enhanced] DD-B

Book Note: Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others

I read this book about 6-Mar-2004. This is the first time I've read this book. The book is copyright 2002. This note was last modified Sunday, 07-Mar-2004 21:59:15 PST.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


A collection of his stories, dating from 1990 to 2001. Widely acclaimed as one of the best authors of short fiction in ages. I haven't tried him before this.

Tower of Babylon

A miner is brought to Babylon, to be part of the team that climbs the tower to the vault of heaven and tunnels through.

There's about a perfect level of detail about the organization and technology of tower construction. They've been working on it for centuries, and planned at the level of planting forests to supply the wood to fire the kilns to bake the bricks. "Pullers", those who haul carts up and down the tower, travel in 4 day stretches, and they live in those stretches. Few people make the whole trip. Vegetables are grown on balconies out to the side of the tower.

The one thing that bothers me is that the base is 60 cubits on a side; far too small to support a tower of that height. I suspect the bricks, even fired bricks, would crumble under the weight, too. The height isn't explicit (beyond being above the moon, sun, and even the stars), but in the middle you don't really see detail on the ground; the tower just recedes to infinity both up and down. So it's pretty tall.

And did they really worship Yahweh in Babylon at the tower-building time?

The ending is a serious disappointment, too. They tunnel through the vault of heaven, they do hit a reservoir and their precautions to prevent a second deluge are activated, and the main character tries to survive by swimming up through the reservoir. He ends up back on earth, not that far from Babylon. He likens the process to rolling a seal onto a tablet, in that things adjacent on the seal may be distant on the tablet. It's just not a big enough payoff.


The superman comes back to the page. I really like a number of his insights; especially that practical problems were becoming boring, and only theory gave him scope. The Arisians would understand.

What I didn't like so well was this "superman" overlooking the possible utility of producing others like himself. Especially after he figures out the he's less than he could be due to lack of social interaction. I can see arguments why there wasn't time, or was too much risk, or whatever; but I can't see overlooking the possibility.

He's eventually defeated (and presumably reprogrammed and reused) by the other superman that he failed to anticipate. He was inner-focused, the other was manipulation-focused.

Division by Zero

A mathematician discovers a simple, constructive, proof that 1 equals 2. She's disturbed by this. (Note: my BA is in mathematics). And I don't get the point, or what the ending is supposed to be about. I think her experience of this is modeled as "growth" somehow, but I see no information about where it takes her. It takes her away from her husband, I can see that much. The ending came up suddenly, and I don't see the point. I'm sure there's supposed to be one.

Story of Your Life

The prolog paragraphs are already unstuck in time, but come to a nicely tense conclusion: Ships appeared in orbit, and objects appeared in meadows. And then I (first-person narrator) got a phone call, a request for a meeting. The narrator is the mother of a woman who is already dead (at age 25) at the time of the writing, and to whom the story is addressed. Alternating sections discuss the aliens, and relate anecdotes from the dead woman's past, addressed directly to the dead woman. Whether this somehow connects to the aliens is not yet clear.

The contact with the aliens is being run by the military. The aliens have sent down artifacts, which we call "looking glasses", that are remote communicators. There's a tent around the one we've met, and there's a marked "activation area"; walking into that turns on the looking glass, and generally an alien comes and starts interacting with you. The military is very worried about the aliens learning English, especially once the linguists say they probably can't just from our broadcasts. (This is of course contrary to all other SF, but no argument is made for the position). There are tv cameras monitoring everything that goes on in the tent from multiple angles, feeding military intelligence and all the other oversight people.

So, what do the two humans do after pushing in their equipment cart? They talk casually with each other in English. And they continue to chat as they use their equipment to try to communicate with the aliens, too. And they start actively teaching the aliens English words, as well as trying to find the alien words.

This is so appallingly unbelievable I have a hard time even articulating it. Security people are paranoid. The people shouldn't be in that tent at all, they should haul in a TV screen and speakers and camera to face the looking glass. They should be doing their actual work in a secure studio, with careful control over what's actually allowed out to the TV; probably not completely under their own control, even. I can easily understand other forces overriding the security concerns, but the narration indicates that the security forces are getting what they want (short of the aliens not being there in the first place).

