A collection of 9 superb short stories, representing 12 years of craftsmanship and imagination.
Ted Chiang is a SF writer who almost never writes. Maybe once in a few years he produces a manuscript, and usually it is a short-story or novelette. His total output over the past 25 years has been around 14 short stories, which is enough to fill one book.
Nevertheless, Ted Chiang is highly regarded and admired amongst his peers, praising his “humane intelligence” and topics of “modern, melancholy transcendence” in the words of China Mieville. Not many people in this field have received so much praise and awards with so little output. Most of his short stories have won a number of prestigious awards. If you are a fan of science fiction but normally only seek out full novels, you’ll easily miss this writer and that would be a shame. He is one of the best science fiction writers working today.
Chiang’s first 9 stories, each averaging about 30 pages in length, are now collected in Stories of Your Life and Others. Representing the fruit of 12 years of labor, every story is a little jewel that took over a year of work for Chiang. The stories gestated in his brain, and then he shaved and cut the text and the characters until the output would be nothing less than perfect. Every line and paragraph is meticulously refined and clear as glass. Not a single line of text is superfluous.
The two great strengths of Ted Chiang are science and empathy. His stories are combinations of extremely hard nerdy science about physics, mathematics, aliens and AI, and a deep warm humanism of empathy and compassion. So often in hard SF, characters are just walking, talking ideas to forward the plot, but the humanity in Chiang’s stories is touching and deep-felt. Combine this with mind-blowing scientific extrapolations that go much farther than most SF-writers dare or could imagine, and you have something to treasure. The writer closest in style and content to Chiang would be Greg Egan, but Chiang writing more realistic characters.
Chiang also has an interest in mythology and plays what-if games with biblical elements. What if the Tower of Babel was actually built? What if angels actually descended from the sky and created havoc, seen on the evening news? He doesn’t take cheap shots at belief, but maintains a human intelligence about emotions and society.
If I am forced to criticize this work, I would say that first, only a select group of people would like the mathematics and physics element. He writes for a very small crowd. Secondly, the topics of some of his stories have been done before. The story Understand, for example, is about a guy with expanding intellect, echoing Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon (1966) and the later film Lucy (2014). And Story of Your Life is about an alien language that transforms the woman who learns it, echoing Samuel R. Delaney’s Babel-17 (1966). That short story by the way, Story of Your Life, is going to receive a Hollywood adaptation in 2016, to be directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015)).
Chiang ends the collection (the first collection of his work, but more will surely follow) with interesting notes on the stories. He explains how he cooked up the ideas and why he wanted to write them.