like to think that I have gone pretty far here on these pages to showing you which are my favorites. In case you are taking notes, this one is number one, with a bullet. Story of Your Life is about a mission to Earth by a very strange and very different race of aliens. Because of the way they experience reality, and the unique qualities of their language, the gifts that they leave are profound.

Louise was a member of one of 112 two member teams, consisting each of a linguist and a physicist. The teams were assigned to devices called "looking glasses," which were two way communication devices that appeared all over the globe one day, and allowed humans to converse with a race we called the Heptapods, which we assumed were in orbit. The Heptapods had a very odd appearance. They were large cylinders with evenly spaced eyes and arms, seven of each. With that many evenly spaced eyes around their bodies, the Heptapods could look in all directions at once. All of the teams, Louise's included, were tasked with deciphering the Heptapods language, then trying to trade information. She and her team-mate, a physicist named Gary, plodded as slowly as the rest of the teams at first. Louise made some headway with the spoken language by using computer recordings played back. But when it came to written language, Louise thought that the Heptapods had a simple semasiographic language. She was right about that, but simple was definitely the wrong term to describe it.

The physicists were having a much rougher time of it with the Heptapods. Gary and his ilk tried to communicate very simple things to them, such as velocity, in an attempt to build to something more complex. But the Heptapods were just not getting it, until one day when one of the physicists described something called Fermat's principle of least time. That was a complex theory that could only be demonstrated with high order calculus that described the way that photons bent when they hit the surface of water. You've probably seen the theory in action before: Just look at a straw coming out of a glass of water and you will understand the idea. The theory is so complex because when water travels from point A to point B, where one of the two points is under water, photons just happen to take the path that requires the least time to traverse. Incredibly though, to the Heptapods this principle was as easily describable in their math as something like Delta-V is in ours. It was almost a given to them, whereas we had to go through a series of enormous proofs to describe exactly the same thing. As it turned out, this difference highlighted a very important distinction between the human and the Heptapod worldview.

Consider the phenomenon of light hitting water at one angle, and travelling through it at a different angle. Explain it by saying that a difference in the index of refraction caused the light to change direction, and one saw the world as humans saw it. Explain it by saying that light minimized the time needed to travel to its destination, and one saw the world as the Heptapods saw it. Two very different interpretations.

The physical universe was a language with a perfectly ambiguous grammar. Every physical event was an utterance that should be parsed in two entirely different ways, one causal and the other teleological, both valid, neither one disqualifiable no matter how much context was available.

When the ancestors of humans and Heptapods first acquired the spark of consciousness, they both perceived the same physical world, but they parsed their perceptions differently; the worldviews that ultimately arose were the end result of that divergence. Humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness, while Heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness. We experienced events in an order, and perceived their relationship as cause and effect. They experienced events all at once, and perceived a purpose underling them all.

Now if this were really all that was going on with this story, I would say that it was cool, and probably memorable, but that's all. But there was more going on. Louise was a divorced mother of a beautiful, wonderful young woman who had died due to misadventure when she was 25, and Louise's life was utterly empty save for work when the Heptapods came along. She was also a linguist par excellence, and loved to immerse herself totally into new languages. The Heptapod languages were no exception, and Louise developed a facility with them both that nobody else could manage. She dreamed in Heptapod A (the spoken language), and did her best to master the written language, Heptapod B. And through her total immersion she began to experience the world the way that the Heptapods did. She partly adopted the Heptapod's worldview, and in doing so lost some of our worldview's causation restrictions. Because of their worldview the Heptapods could see past causation, and in a non-linear manner. They did not use language to inform each other, because they did not have to. They used it to actualize what they had already seen, because the Heptapods were able to take an entire experience in merely by living through a small part of it: The gestalt that they experienced when interacting was not even necessary, because the Heptapods could see up and down the time-stream, and had already experienced everything that we had to take in measured doses, one moment at a time. So when Louise adopted the worldview of the Heptapods, she was able in times of inspiration to take her entire life in one gestalt. She could go back and re-experience, as if for the first time, every moment that she had with her daughter. Chang told this story is a very jumpy, distorted manner, leaping frequently from interactions with the Heptapods to descriptions of Louise's life with her daughter before she died. When I realized that the parts with the daughter were not memories, but were experiences she was having at that moment, I was flabbergasted and blown away.

