Book Review – Stories of Your Life and Others

5 stars. Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others is a marvel: a book about ideas that also resonates strongly on a human level. Its eight short stories manage to express very cutting-edge ideas in simple prose but with massive undercurrents of thought-provoking, significant impressions about their moral and cultural implications. And for all that, the stories themselves are emotionally moving, with memorable and heartfelt characters.

“Tower of Babylon”: A story of workers climbing the Tower of Babylon as it ascends the heavens, that concludes with a satisfying twist about the continuity and patterns found in nature and life.

“Understand”: A man’s intelligence is brought to incredible levels through medical treatment… and then he learns that there is another such as he, and they are destined to be rivals. The plot unfolds like an action/adventure spy story, yet also explores the concept of intelligence itself, whether language limits thought, and how worldview and intelligence are very different.

“Division By Zero”: A mathematician’s life falls apart as she proves a theorem that invalidates everything she thought about the foundations of math, with an eerie understanding about how we cling to what we hold dear.

“Story of Your Life”: Aliens have made contact with humans, and a linguist attempts to communicate with them. As she unravels the mystery of their speech, she discovers that their language is but one facet of their alien understanding of time and fate. The story is centered around the birth, life, and death of her daughter in a sad yet cathartic framework.

“Seventy-Two Letters”: Victorian artisans create and animate golems through study of nomenclature; Chiang presents another take on how language shapes reality.

“The Evolution of Human Science”: Presented as an article in a scholarly journal of the future, where artificial intelligence has so far surpassed human understanding that no meaningful scientific research is made by humans. Both an interesting study in the relation between creator and created and why inquiry, even into things already understood by others, is part of human nature.

“Hell Is the Absence of God”: Religious manifestations such as visitation by angels are regular occurrences, with results that cannot be understood as some are healed, some cursed, and some killed. The story is both wickedly irreverent and in touch with the concept of divinity.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary”: A technology has been developed by which humans no longer take beauty of others into account in how they treat each other. This story is a documentary presenting “pro” and “con” voices on the issue of whether a university should require all students to use it to prevent perception of beauty from affecting human relationships. Sharp and insightful commentary into human perception.

Favorites for me were “Story of Your Life”, “Understand”, “Hell Is the Absence of God”, and “Liking What You See: A Documentary”.

Chiang is a rarity of authors, able to discuss complex concepts in a readable manner. The narrative is always character-driven; these are stories about the impact of concepts on humans and our relationships. I highly recommend Stories of Your Life and Others as a look at how we are affected by what we’ve created–science, religion, technology, and language.

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