To borrow from 30 Rock, I loved Arrival, as all right thinking people did, because I have two ears and a heart, don’t I? I had read the story that gives this collection its title in some science fiction best of collection shortly after its publication (it will drive me absolutely crazy that I can’t find where I initially read it to get an exact date, but it was at least ten years ago), and weirdly, about ten seconds into the movie before much happens, I had the revelation that I knew this story, I had read it before, and knew what was going to happen. It didn’t diminish the movie at all, I was in tears by the end. It’s a testament to good writing that you can know what’s coming and still appreciate it; Chiang manages to bring that same awe to all of his stories.
The first short left me a bit cold, but the others here are science fiction that has a lot of stake in the science part of the equation, without losing the humanity of fiction, which is a delicate balance to strike. We see a mathematician discover a proof that renders her work meaningless (the end notes have Chiang saying “a proof that mathematics is inconsistent, and that all its wondrous beauty was just an illusion, would, it seemed to me, be one of the worst things you could ever learn” and coming from someone with a comic book library, I can say with all authority and love: NERD). There’s an interesting short about what would happen if Regency-era science was in fact accurate, with life arising from non-life with heat, and preformation resulting in tiny human figures within sperm. My favorite may have been the closer, a transcript of a documentary about “calli,” an implanted device that keeps people from registering faces as beautiful or ugly, in part because of Chiang’s aforementioned balance of science and fiction, but also because he doesn’t seem to be for or against the prospect as an author. He gives the critics and supporters thoughtful reasons and shallow ones, makes them ugly and beautiful, gives them tactics fair and underhanded. And, of course, there’s Story of Your Life, which gave us Arrival, and made more sense the second read around for me.
I cannot wait to re-read these again, and discover layers I hadn’t appreciated the first time through.