Completed 5/19/2018, Reviewed 5/19/2018
Ted Chiang is an incredible story teller. Whether I liked the stories or not, it was easy to recognize they were written beautifully. His prose is simply magical. This is his first collection of short stories, eight in all. Several are award winners and others are award nominees, and it’s easy to see why. He doesn’t write a lot, perhaps a story a year. It shows in his words and sentences. That may sound weird, but there are many times when I was in awe of his word choices and how well the sentences were constructed.
My favorite story was “Hell is the Absence of God”. It’s about a world where angels regularly manifest on earth, healing some people, plaguing and sometimes killing others because of the power released in their arrival and departure. In addition, people can see souls rising to heaven and descending into hell. Occasionally, they can even catch a glimpse of hell. The story focuses on one man whose wife is killed by one such angelic incident. He’s not religious and struggles with the idea of loving God, knowing that if he doesn’t, he won’t be united with his wife in heaven. I think the story is brilliant. The concept building is so creative, with angels causing disasters as well as healing.
“Liking What You See: A Documentary” is another excellent story. It is comprised of interviews with people, mostly students, at a college where a campus vote is about to take place whether or not it should be mandatory to have a certain brain lesion performed on everyone. This lesion effects the part of the brain that causes people to notice if someone is beautiful or ugly. With this lesion, people would be able to see the qualities of another person without being spellbound by their beauty and conversely repelled by their unattractiveness. In addition, it moderates the effects of advertising with beautiful models. I liked the format of this story. It’s told in interview snippets in documentary style. It gives the pros and cons of the procedure, letting you decide for yourself about how beauty affects our attitudes toward someone or something.
“Story of Your Life” is the basis of the film “Arrival”. It is different enough from the film that reading it was a new experience, and basically, quite a pleasure. The form of the story intertwines a linguistics professor’s experience decoding an alien language with telling the story of her daughter’s life. What’s especially interesting is that the daughter’s life story is told in second person future tense. It’s really a revelation in how it’s read. And while not as heart wrenching as the movie, it’s still quite a poignant tale.
“Seventy-Two Letters” is about making golems. I like stories about golems. This one is particularly intriguing because it considers the making of golems from human reproductive material.
I liked three of the other stories in differing degrees. There was only one I didn’t care for, “The Evolution of Human Science”. It’s very short and didn’t stay with me.
I’d recommend this collection to everyone, with one caution: a lot of the science is pretty hard. At times, I had trouble following some of it. However, even the hard science is written well. Very nearly a perfect reading experience for me, I give the book four stars out of five. I only took off because according to my definition, a five star book causes some emotional response in me, and none of the stories quite got there emotionally for me. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.