Stunning and thought-provoking, this collection of short stories by one of the most non-prolific speculative fiction writers of our time represents what the best of science fiction has to offer. All of these stories are elegantly written, with intricately imaginative story-telling. They are rooted in scientific ideas that blossom into thought experiments about the nature of reality and what it means to be human. The collections contains eight amazing stories, two of which I will highlight in this review.
The title story “Story of Your Life”, which received the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon award in 1998, is about a linguist working to understand the language of an alien species, and in the process of uncovering and learning their non-linear written language, is able to cope with her personal tragedies. The ability to think in non-chronological time allows the linguist to see the bad things in her life, including her divorce and death of her daughter, along with the good, giving her a sense of peace with her new perceptive consciousness. I might compare “Story of Your Life” to Vonnegut, albeit a less satirical, more content tone. Look forward this story adapted into film in 2016.
A story which I think deserves significantly more recognition is “Seventy-Two Letters”, in which the power of language and an alternate science is explored. You may be familiar with alternate histories, in which a pivotal moment sparks an alternate time line, but here, the basis of reproductive biology is preformation. There’s also a classic idea that a true name can represent its true object perfectly, and if known and properly manipulated, the changing of the name can change the nature of reality itself. Chiang is able to deftly draw comparisons between the Kaballah, translational DNA, and computer programming in this ingenious story about real-life gollums and the search for man’s true name.
Keep in mind that Ted Chiang is an author who declined a Hugo nomination for “Liking What You See: A Documentary” because it didn’t turn out how he wanted, although I find it a brilliantly subtle take on modern ideals of beauty and forced equality. Combined with an average output of one short story every two years, you might consider Chiang a perfectionist, but if that’s what it takes, I’m willing to wait.
“Freedom isn’t an illusion; it’s perfectly real in the context of sequential consciousness.”