I quite enjoyed the movie Arrival and so naturally ended up picking up Stories of Your Life and Others. Written by Ted Chiang, this book of 8 science fiction short stories is now rebranded as Arrival, to cash in on the movie's success. These stories were published over a decade between 1990 and 2002 and appear in the book in published order. After first reading them in 2018, I got a chance again in 2020 to read them for a bookclub.
The Tower of Babylon is a perfect example of what Ted Chiang does best. In what the author calls Babylonian science fiction in his speaker notes, it deftly combines reality, myth and science. If there was a tower being built from the Earth's surface up to Heaven, it shows the logistics of moving materials, food and people and the social life for folks living on the higher levels of the enormous tower. In the end, the miners reach the top and break it reappearing back at a different place on Earth, indicating that the Earth is shaped like a cylinder or a Mobius strip of some sort. The ending is weak, but I loved the rest.
Understand is the author's first published short. It reads more like a sci-fi action thriller where a person gains superhuman intelligence due to a Harmone K treatment. The FBI is hunting him, but using his super intelligence he is able to evade them easily and also study and understand all of human knowledge. He soon discovers that he has an equally potent adversary - another human who also got the harmone treatment. The duel of their minds is the climax, which again is a bit weak after a strong two acts.
Division by Zero, surrounds a mathematician's lament on discovering the shaky foundations of math and her partner's attempts to support her. I felt that this was the weakest story in the collection.
The Story of Your life is the short that was turned into a successful movie. Aliens have arrived in Earth and are trying to converse with humans. The story revolves around a linguisitics professor's successful attempts at spoken communication and later written communication with the beings. To write in the alien's script requires one to understand both the past and future of what is being communicated. Essentially, one can see both the past and the future of what you are trying to communicate once you learn the script. Chiang could have stopped there, but he beautifully meshes that to a letter from the mother to her (unborn) daughter of this experience and of her own (future) life. I got a whole new respect for this story on the second read. It is a complex and interesting idea, that Chiang is able to pull off. The movie turns out to be interesting in its own way, but it goes in a different direction.
Themes of genetics and robotics combine in Seventy-Two Letters which introduces a fantasy world set in the 18th century. It is a world where names are used to bring life to automatons and humans have just discovered that they have only a few generations left before extinction. The people trying to save the human race are using nomenclature to impress names into ovum to continue human reproduction.
In Hell is the absence of God, Chiang cleverly shifts our current world reality, just a wee little bit. It is a world where visitations by angels and the miracles that happen due to that are akin to natural disasters, leaving people blind or paralyzed due to the energy those acts unleash. The short uses that to question the religious belief that being punished is also a gift of God.
Liking what you see: A documentary introduces calliagnosia, a way to induce brain neurons to be immune to facial beauty. The short uses that to debate the importance of beauty in our world, how beauty is used as a tool to attract and market.
Ted Chiang proves to be exceptional in presenting intriguing new ideas in meticulous fictional detail, these are sure to expand your thinking. Where I found the stories lacking was the human elements. In some shorts, the combination of elements are perfect, but in some the human parts of the story suffer. I think this is a good book to read and a better book to discuss with friends.