Collected here for the first time, Ted Chiang’s award-winning stories–recipients of the Nebula, Sturgeon, Campbell, and Asimov awards–offer a feast of science, speculation, humanity, and lyricism. Standouts include “Tower of Babylon,” in which a miner ascends the fabled tower in order to break through the vault of heaven; “Division by Zero,” a precise and heartbreaking examination of the disintegration of hope and love; and “Story of Your Life,” in which a linguist learns an alien language that reshapes her view of the world.
I should start out by saying that this post contains spoilers for Arrival (the movie version of Story of Your Life). Also since this is a series of short stories I’m going to review each one individually.
I didn’t like Divison by Zero. Mostly because it was about maths and I’m not a fan of math in general. Also I didn’t quite understand how math was making the main character suicidal. Basically I didn’t get it and therefor didn’t understand it. Seventy-Two Letters was another I didn’t really like. I should point out that I do like how a number of these storys also have religious aspects to them. I find it really interesting how Chiang mixes sci-fi with religion. I just don’t like steampunk robots (which is what the story was about).
Hell Is The Absence Of God was one I found interesting. It is set in a world where heaven and hell are real, along with angels who frequently visit earth. Now these visitations aren’t good things (think of them more like natural disasters), but when they visit they can heal the sick and do fancy things like that (people also die quite regularly from these visitations). The three characters in this story are all affected by the angels visitations and what the story is really about is how three people take different meanings from what happened to them. One lost his wife, one was healed and the other was ignored. This story is also about a guy trying to get into heaven so there is that aspect to it as well.
Tower of Babylon was one I really enjoyed to the point where I would love it if this was made into a movie. It would be a really boring movie, but it would be cool. This is another story where sci-fi is mashed with the bible. In this people have been building the Tower of Babylon, this tower is now so big it takes 4 months to reach the top. It is so high it goes past the moon and sun and stars (basically think of the old idea of the universe, where everything revolved around the Earth). We see a group of people who are on a journey to the top of the tower to “breech the vault of heaven”. Basically they want to mine through the vault that covers the universe. This story is a commentary on religion and I don’t want to give away spoilers so I won’t tell you the ending but I really liked it.
Okay there will be spoilers for Arrival from this point. I enjoyed Arrival but there was one thing that I couldn’t take seriously, that being the fact that the climax of the film was solved by the Heptapod language allowing Dr Banks to see into the future and stop World War 3 from happening. I mostly didn’t like it because the rest of the film was quite serious so a language that allowed you to see through time seemed laughable. But the thing is, it is exactly the same in the story but it works. Part of the problem may be that this story is really about linguistics and the filmmakers added all the action bits that turned it into something long enough to be a movie (for that I blame Hollywood).
But I think where the film makers went wrong was trying to keep it a secret that the Heptapods didn’t experience time the way we do (by that I mean in a linear fashion). The short story is written as if Dr Banks is talking to her daughter, but because of the pronouns you can see that she is telling her daughter things that will happen in the future. In the movie that is kept a secret, we see Banks with her daughter but you are made to think those things happened in the past. The way the Heptapod language works is it allows ? to experience all moments of her life at the same time (I find it interesting in the book she notes that it only happens so long as she remembers the language).
The book also had a better way of telling what I though was a major flaw of the movie. That being Banks knew her daughter was going to die of a terminal illness. If Banks knew her daughter would die why would she even have her daughter in the first place. But it’s told slightly differently in the book. Her daughter dies in a climbing accident. You see how Banks never wants to let her daughter climb (probably because she knows her daughter will die from it) it’s almost as if Banks thinks she can change the future by preventing her daughter from climbing, but that in itself encourages her daughter to climb more resulting in her death.
I actually really enjoyed the story and it’s sad the filmmakers made such a mess of it because it could have been a really interesting sci-fi. Instead they went with the old aliens invade cause they want to help humanity trope.
I almost forgot about Understand which is a story you should definitely read if you like Flowers for Algernon (for the person getting smart stuff, not the mouse and heartbreak).