For those of you who have read Slaughterhouse-Five or The Sirens of Titan you may recognize some of this. Vonnegut's alien race, the Tralfamadorians seemed to experience their reality in this way too. But they were actually slightly different. The Tralfamadorians seemed to view time as a stream: To them the stream probably ran in a circle, and an individual who knew how may have been able to jump in and out of that stream at will, but it was still a causal stream. The Heptapods on the other hand reduced all of existence to one single gestalt moment. They in fact were able to write a single semasiogram that encompassed that entire worldview; a symbolic representation of the way they saw the world. Their actual worldview was much the same. Instead of a stream of consciousness, Louise was viewed her entire life as encompassing her daughterís. I visualized it as a mother cat wrapping its body lovingly around its kitten. I think that is probably how Louise saw it too.

I know that I have said in the past that book X or story Y was the best thing that I had ever read before. I tend to gush a lot. Just know that with this one I am not. Once you read this story, you will be hard pressed to ever find anything better.

Seventy-Two Letters, 2000: This story is an amazingly rich steampunk/alternate history/alternate universe story of technology that draws its inspiration from the story of the golem, the creation myth and robots. The story is set in a universe where incubi, unicorns and dragons exist. The time is something akin to early Victorian England, right around the time of the start of the industrial revolution. There are two scientific differences that are key to the story. The first is that England had built up an industrial base in making automatons. Guilds of sculptors craft the bodies of these worker drones, and other individuals, called nomenclators, write on slips of paper the seventy-two letters that make up the name of the automatons. Once the names are written they are put into the bodies of the automatons and they "wake up," and begin to work. The nomenclators are constantly researching to discover new names, which will allow the automatons to do different jobs.

The second major difference has to do with biology, and is a throwback to our own history. Human beings, and all manner of creature for that matter, reproduce sexually, but male sperm contain miniature versions of all their potential offspring, and all future generations of mankind, rather than just 1/2 of the genetics required for reproduction. Males passed this along to other males, while females only provide the eggs that the pre-humans gestated in. This was important to the tale because the French had discovered that at most, only five generations of humanity remain until every successive generation of sperm is used up. This was a catastrophe, because it meant that humans no longer had the ability to procreate. They could only pass along what they have inherited, all the way back from the time of Adam, and were not able to create any new generations save what their fathers had given them. It was as if all the spermatogenesis that ever was to occur happnened to Adam only, and he passed that same genetic package down to all males in his line.

Robert Stratton is a young college graduate who has gotten a job as a nomenclator at an automaton factory. Disgusted with the environmental effects of industrialization and the toll that factory work has taken on the young, Stratton has written new epithets into a name that gives automata manual dexterity: With this skill automata will be able to make new automata, and cheaply at that. Stratton hopes to be able to put an automaton into every home and return England to the cottage economy that it had before industrialization brought the factories. But the guild of sculptors fears the change and will not work with him. Chased from his factory Stratton is picked up by a member of the British science foundation and pressed into service working on the sterility problem. Confident that resolution to both problems is necessary to guarantee the continuation of the English lifestyle, Stratton puts himself to both tasks. That is, he works towards his social goal of ridding the world of industrialization, and falls in with the British team that is trying to write a name that will allow automata to do everything that a man can do. Their plan is to put those names into automata, so that they can carry on in the stead for humans. The only problem is that the group cannot get by the sterility problem: They cannot reinvigorate the loins of the creatures that they have created, though they do eventually figure out how to give the automata one successive generation in them. But the government does not much care, and they see it as a chance once and for all to control the numbers of the poor, by denying certain of them the right to reproduce.

