Book review: Collection balances concepts with character
January 14, 2017
‘Stories of Your Life and Others,' by Ted Chiang
"What price knowledge?" a question debated for centuries by authors, scientists and philosophers, is the central theme of the collection titled "Stories of Your Life and Others," by Ted Chiang.
The compilation contains stories mostly from the 1990s that have been reprinted to coincide with the movie "Arrival," which is based on the titular work.
The various tales depict an ancient miner working on the tower of Babylon, a scholar in an alternative London who specializes in magic nomenclature, the recipient of a super-strong smart drug, a linguist deciphering an alien language, a mathematician facing an existential crisis, a widower whose wife was killed by an angelic visitation and the author of an article concerning the worth of human science in a world filled with intellectually advanced metahumans.
The above question takes on different forms depending upon the setting and characters of the particular stories, but the fact that the answer will transform those involved is never in doubt. The study of the alien language alters the linguist's life. The miner discovers a horrible or, perhaps, wonderful truth. The earnest magician scholar must fight backlash from both the lower class and his superiors.
The tropes will be familiar to any science fiction fan ("Understand" is a twist on "Flowers for Algernon," and "Story of Your Life" charts first contact with aliens) but Chiang's handling of the material will surprise even the most broadly read. The widower learns the surprising truth of pure faith. The building of a sacred structure reveals an unexpected aspect of reality. The mathematician searches for surety in a newly unstable world. College students are divided by a new technology and its implications for society, an oddly prescient story for today's undergrads.
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Throughout, Chiang admirably balances the concepts in his stories with their impacts on his characters. As in all good writing, it is hard to distinguish action from character and character from action. Chiang does this with a studied assurance. His descriptions are full without being excessive. He provides the reader with a complete sense of these worlds without overwhelming details. His prose is compelling without being visceral. You want to turn the page but are hesitant, fearing you might be changed yourself before the story reaches its conclusion.
I couldn't ask for anything more.
This book is available at Bud Werner Memorial Library and Off the Beaten Path.
Cameron McVey is a library assistant at Bud Werner Memorial Library.