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!

 

A toast to the Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories”

24885533This Ken Liu guy is good.

Historical fiction and science fiction are similar in that they allow us to live in a world that is not ours to experience. It has either passed or doesn’t exist.

Liu blends myths, historical fiction, and science fiction in a series of cutting stories that take you down a river of emotions. Some navigate you through rapids with jagged rocks, others a tranquil flow of poetry, and some are sudden waterfalls that force you to put down the book to rest your heart.

The fifteen stories from The Paper Menagerie & Other Stories show inspiration from across the board, from a spaceship powered by a solar sail to the general Guan Yu of the Three Kingdoms; from Chinese-American railroad workers in the late 1800s to the manifestation of a physical soul made of ice; from the moral decision of deciding on eternal life, to ethical dilemmas in American bases in Taiwan combating Communism in the 1950s.

The headliner is “The Paper Menagerie” short story from 2011 (available publicly), but that is just a teaser to the ride. It’s a quick read, but be warned – it will be difficult to keep the tears in. This especially hit home for me as I grew up learning english, but english was a difficult second language for my parents.

The stories can be sobering. Sometimes the stories can be “[…] like a gentle kitten is licking the inside of my heart.”

I think the writing is similar to the imagination of the Three Body Problem Trilogy (especially Death’s End) or the beauty of Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air”. Liu is known as the translator for the TBP trilogy but here he shows his dynamism in ideas.
Even if you’ve never read either, give The Paper Menagerie a shot.

Character Sympathy (+10 more rankings!)

Character Sympathy

I’ve discovered that how I sympathize with a lead character heavily influences how much I like a book.

Its not enough to simply to have empathy and understand a character’s reasoning. As I read a book, there is a part of me that wants to be a participant of the story.

*sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them. (the internet)

I value humility and intellectualism. I’m averse is to cockiness and unnecessary heroics. I appreciate complex, flawed characters. I’m dislike infallible characters that dominate their opponents with ease.

This is why I could not stand Ready Player One (and a lesser extent, Name of the Wind). This is why I enjoyed the Dispossessed (and why I loved The Witcher III).

Of course, there are instances where there main character is insufficient, but supplemented by a strong supporting cast. “Kafka on the Shore” has a really amazing supporting cast that helps to promote the coming of age story of Kafka. The zombie book “Girl with all the Gifts” wasn’t really about the main zombie girl Melanie as much as the surviving humans around her.

Ranking 10 Recent Reads

In general, but also from the perspective of protagonist sympathy. These are pretty much all scifi/fantasy, to some extent (if you include zombie books and murakami’s shenanigans

Rank (rating) Book, Author Protagonist Protaganist Description
1 5*The Dispossessed, Le Guin adult scientist adult
2 5* The Fifth Season, Jemisin 1 kid, 1 teen, 1 adult nice kid, sassy teen, seasoned adult
3 5*Old Man’s War, Scalzi adult old grandpa
4 5*Kafka on the Shore, Murakami teen weirdly introspective teen
5 5*Dune, Herbert teen coming of age
6 5* Foundation, Asimov adult pretty normal people, some ‘heroes’
7 4* The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey kid crazy brilliant kid
8 4* The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams adult & alien sassy AF
9 4* Foundation and Empire, Asimov adults pretty normal people
10 2* Ready Player One, Cline teen smart but cocky

1. The Dispossessed, Le Guin (1974)

The Dispossessed is, more or less, a man’s struggles and realizations in comparing a poor but well-run Communist/Anarchist society with an ultra-efficient but highly political capitalist world. From a character perspective, Shevek is a genius physicist that is generally stable but suspect to his emotions.

This is top because I know Shevek story will stay strong in my mind as the books below get reduced to faint abstractions over the years.

The full review is in a previous post!

2. The Fifth Season, Jemisin (2015)

“And since stonelore would be harder to remember if it was full of phrases like ‘watch for the inverted fulcrum of a conical torus,’ we get centers and circles. Accuracy is sacrificed in the name of better poetry.”

I love this because it is the essence of Jemisin’s writing. She trades obscure vocabulary for colloquial thoughts and dialogue – The Fifth Season reads so smoothly that it was over before I knew it.

The characters follow common tropes. The innocent, curious young girl. The prideful, sassy teenager. The seasoned adult. I believe these tropes actually enhanced my experience.

