Ted Chiang’s “Story of your life and Others” hits hard with sharp prose and provoking worlds

Overall thoughts

I just re-read Ted Chiang’s “Story of your life and Others” this weekend after reading it for the first time 3 weeks ago. It is now upped form a 4 to a 4.5 after having taken the time to digest his stories and ideas.

Ted Chiang is 5/5 for his ideas. 5/5 for opening up my mind and exposing ideas that I would never have thought about. 4.5/5 for writing, and characters. Every bit of fantastical world-building was lived in by beautifully written characters.

I’d put him at 3/5 for storytelling and his story arcs. The stories often have unsatisfying endings. I feel they collapse in the absurdity of these worlds taken to their logical (and crazy) conclusions. But you are so sucked into the novel world that is easy to forgive the imperfect story arcs. 

Chiang’s stories are nuanced and technical in a way that if you don’t read carefully or understand the science, you can miss the point of the story entirely. I gained more by googling online after I read each story to confirm what actually happened. Chiang’s characters are pushed and pulled with flaws in moral compass, ego, ignorance, or the simply the hand they’re dealt in the randomness of the universe.

I liked all the stories, but my favorite three were the emotional power of “Story of your life”,  the humorous yet powerful “Hell is the Absence of God” and creative cross-section of our life and values in “Liking what you see”.

<spoilers below>

Short Stories

Tower of Babylon

The “Tower of Babylon” is a fantasy world of a Tower being built to reach the heavens. The Tower passes the sun and stars, but has reached a physical ceiling. Our our protagonists are miners contracted to break the barrier from Earth to Heaven. What does it mean to try to reach god? In the end, this was a solid story, and it really exists for the kicker at the end.

(SPOILER, just like the rest of this post) Apparently this Babylon world is a “three dimensional torus”. I followed some laymans explanations of what a torus is, and then gave up. (What I got was a few examples (1) imagine being walking along the inside of a donut, but in three dimensions. Or (2) basically portal walls at some unspecified, finite point in all directions. Or (3) a video game where going off the right brings you back to the left.). Thank you Ted for the TIL.

 

Understand

This is a hilarious story about the ego and contempt of overwhelming intellectualism of a superhuman benefitting from a super-drug. The lessons here are:

  1. Overwhelming intelligence can create unexpected advantages when gaming the system
  2. But overwhelming intellectual power is not invincible
  3. You can know everything in the world but still have various goals and pursuits.

One theme is the classic “intellectualism vs. utilitarianism” debate of Leon (main character) vs. Reynolds (antagonist/foil). Leon advances intellectualism for the sake intellectual curiosity, while Reynolds does it for utilitarian purposes. Leon’s intellectual pursuit seems somewhat selfish and short-sighted at first. However, Reynold’s utilitarian approach goes down a hole of moral ambiguity and despotic behavior in an effort to make the world a better place. It doesn’t seem to be worth it. This is a common theme!

The fun parts are the crazy mind-chess going on, where I think, you think, I think you’re going to do XYZ. Leon plays against amateurs in the real world, but his demise is his ego, as he walks unprepared into a trap.

 

Division by Zero

“Division by Zero”  is a tragic story of a woman who’s mentally tortured by her inability to resolve a mathematical inconsistency that undermines all of arithmetic.

The story strikes at the essence of mathematics. It is the theoretical, not the experimental that is interesting. It is the self consistent universe that creates 1+1=2 and the litany of explanations of the universe that follow.

“She, like many, had always thought that mathematics did not derive its meaning from the universe, but rather imposed some meaning onto the universe […] But no more. Mathematics was inconsistent […] and a formal theory was nothing if not consistent. Math was empirical, no more than that, and it held no interest for her. 

I think it also hits hard at the inability for people to feel the way another feels when their essence is be shook to their core. The difference between sympathy and empathy is often brought up in stories (sympathy means you understand another’s feelings, empathy is when you feel their feelings), but this one turns it on it’s head. The man’s empathy becomes his reason to let go rather than stay.

He opened his mouth to say that he knew exactly what she meant, that he had felt the same things as she. But he stopped himself: for this was an empathy that separated rather than united them, and he couldn’t tell her that.

 

[My Top 3] Story of your Life

I don’t think this was one of the top in the beginning, because I didn’t really get it. After reading some summaries, this is brilliant and beautiful in a way difficult to explain (other than through the words of the story itself).

