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Stories Of Your Life And Others
Ted Chiang
Tor / Orb paperback $14.95

review by Gary Couzens

If, as they say, you need to have written about a million words before you can truly know how to write, then Ted Chiang's bottom drawer must be full to bursting. At least you hope it is. Here is an author who won a Nebula Award with his first published story anywhere. This book contains all his published fiction to date. That's seven stories, with an eighth original to this collection. In twelve years. They have won another Nebula, a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo, the Asimov's readers' poll, and a Sidewise Award (for alternate history). It's enough to make any rival writer give up in despair.
   You'd have been forgiven for wondering where fully-formed writers like this come from, when Tower Of Babylon appeared in Omni in 1990. But Chiang wasn't quite fully formed: Understand, an earlier story, appeared in Asimov's the following year. It shows a few stylistic rough edges, and is certainly overlong. It's also the most conventional in premise, as a brain-damaged man is given surgery that accelerates his intelligence past the point where it could be argued he's no longer human. Then he does battle with another super-intelligence. But Babylon was an incredibly accomplished debut. It's fantasy or SF depending on how you view the premise, based on Babylonian cosmology: it's the tale of building a tower in order to penetrate the vault of heaven. Chiang tells this story with considerable, and convincing, attention to detail in the engineering requirements for such a feat, and there's a science fictional twist ending.
   Chiang specialises in the longer novelette or the shorter novella, all but two stories falling between 10,000 and 20,000 words. One of the exceptions is the short story Division By Zero (1991, originally from the anthology Full Spectrum 3). A woman mathematician discovers a principle that makes the very foundations of her discipline unreliable. Unable to bear the implications, she has a nervous breakdown. The story is told in alternating sections from her viewpoint and that of her uncomprehending husband. Each section is headed by a short discourse on mathematical unknowability. Even with these three stories, Chiang's versatility in short story form is apparent: straightforward third-past in Babylon, first-present in Understand and multi-viewpoint third-past in Division.
   Chiang didn't publish another story until 1998, when the novella Story Of Your Life appeared in the anthology Starlight 2. It's a good example of taking an idea that one step further. At its heart is a standard first-person account of a linguist, Louise, trying to understand the language of alien visitors. But in between are scenes where Louise is addressing her daughter. These scenes are sometimes in the past tense, sometimes in the future, and it's not clear until the end of the story if they are flashbacks or flash-forwards. They're not in chronology, but they encompass the whole of the daughter's life, from her conception to her death in a climbing accident. As the story progresses, Louise realises that the alien language reflects an entirely different worldview to her own, one reflected in the structure of the story itself. Story Of Your Life is one of the great SF stories of the last decade.
   Seventy-Two Letters (2000, from the anthology Vanishing Acts), another novella, is almost its equal. It's set in an alternate Victorian England where certain medieval and alchemical scientific ideas (the power of names, and the doctrine of preformation) are true. Again this is either fantasy or science fiction using outmoded science to rigorous effect - 'hard fantasy' if you will. A minor nitpick: would a Victorian schoolboy ever use the word 'wanked'? In the same year, Chiang was one of 52 writers commissioned to contribute a weekly SF short-short to Nature. The Evolution Of Human Science (originally entitled 'Catching Crumbs From The Table') takes the form of a fake article about the role of enhanced humanity in a world of 'normal' humanity.
   Hell Is The Absence Of God (2001, from the anthology Starlight 3) is fantasy, or even horror. It takes place in a world where the Bible is literally true, and God's angels frequently visit Earth, leaving devastation in their wake. This is a grimly ironic tale of one man's quest to understand God's unknowable, and even perverse, nature - provocative stuff indeed. This story shows Chiang's technical versatility. It's told in a fabulist form, beginning with the words "This is a story of" and containing not a single line of direct speech in all its 10,000-plus words.
   If Hell Is The Absence Of God has no dialogue, the one original story Liking What You See: A Documentary (2002) is all dialogue. As its subtitle suggests, it's a 'found' narrative, a transcript of a documentary, with several characters speaking in turn. The story deals with the development of calliagnosia ('calli' for short), which impairs the brain's perception of physical beauty, and the implications such a development will have on society.
   Much has been said about the strength, originality and power of Chiang's ideas. All of this is true, but they are backed up with a fluent writing style and technical versatility, with characterisation that may not be in-depth but is usually sufficient for the story's needs. Despite Chiang's sparse output, his stories show that it is still possible to build a considerable reputation in SF without publishing a novel. Stories Of Your Life And Others is a major collection.
Stories Of Your Life And Others

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