This is probably the most complex of Chiang's stories. The plot went in a few directions during the course of the story, and coupled with the alternate reality, it was a bit too much to handle. But Chiang's ideas were as rich and as well stated as in his other stories. I have noticed in the past that when an alternate history story relies on drastic changes, instead of subtle ones, itís sometimes difficult to remain interested. I did not have that problem here, even though the world it was set in is only barely recognizable. Moreover, the resolution to this story came from an overly convenient deus ex machina-type of element, and personally, I hate that. Give this one a try, though, because its positive elements greatly outweigh the few negative ones.

The Evolution of Human Science, 2000: An in-universe supposedly for a future edition of Nature magazine (but published in Nature eight years ago), written to bring ordinary humans up to date with research findings of a class of supermen called Metahumans. The Metahumans can transfer knowledge digitally through a network, and have no more need for archaic media such as Nature magazine. Metahumans dominate the research field now, so Nature's job now is to summarize their findings and translate them so that humans can understand. Metahuman artifacts are treated as alien objects. An interesting, very short story.

Hell is the Absence of God, 2001: This one is as strong as Stories of Your Life. Itís about the arbitrary nature of God, and it packs one hell of a wallop. This is an alternate universe story where angels regularly visit the Earth, often coming to us with the force of natural disasters. When the angels appear some people are healed and others are killed. Nobody knows when the angels will appear or what they will do when they come, but one thing humans consider certain: The angels come and go through apertures in reality, and when they do so the Light of Heaven shines through. If that light strikes a person, no matter who it is or how evil they are, they will go to Heaven for certain. That fact is well documented, as well as the fact that those who chase angels to find the light will for certain go to Hell if they fail and die in the attempt. In this world, though, Hell is tolerable, and an easy place to live. The only difference is that God is not there.

In this story Neil's wife was killed when the angel Nathaniael visited and caused a plate glass window to explode onto her. Neil was grief-stricken and looked for meaning in her death. Neil was never very religious, and blamed God or taking his wife too early.

Neil became actively resentful of God. Sarah had been the greatest blessing of his life, and God had taken her away. Now he was expected to love Him for it? For Neil, it was like having a kidnapper demand love as ransom for his wife's return. obedience he might have managed, but sincere, heart-felt love? That was a ransom he couldn't pay.

I am not going to discuss the hook in this story, because quite frankly you have to read it to believe it. Ultimately this is the story of a man who tries to work a system that is completely out of his control. Chiang has posited a world where the fundamental question of all skeptics has been answered: God and Satan exist, and men are given proof of that everyday. But seeing God is no replacement for knowing God. The problem here is that even with that fundamental question answered, God is no less arbitrary or vindictive than he is to us, and Neil just cannot get his head around that on his own. Instead it takes direct action from God to show him real love. Unfortunately for Neil, that is exactly what happened.

This story is a reworking of the Book of Job. But instead of torturing Job to prove to Satan that Job would not lose his faith, then rewarding him with a new family in the end for a job well done, God in this case tortures Neil by giving him exactly what he wants, then changing the rules on him. Chiang has said that in thinking about this story it always seemed a bit silly to him that Job was rewarded in the end. If God really wanted to test Job, he would have continued to ruin his life until the day he died. Chiang has that and so much more in mind when he finished this one. Teh ending is staggering, and I believe that no matter what your feelings on God are, this story will reinforce them.

Liking What You See: A Documentary, 2002: This was the only story written exclusively for this book, and not published elsewhere before. It is a very interesting story that is told in documentary style about the social utility of an implant that causes calliagnostia. That phenomenon causes the person so afflicted to ignore facial beauty. Things such as symmetry, clear skin and proportions mean nothing. In the story a college has introduced a proposal that would require all students to get the implant. The story is made up of blurbs from different people advocating different positions for or against the proposal. Chiang explores not only the psychological effects of having the technology, but also the effects on requiring children to use it. Most of the students are interested in the social justice aspects of the debate, but then advertisers and cosmetics companies get involved and blur the debate by talking about the media side of things. Ultimately they get frightened and lie to get the proposal defeated. I think that this one has as much to say about American electoral and advocacy policies as it does about beauty.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)


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