Story of your life and others (1998) by Ted Chiang

Needless to say that I don’t often read short stories. Which is odd because I have written more short films than anything else. I also think as a concept they are quite inviting. A short trip into a world with some quick gratification that a novel might otherwise prolong.

I haven’t yet completed this collection of short stories by Ted Chiang. I have read about 70%. But of the five stories I have read, I have enjoyed two and a half. I don’t think I can speak at length about any of them without spoiling them however I think I can speak about what worked and what didn’t with some brevity and get away with it.

Of the five stories I read, I only knew the ending for one of them because it inspired the film, ‘Arrival’. So I will skip that one cause I don’t think I can assess it fairly as a large part of its impact relies on its reveal.

‘The tower of Bayblon’ tells the tale of a people building a tower to reach God’s heaven. The story offers a very unique take of the bible and of the pursuit man often undertakes to be closer to god or even understand him. I thought-provoking story told through an impressive and unique metaphor, this one felt quick but effective. It gave details that fleshed the world out but did not meander unnecessarily into intricacies that would have no importance to the rest of the story. It also delivered on its journey, thus rounding out the unique idea with a fulfilling ending.

‘Understand’ follows a man who after being given a new drug, starts achieving unique levels of intelligence. Though the story’s similarity to, ‘Flowers for Algernon’ ends here. The rest of the story is a fairly boring breakdown of this characters actions and motives which all in all are not interesting, unique or particularly smart. It often feels like Chiang is looking for new ways to tell us how smart this person is but fails to ever show us. The overall message of the story was lost on me.

‘Division by Zero’ questions the nature of reality from a different perspective, challenging the language we use to understand it, mathematics, rather than our senses, such as sight or smell. It’s question is powerful and is delivered through an interesting character’s perspective. The story is thought-provoking though the premise it sets up requires some strong suspension of disbelief on our part. Overall, this sci-fi story was more enjoyable because of its human element.

‘Seventy-two letters’ is a fantasy story set in a different world where giving an object the right title allows it to be that object. Philosophical questions aside, the story tries to explore class divisions and sets up an exciting journey however its ending fizzles out over the course of a few unfulfilling events that leave you wanting a grander exit.

It seems to me that Chiang, in the hopes of exploring his unique worlds and setups, often struggles to deliver enticing characters. While no mean task, I believe this is why I struggled through some of the stories. They were thorough in their research and planning but lacked effective characters.

That said, I do recognize that I have a bias for very active and dramatic characters. I do think I will return to finish the rest of the stories. Will update this review then.

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