Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

Book: Stories of your life and others

Author: Ted Chiang

Details: (c) 2002 Ted Chiang; Pub Orb 2002; ISBN 0-765-30419-8

Verdict: Stories of your life ranges from good to wonderful.

Reasons for reading it: coalescent recommended it to me forever ago. And then rysmiel recommended it to me in the strongest terms. And then lethargic_man told me I had to read it so he and I could discuss it and because it is REPLETE WITH MIDRASH (sic).

How it came into my hands: I bought it from Amazon and lovely hatam_soferet carried it across the Atlantic for me.

Chiang is doing a really interesting thing, namely creating worlds where various bits of theology are literally true and exploring the consequences in a slightly old-fashioned hard SF way. The best of the stories are technically gorgeous, and with really beautiful twists, and just the perfect exemplar of what an SF short story should be. The weakest stories suffer slightly from less than sparkling dialogue and a mild excess of sheer geekiness, but those are very minor problems. There's much in there to appeal to me specifically; as lethargic_man mentioned, several of the stories have bits of Judaism in them, and then there's linguistics as a scientific discipline, and a gorgeous fantasia on genetics, and maths used to tell an actual story, rather than the story being used to illustrate the maths.

The title story I've read previously in a different collection. It pleased me then but I liked it better on a second reading. I love the poignancy of the mother-daughter relationship, and the way that is intertwined with the science-y bits. I love the way it's playing with time and weird physics, but in a really subtle and original way. I love the satisfying first contact story. I love the pace of the reveal, which worked for me even on rereading. I think it may be the most perfectly executed short I have ever read, though Greg Egan's Orphanogenesis comes close.

My other two favourites are Division by Zero and Seventy-two letters. The first is doing maths SF really well. It is exploring a mathematically novel idea, using real-world maths as background, taking sexy things like Gödel's incompleteness theorem actually in context and not using it as an excuse for silly mysticism. And the characterization is exquisite, and I loved the ending. And the latter is just the ideal story to appeal to me. It has golems! And kabbalah! And genetics! And it's about scientists actually being scientists! And I did see the twist coming but that didn't detract from the cleverness of it. The only minor flaw in it is that I don't think Chiang captures his alt-history Victorian period very successfully, but that's a tiny nitpick. I am not sure if someone who is not me would be less starry-eyed about this one, but I do think it's good as well as suited to my particular brain.

Tower of Babylon is also cool, does a great job of drawing one into its highly original setting, and it combines early Genesis cosmology / theology with a rather gorgeous account of bronze age science. Hell is the absence of God, where the theology is the Helenized Biblical view of Job, is really disturbing, and I like (but don't passionately adore) what it's doing with disability. The transhumanist ones are by comparison less amazingly wonderful; Understand reminds me strongly of Asimov and I found the ending unsatisfying. The vignette The evolution of human science is cute, but not more than cute. The only weak story in the collection is Liking what you see, and even that is reasonably enjoyable for all its flaws.

If you generally like SF, you pretty much have to read this collection. If you don't it will probably leave you cold, it's that sort of book. Thanks so much to everyone who persuaded me to read it!
Tags: book

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