Stories of Your Life and Others left me cold, which surprised me for two reasons: first, because he has a reputation as an excellent writer, few stories but nearly every one a contender for major awards and often enough a winner; second, because I had enjoyed The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate so much. (That work won the Hugo in 2007 for best novelette.) Stories of Your Life and Others is his first collection, gathering work published seven stories published from 1990 to 2001 and adding an eighth, “Liking What You See: A Documentary.” A second collection, Exhalation, is scheduled for publication in May 2019.
“Tower of Babylon” opens Stories of Your Life and Others; it was Chiang’s first published story, and won the Nebula in 1991 for best novelette. The tower’s builders have a problem: they have reached the vault of the sky, and cannot break through to heaven. To solve the problem, the Babylonians have sent for miners from Elam and from Egypt. The story follows Hillalum, one of the Elamites fetched from his copper mines to the mighty city, and tasked to ascend to heaven itself. Babylon has been building the tower for centuries, and the Babylonians have developed a system for supplying the construction. Teams pull carts loaded with bricks along a path on the tower’s outer edge upward for several days’ journey, and then pass their bricks to another team that is waiting to receive them. In a vertical relay, each group of pullers goes back and forth along a limited stretch of the tower, but “there is a continuous caravan of brick going up the tower; thousands of bricks reach the top each day.” (p. 5)
Hillalum and the other miners will be going all the way to the top, taking most of a year to get there on foot. They will see far more than any group of pullers. As they ascend, Hillalum and his company encounter many strange sights, or at least things that seem strange to ground dwellers. Soon they are among people who never leave the tower, in time they come to layers where there is more rain and water than in dusty Babylon, eventually they meet people who live above the clouds, and then above the sun itself. “Tower of Babylon” bridges the mythic and the mundane; Hillalum, the miners, and the people they meet along the way are direct and practical, with earthy senses of humor. They are grounded despite the dizzying heights at which they live, and the cosmic nature of their project. And the cosmos of course is one in which the sun travels around the earth, the stars are small points of light, and the top of the sky is a stone vault.
Surprises naturally await when the miners get to work at the top of the tower, but not simple ones because Chiang takes his story’s cosmos seriously. If all of the tales in Stories of Your Life and Others were as strong and unusual as “Tower of Babylon” I would have enjoyed the collection as much as I did The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate. Unfortunately, the next two — “Understand” and “Division by Zero” — fell flat for me. The first tells what happens when a patient who nearly drowned under ice in a lake is revived and his oxygen-deprived brain healed by an experimental treatment. He finds that his mental capacities are expanding well beyond normal human abilities. It’s a lot like “Flowers for Algernon” but without the regression (spoilers, sorry). Within the story, the treatment only works on damaged neurons, so effects like those experienced by the protagonist will only occur in people who were dangerously close to total brain death. With that, Chiang ensures that people like the protagonist will be extremely rare; the story’s final part concerns what happens when the protagonist encounters another like him. The whole thing, though, is a power fantasy of intelligence, a what-if of brain power and willpower being able to control everything about oneself and nearly everything about everyone else. “Division by Zero” concerns the crisis of faith of a mathematician who proved, conclusively, that the whole of mathematics is inconsistent and thus arbitrary. Her downward spiral parallels the disintegration of her marriage.
I think these two fell flat for reasons external to the stories themselves, or at least partly external. They are both nearly 30 years from their publication, and that is a perilous time for a work of art, particularly science fiction. Technology has moved on, society has changed — think of a 1950s story in the 1980s — but not yet so much that the stories have become period pieces. (Or timeless. I think “Tower of Babylon” is likelier to stick around because of its successful approach to mythical subjects.) Discoveries or concerns that were new and shiny when the stories were published are now just worn but have not yet acquired the warm patina of age.
The other main reason they fell flat for me is that the characters were not people so much as stand-ins for ideas. The stories explore the ideas, the concepts of what-happens-if, but I did not get much sense of the uniqueness of the people involved. Without that human interest, when the idea is no longer new or fashionable, the story is going to feel dated, which is exactly how these seemed to me.
I held out more hope for “Story of Your Life,” which was the basis for the acclaimed 2016 film Arrival (I haven’t seen it). The premise is that aliens make contact with earth by materializing a large number of communication devices — they look like large, free-standing mirrors — on our planet’s surface and starting to observe. The aliens are seven-limbed and radially symmetrical, and their thought processes are suitably difficult to follow. The story follows the team efforts of a linguist and a physicist to establish communications with the aliens. The linguist, Dr. Louise Banks, is the first-person narrator, and she reveals early on that her daughter (the “you” of “Story of Your Life”) dies in a climbing accident as a young adult some years after the alien contact event. The puzzle part of the story is reasonably interesting, with neat things to say about language, writing, and thinking. The human element, though, is kind of a mess. By the time of the alien contact, Banks is divorced, and over the course of the story she winds up falling in bed with her project partner, the physicist, because you didn’t see that coming at all, did you? I also thought and felt that using the daughter’s death to pull reader interest along in the story was cheap; that it ties in with the narrator’s great insights at the end of the story did not mollify me in the least.
At this point, not quite two-thirds of the way through the book, I started skimming, because life might be short and there are lots of great books out there. “Seventy-Two Letters” is a golem story, but Terry Pratchett told a better one four years earlier in Feet of Clay. That’s a little bit unfair, the world of “Seventy-Two Letters” is an interesting one, an alternate England about the time of the scientific revolution with some different basic premises about the universe, such as “preformation, the theory that organisms exist fully formed in the germ cells of their parents” (p. 335, in Chiang’s notes on the stories). “The Evolution of Human Science” is a short short published in Nature, and a nifty sketch of something that might happen in science if AI transcended the limits of human conception. “Hell is the Absence of God” apparently draws on Sartre; there was an absence of my reading. “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” struck me as a slightly SF-ified story of “campus PC run amuck,” and that’s not a story that interests me at all. In fact, purveying campus-PC-run-amuck is the kind of thing that will tend to steer me away from the rest of an author’s work because it demonstrates a lack of understanding of how power functions in real human societies and may point to a tendency to identify with the overdog.
On the strength of stories like “Tower of Babylon” and “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” I will probably read more of Chiang’s work, but he is clearly an instance where what I think is a good story diverges from SF award nominators and voters.