On the other hand, the things we're learning about the (unrelated) written and spoken alien languages are fascinating.

The time play level is increasing; becoming an overt part of the conversation, instead of just being implied in verb tenses and such. Given how I feel about time travel stories, it's looking grim. The heptapods do seem to experience time sequentially, as we do—that's why they have the spoken Heptapod A language. But their thought processes encompass things across time. They see "action" as minimizing or maximizing things on the way to a goal pre-known. While still having free will. The inherent problem is that these concepts are nonsense, contradictory; so this may be the best that can be done to "explain" them.

I still don't understand why one would want to explain them. I still think they're nonsense.

Seventy-Two Letters

An alternate Europe, where a certain model of magic works. Golems, true names; though no hint of judaism.

Looks like he's trying to work out fully the old model of reproduction—where all the future generations are stored up inside the male, nested. But they're doing some experiments, and they find out that many human lines have only 4 more generations to run. So they work out a way to continue anyway. This is wrapped in with conflict on some social issues. That also leaves them with a scientific problem on the origin of species; that gets handwaved as being perhaps due to the high energy levels available in catastrophes.

The Evolution of Human Science

An editorial, it looks like, from one of the remaining human scientific journals, 25 years after essentially all scientific work is being done by the meta-humans (those able to use direct neural transfer, apparently as a result of a gene therapy applied by their parents). Very brave. Not terribly informative on the meta-human society.

Hell is the Absence of God

This seems to be a world based on certain fundamentalist protestant beliefs. Angels manifest fairly regularly, working miracles, and also causing collateral damage. The protagonist loses his wife (she's killed by glass blown out of a window when an angel appears), and has to deal with issues of faith. His wife's soul was observed to go to heaven, so for the first time in his life he has some interest in having his soul go there. (Why he didn't think of this earlier is beyond me).

Hell is also visible now and then; the ground becomes transparent and you can see the souls going around down there. However, it's not the "fire and brimstone" hell of fundamentalist preachers; it's just like here, except that you are permanently cut off from god. I guess this is biblically more sound than the fire and brimstone, but I don't think much of anybody actually believes in this mild version of hell. There's an amusing event where a woman who was told her husband ascended to heaven happens to see him in hell later.

No reference to anywhere outside the US. I wonder how this works in Hindu or Muslim countries?

And in fact, after the guy is jerked around for long enough, he manages to see the Light of Heaven, which guarantees he will go to heaven, just before he dies (it also removes his eyes). However, god sends him to hell anyway. This seems like a sudden turn; from treating all this as normal and natural, back to the "malign thug" view of god (to which I'd have to subscribe, if I thought there were any such thing). And always before, the Light of Heaven was thought to in fact guarantee Heaven (though that could, of course, be mere statistical error). Anyway, it felt like a sharp turn in the trajectory of the story to me.

Liking What You See: a Documentary

A series of interviews, all around the issue of calliagnosia, a mental state rendering you immune to (or insensitive to) beauty. They've learned how to turn it on and off, and it has only very minor side effects (portrait paintings are a bit less interesting, and doctors that use subtle diagnostic clues can tell the difference sometimes).

This is the only story in the book I wholeheartedly like. All of them are very good in some ways, but I mostly have significant objections or things that bother me about them. Usually I think they've missed important points. I don't have any of those for this one.

Overall Comments

I very much enjoyed reading this book. The stories are well written, and mostly well thought out. Unfortunately, a lot of them aren't well enough thought out for me; they seem to have holes that leap out and bother me. And even the stories that had holes, I still enjoyed parts of. I'm not tremendously current on short SF, but it doesn't look that wrong that Ted Chiang has won two Nebulas and a Hugo.

He has a nice set of notes on the stories at the back. None of them made me suddenly realize I'd completely misunderstood a piece, or anything embarrassing like that.

Unlike the last author whose first professional sale won a major award, it doesn't seem to have ruined this one.

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David Dyer-Bennet