Stories of Your Life


I can't believe I've been blogging nearly a year and haven't yet talked about Ted Chiang.

Ted Chiang is my absolute favorite science fiction short story author. He's won three Nebulas, a Hugo, and has been nominated (though he turned the nomination down) for a second Hugo. This is pretty amazing when you consider that he's written a grand total of nine stories. He may have the best works-to-awards ratio of any author in science fiction.

A lot of his work deals with the mind and neuroscience. Predestination, Free Will, Perception, and Faith are major recurring themes. I've shown his book to a Berkeley neuroscience professor who enjoys science fiction, and the science is both plausible and at the cutting edge of current understanding. At the same time, Chiang writes in a very understandable way, such that, even without a science background, you feel yourself informed about the subjects without being lectured. Chiang does an excellent job of explaining the science, where it's going (or has gone, by the time of the story) and then moving to the human implications of these changes.

Nearly all of Chiang's short stories are collected in a single volume, Stories of Your Life and Others. The one that isn't in that volume can be found here. Chiang is not, to say the least, prolific, having produced nine stories since he was first published in the early 90s. What he's produced is all good, though; while not everyone loves all of Chiang's stories, I know at least one person who loves each of them. And the advantage of such a sparse library of stories is that you can read one volume and say that you've read his entire body of work.

I would particularly recommend, incidentally, the stories "Understand," "Hell is the Absence of God," and "Liking What You See: a Documentary." The last one is my favorite Chiang story; it's organized as a documentary and explores the implications for college students at a Berkeley-esque school in the near future of a technology that allows you to turn off the part of your brain that tells you whether people are attractive or not. You still recognize how people look, and, on some intellectual level, you can piece things together to determine who's attractive and who isn't, but it won't be a gut instinct. For you, the concept of attractive and unattractive will no longer have meaning. The story is rich with ideas and explores all sides of the argument for and against the procedure. It raises interesting questions that it never answers and leaves to the reader to puzzle through on their own. When I finished reading it the first time, I set the book down and was temporarily dazed as I swam in ideas about perception and the mind and society. It took hours for me to return to the real world, and that, I think, is the sign of a good science fiction story.


I was just thinking about that story the other day. Some girl in the bathroom was talking about how her mom had gotten lip injections and that she was going to soon. Also, are you sure you haven't at least mentioned that story before? I think I remember you posting about it at some point.

See, I don't know. I vaguely recall having talked about it, but I did an advanced Google search of my domain for "Chiang" and came up empty. Anyhow, people should read it. It's good.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on June 2, 2006 8:12 PM.

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