I don’t often go for the short story format, but I needed to pick a book to fit the book challenge prompt “Book for a movie that you’ve already seen.” It almost never happens for me in that order, so I had to do a bit of sleuthing to find Stories of Your Life and Others, which contains the short story that eventually became the movie Arrival.
I loved the entire collection of stories a lot more than I expected to. Ted Chiang has both a diverse imagination and a working intuition of how to make stories of this length work. I am not a fiction writer, but I have a hard enough time editing my internet comments down to be less meandering and blustery, so I can only imagine the challenge of constructing tight, moving stories that don’t sacrifice poignancy for shorter length.
Tower of Babylon is the first of a few stories that re-imagine faith-based parables and ideas as literal truth and examine them through the science-fiction lens. This story tells of the mythical Tower as a seemingly-infinite construction project that has been ongoing for centuries. Those who live and work on the Tower, particularly in the upper reaches, do so for their entire lives, working toward the goal of discovering … whatever it is that God has hidden all the way up there. What worked best about this story for me is how the writing evoked the isolation and spatial disorientation that one would literally experience on a tower that pierced the heavens and “tunneled” through its layers as if it were Earth-like matter and not vacuum.
Understand follows a man given an experimental treatment for brain damage sustained during an accident. He finds himself getting increasingly more intelligent to the extent that he surpasses what was previously thought to be the limit of neurological capability. Something like this has been done in a few stories (off the top of my head, Flowers for Algernon and the film Lucy come to mind, but I’m sure there are others.) It wasn’t my favorite in the book. Part of why that is specifically has to do with what is arguably spoiler territory, but in general I felt that the perspective of the particular protagonist was less interesting than that of his eventual (also superintelligent) opponent and I would have liked the whole story to be switched around, if I had my way.
Division by Zero was the first story to exhibit Chiang’s prowess at fairly low-tech, humanist stories, that focus on interpersonal relationships and mental health. It follows a mathematician who, as a part of a fairly low-stakes research question, accidentally creates a proof that breaks basic arithmetic and, by extension, all of mathematics. The discovery, treated as an academic curiosity and basically benign thought exercise by her colleagues, nonetheless takes a toll on her mentally, as it upset her worldview as being rationally ordered and meaningful. Caught in the landslide of her declining mental state is her husband, who tries to understand but simply cannot, as he does not share her fundamental outlook on the structure that mathematics provides the world. It’s a story about math, kind of, but it’s also a story about a relationship and how something unpredictable can come between two people in a seemingly irrevocable way.
Story of Your Life is the one that becameArrival. For those unfamiliar, it’s about a linguist who was brought onto a project to decipher an alien language that seems impossible and how the knowledge of that language changes how she, and others who grow to understand it, think. Much like the movie, the story has tremendous emotional impact, aside from being a really fascinating exploration of how an actual linguist would go about something like this.
Seventy-Two Letters is another story about language, and, namely, the power and importance of naming and identification. It also heavily dabbles in religious themes, namely, what constitutes creation that is beyond human and (inappropriately) approaching godlike. This was, in my view, the weirdest of the stories, which isn’t to say that it didn’t work. But its treatment of an essentially mystical power as a scientific procedure made the worldbuilding a little less … tidy. Like I said, it wasn’t a bad thing, and ultimately this and all stories should be free to bend rules like this. But it did take an extra beat for it gel for me that the animation of automatons by naming them was not metaphorical.
Hell Is the Absence of God was, if not obvious from the title, another one that played with religious motifs. This one relied on the manifestation of angels on Earth, and how these are actually pretty destructive events that cause physical damage to structures and landscapes, and result in a lot of collateral damage. While they do that, though, some people who end up in the path of the angel ascend immediately to heaven, if they love God enough. The story approaches all sides of this by following three characters with varying levels of devotion to God. If Seventy-Two Letters was a fantasy/sci-fi blend, this one is purely fantasy, but the speculative, humanist angle of the story keeps it grounded despite the high-concept conceit.
Liking What You See: A Documentary ended as one of my favorites. Told in documentary form through interviews and articles, the story explores the issues surrounding an elective brain modification called “calliagnosia”, which, when activated, prevents people from being able to perceive beauty and attractiveness. It doesn’t affect their ability to tell features apart, or interpret facial expressions, or to objectively notice features that might have otherwise been associated with “beauty” or “ugliness,” but they are unable to assign value to what they see. There were a lot of ways this story could go, and even though there was no reason why I should have doubted Chiang at this point, I was still really impressed by the nuance and sophistication with the way that the subject was handled. There wasn’t any heavy-handed moralizing or lecturing that betrayed his opinion as an author, but rather a rather insightful and probably pretty realistic portrayal of how the events in the story would have been likely to play out.
This is a perfect example of why book challenges have been a great exercise for me as a reader, because otherwise this book would have never been on my radar. It really did give me a lot of material for reflection, and I’d love to see Liking What You See adapted for the screen!