In “Story of your Life”, Louise knows her daughter will die at 25 before her daughter is conceived. She knows the future from studying an alien language that ties past, present, and future into one. But instead of fighting her future, she proceeds to conceive her daughter, and watches her die.

The premise is elegant, and the execution is beautiful. I could read this over and over and not get tired. In a weird way, heptapod semagrams are similar to books in that you are engaging with a the future is set in stone. Why read a book when you already know the future exists? The act of a book being read is just as important as it’s existence.

For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.

Just like the headliner Ken Liu’s short stories (“Paper Menagerie”), this is by far the most beautiful and emotional of the collection.

An alternative explanation I read is that there is no time travel/precognition, but the heptapod language allowed Louise to tell her story in a way where past, present and future are interconnected. This is a very good article and highly recommend.

This is the source material for the 2016 movie Arrival.

 

Seventy-Two Letters

InSeventy-Two Letters Stratton lives in a world resembling 19th century Britain, but where automata (robots) can be given instructions with a written seventy-two letter code. He is a scientist on the verge of creating robots that can do skilled labor. This gets everyone scared of self-programming automata taking their jobs.

But what’s scarier is that politicians see the technology behind skilled robots as a path to genetically engineer humans. Chiang draws from modern themes such as AI taking away jobs, intersection between religion and programming, and ethical dilemmas of genetic engineering and reproduces them in an entirely alternate universe, similar to post-industrial revolution Britain.

What a weird but fantastical story. For me, “Seventy-Two Letters” was much better during my second and more detailed read.

 

The Evolution of Human Science

“The Evolution of Human Science” is a journal article about a superior intellectual species (metahumans) and its’ relationship with humans. Metahumans are able to neural link, and therefore have advanced science beyond any human could hope to achieve – therefore human science simply becomes reverse-engineering phenomena discovered by metahumans.

And this is “fine” to the metahumans, because this is how it should be. And this is no different than humans discovering the natural world. Basically science is not about the limits of what exists, but the steady discovery by the human species. Relatively straightforward.

No one denies the many benefits of metahuman science, but one of its costs to human researchers was the realization that they would likely never make an original contribution to science again. Some left the field altogether, but those who stayed shifted their attention away from original research and toward hermeneutics: interpreting the scientific work of metahumans.

 

[My Top 3] Hell is the Absence of God

This one is a fun story about faith.

Hell is the Absence of God” takes place in an almost normal world, but where heaven and hell have physical manifestations. Divine visitations by angels spread miracles and tragedies like pixie dust. People’s souls visibly rise or sink into heaven and hell, respectively, when they die.

The story explores individuals’ motivations for believing in god, whether it be selfish, misguided, true worship, or influenced by experiencing a miracle. Miracle sightings and statistics are rigorously recorded and analyzed – however in the end miracles are miracles, random and inexplicable.

I like it because it is fun, but deep. Nobody knows why anything happens, nobody really cares, but if any one thing is true, “Hell is the Absence of God”.

 

[My Top 3] Liking what you See

Liking what you see” is an innovative meta-documentary discussing calliagnosia, a procedure to make one unable to perceive beauty.

If there were a world where beauty were equalized, what would that mean? Individuals with natural advantages around beauty ould lose them. Advertisements would not be able abuse “beauty” as a magical spell to make people more likely to buy a product. Is this a world we could handle?

Experiments using neurostat allowed researchers to identify the neurological circuit responsible for perceiving beauty in faces, and thus essentially invent calliagnosia.

The narrative explores the limits to which we would be willing to go down this train of thought. If we want to remove beauty, why not pleasure in sound or the ability to recognize others? The latter removes our ability to be manipulated by advertisements, but also reduces our quality of life significantly.

The overarching questions becomes: where do we draw the line for evening the playing field? Is it up to an institution to enforce these kinds of restrictions? Why should they have the power to do it? This comes close to philosophies around whether you trust the institution to do the right thing for you, or whether you believe in an individual’s freedom and prerogative.

This is just the latest example of political correctness run amok. The people advocating calli are well-intentioned, but what they’re doing is infantilizing us. The very notion that beauty is something we need to be protected from is insulting.

The subjects of the documentary are a perfect mix of naive, unreliable, and thoughtful with a peek into their own lives. Chiang has taken a novel style and executed perfectly in this story.


Follow my Goodreads quote dump are here.

Even though some of Chiang’s stories are available online, I highly recommend buying or borrowing the book. I’ve gotten two full reads from it already, and am certain to come back to it many times in the future!

 

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