Book Review: Story of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I found to my surprise that I never posted by review of Ted Chiang’s brilliant (but to my taste too nihilistic) STORY OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS here on my livejournal. Let me rectify that oversight at once.

(WARNING! I am a science-fiction writer in economic competition with Mr. Chiang. All my gripes must be taken with a grain of salt.)
Eight well-crafted stories with engaging and interesting ideas are marred by weak endings. Each story ends with tepid pessimism.

First, the "Tower of Babylon" tale engages the reader with solid characterization and a thought-provoking description of what the mighty engineering feat of "building a tower to heaven" would have been like, had the world been flat. It is filled with amusing and authentic touches, like the Egyptian stone-masons brought in to chip through the hard surface of the sky-dome, or the description of how mid-levels of the tower rendered inhospitable by the too-near approach of the fiery sun. But the ending is weak, and the immense tower turns out to have been built in vain.

In "Understand" the super intelligent man is obsessed with finding a perfect expression of linguistic philosophy that will express the universe. The depiction of a mind smarter than any mind of man is wonderfully well-done, and the story is worth reading just for this alone. The super-mind discovers a second super intelligent man. One man wants nothing but to be left alone while he pursues his research, while the other wishes to use his powers to benefit mankind peacefully. Neither one is threatening or interfering with the goals of the other. For no apparent reason, and without any plot-purpose, these two "superior intelligences" both mutually agree that there is no possible way they both can exist, they duel, and one murders the other. What a waste. Maybe they were not so bright after all.

In "Story of your Life" a mother, through the study of an alien language, learns how to see the universe from a timeless point of view. She knows her daughter is going to die in a pointless accident even before the night the daughter is conceived. The mother does nothing, and can do nothing, to prevent the accident, since only those things that are fated to be will be. Precognition is vain.

In "Divide by Zero" all mathematics turns out to be vain.

"Liking What You See: A Documentary" once again, starts with a very interesting science fiction premise: what would the world be like if we could turn off our perception of human beauty? And, once again, the story soon disappoints. A college is debating whether to impose beauty-blindness on all its students. Both sides of the issue are debated. A girl who tries to make herself look nice to win the affection of a boy she loves is rebuffed when the boy turns off his beauty-seeing abilities. The girl realizes it is "unfair" to look better than other people. So her attempts are futile. In the end, an evil conspiracy of (I am not making this up) Big Lipstick Companies successfully prevents widespread implementation of the beauty-blindness plan by (you guessed it) having a particularly attractive spokeswoman sway the debate. So the entire debate was futile. This same egalitarian theme appears in a famous short story by Kurt Vonnegut, one where pretty folk were burned with acid, and smart individuals were lobotomized, so that everyone was "equal" and nothing would rouse the spite and envy of the herd. There, Vonnegut’s tale cheers for the individual; here, Chiang’s tale cheers for the herd.

"The Evolution of Human Science" has all scientific inquiry prove futile once super artificial intelligences take over the field.

The satire "Hell is the Absence of God" reads like it was written by someone who never met a Christian, or read anything written by a Christian. In this tale, those who see the light of heaven are grotesquely disfigured (their eyes and eye sockets are removed) and loose free will, and become perfect in faith, so that they are automatically assured of entrance into paradise. The main character, mourning after the death of his wife, seeks to find a spot where an angel is leaving or entering the world, so that he can, if only for a moment, glimpse the light of heaven, so that he can loose his eyes and his free will, but be assured of meeting his wife again in heaven. All goes as planned, but God capriciously sends the man to Hell in any case. Hell is not a place of torment, but a bland area much like earth, merely separate from God, peopled by Fallen Angels who sin was not rebellion, but free-thinking. Hence, out of all created beings, only the main character is actually suffering in Hell, since he is the only one who longs not to be there, and, thanks to his free will being destroyed, is the only one who loves God wholeheartedly. Again, all efforts of the main character to rejoin his wife are futile. There are secondary characters whose lives are also ruined and for no particular reason.

I myself am an unrepentant atheist, but I would never pen such trite antichristian propaganda. If an author is going to set a story in an alternate universe where the Christian myths happen to be true, the author should become familiar with (or, at least, hide his contempt for) the source material. Read Thomas Aquinas or John Milton. Christians may be wrong, but they are not stupid.

Over all, Mr. Chiang is an excellent writer, who writes wonderfully about big ideas, but weds them to a theme of dispirited nihilism. He is capable of subtle and penetrating characterization, except when he trots out a tired leftwing cliché, whereupon suddenly everything becomes flat and predictable (see, for example, his treatment of the CIA, Big Business, the Military, and the Victorian Age).

I can only recommend the first half of each story.

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I also have a longer discussion of my great discontent with the ‘Hell is the Absence of God’ posted here.