27 January 2022
Review of Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
I got this collection because I discovered that the film Arrival is loosely based on Story of Your Life, which is included in it. I thought the film was good but I also thought that it skated over linguistic concepts, thus making the rapid achievement of basic communication between humans and extra-terrestrial arrivals seem implausible. The book is more plausible because information about spoken and written language is woven into the narrative. Also carried along in the story are speculative ideas about the implications of different perceptual capabilities and world views. All this and a human-interest story too — a different and better story than in the film.
Given that Story of Your Life alone justifies getting this book, it’s a bonus that several of the other stories are masterpieces. Most of the other stories aren’t at the fantastical or extremely speculative end of the science fiction genre. They take ideas from science and technology and see where they might lead and what the social impacts might be. For example, Division by Zero considers how an obsession with solving a mathematical problem can lead to mental breakdown and what effect that can have on a relationship (which is reminiscent of Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis). Also within the orbit of this book are mind-enhancing pharmaceutical drugs, mind-reducing neurological devices, and artificial intelligence.
However, a couple of the stories are based on religious ideas and feature angels and whatnots, and I can’t fathom them at all; I can’t even work out whether they are meant to be taken seriously or whether they are parodying something I’m not familiar with.
Talking of arrivals, my late arrival to this 2002 party has enabled me to judge whether the stories have stood the test of time. Yes. Some of the things happening in the world in 2022 are not dissimilar to scenarios in these stories or are being discussed as real possibilities. Of course, theoretical papers about, and early versions of, relevant technologies already existed when the stories were written. Nonetheless, it takes some talent to pick up on the concepts and project them forward. Judging the stories belatedly, I find that the endings are startling but plausible.