The Fifth Season isn’t about characters taking weird, dark or unpredictable turns – rather it’s how they adapt to a world constantly changing, a world constantly on edge of collapse, and a world where you are the enemy despite how much you want to help. Decisions are generally rational, but people get carried away by emotions. These tropes make people realistic, believable, and their actions easy to emphasize with.

3. Old Man’s War, Scalzi (2005)

Old Man’s War is a mix of hilarity, somberness, and lots of guns. It gets really funky really fast, and once you adjust you realize there’s quite a bit of space philosophy to go with fighting aliens across the universe.

The protagonist is generally jaded, sarcastic and fun to introspect alongside. That being said, I think the character himself wasn’t all that memorable – the excitement of the world & story is what carries Old Man’s War to #3.

4. Kafka By the Shore, Murakami (2006)

Oh man, what a weird book. It starts unbelievably slowly, but Kafka’s story gradually becomes more complex, interesting as it gets weirder and weirder. The novel concludes with a powerful, resounding and emotional finish.

Kafka himself is intelligent, introspective, and conflicted. As a 15 year old dumped into an mystical world, he makes mistakes, suffers, learns, and powers through a cruel Oedipal prophecy.

Also Oshima (the librarian) was an absolute badass. And these fan illustrations are amazing.

5. Dune, Herbert (1965)

Dune was a great story, fun plot, and has all the shenanigans of the modern hero story (loyalty and betrayal, sacrifice, twists, yadayadaya). All around a very solid book but mostly if you appreciate it as the first of its’ kind, as a scifi/fantasy epic. It’s seen to have heavily inspired Star Wars, alongside many other story based science fiction stories.

6. Foundation, Asimov (1951)

This Asimov is one of the original scifi books (written in the 1940s). It is a brilliant story of prediction (psychohistory, which is basically macroeconomics on steroids), political heroism and the world as it could be. It is a sophisticated space equivalent of the Fall of Rome.

Foundation focuses on political relationships and world building, and less on realism/character development. The heroes are brilliant, fallible, but not necessarily complex or developing characters.

7. The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey (2015)

Brilliant storytelling and a cute first person view of a young intellectual zombie 10 y/o girl. I’m not a huge zombie reader, but this really showed how love can play a huge part in people when their brains are getting eaten. It wasn’t extremely special (hence a 4*) but no real knocks and overall a solid book

8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams (1979)

This is a truly revolutionary and ridiculous book in the genre of sci-fi, and I am all the better for having read it. That being said, I can’t say it was a either a mind-altering or extremely sophisticated experience. Now I think about it, it’s pretty much the Rick and Morty of the 70s. Solid stuff.

9. Foundation and Empire, Asimov (1952)

The second book of the Foundation Trilogy is a show of inevitability of sociopolitical nature of humanity under certain conditions. It had a solid story and a few great twists, but the characters were mostly static and predictable. I think its worth a read to understand Asimov but there are better books out there.

10. Ready Player One, Cline (2011)

This is probably the single worst book I’ve read in the past 10 years.

On the plus side, it was a great page-turner. Cline crams every possible gaming and pop reference from the 80s in a action-packed “adventure”. Unfortunately, the main character is a cocky teenager that somehow just happens to be the best at every game in the world. There are no real twists, no real complexity in any of the characters (both good and bad), and no real redeeming features.

I was hoping for a book that bathes in its own absurdity. As I hoped my way for two thirds of the book, it became clearer that it was simply oblivious at its own ridiculousness.

The only consolation here is that Andy Wier (author of The Martian) did a spin-off short story called Lacero that is actually good. Give it a read!


Thanks for reading, and let me know what you are reading!

Brilliant (and useful) “What should I read” infograph

“What should I read”?

Giving recommendations, or figuring out the next book to read, is pretty tough.
  • As usual, it’s hard to give one without spoiling too much.
  • We read so few books that iteration becomes slow. Out of tens of thousands of books out there, we are lucky to get 20 or 30 in a year.
  • Because of this sparsity, we often recommend the most recent, reasonable book we’ve read.
  • Top book lists are great but often summaries are all over the place.
That’s why I love this what should i read” infograph, because it is witty and hilariously accurate. Note that these are science fiction/fantasy books on NPR’s top 100 list from 2011. Even though it’s 5 years old, most of the books are clearly popular and relevant! Especially science fiction & fantasy, where the current time has arguably little impact on the story settings.

Classic dystopias classified as religious totalitarians vs. warlords

What if I want “man vs. man?”. Nevermind, WWII books it is…

The full image in all its glory. Link below!