I don’t read many short story collections, so this will be another collection of thoughts without much wider context for comparison, I’m afraid. It has been a while since I indulged in some proper sci-fi, though, and I enjoyed myself. Spoilers as usual, and be careful this time – one of the short stories was turned into the film Arrival, so if you don’t want that spoilered, stay away.
To begin: a confession. I didn’t really agree with most of the blurbs on the covers of this book. I disagreed with Junot Diaz and China Miéville. Mea culpa.
For most of the book, I felt sure that the one word I would be able to describe it with was “uneven”. By the end I’d revised this a little, because thinking back, there were two stories that really didn’t do it for me, and one of those was a sort of disagreement on its own terms and therefore not objectively bad, just not done to my tastes.
The other was pretty objectively bad, and I feel like it dragged down the whole collection, quite honestly.
There was quite a clear theme running through all the stories, a kind of unifying thread, which was cool, because usually I don’t notice anything like that. It was close to “be careful what you wish for”, but not quite – none of the characters wished their situations into existence; they worked very hard for them. If I had to put words to the theme, maybe something along the lines of how the things we work towards destroy us when we get them, or at least have far-reaching consequences. It wasn’t trite or anything, even though I’ve probably made it sound as though it was. Chiang did some really cool things with the idea.
Shall we take it story by story? Let’s.
Tower of Babylon
This was such a great opening story. Thinking about it, I don’t think I’ve ever read a story that plays with the Tower of Babylon myth before, but it felt very familiar, as did the idea of taking impossible journeys and ending up back where you started (almost made a flippant reference to something else that would have been a giant spoiler for that thing…). But the detail was beautiful, and the world that was almost like our own but with these subtle, fundamental differences in physics and cosmology was utterly intriguing. The ending was what really carried it over the edge for me. If this had been a fairytale or a myth or a legend, ending up back where he had started would have made the main character tragic, but Chiang gives him the soul of a scientist and turns a failed experiment into a strength. If the Tower of Babel is a story about our human limitations, Tower of Babylon is a story about how our human curiosity can’t be bounded by those limitations. The religious aspect was also well handled – I liked the competing theories and interpretations, and the total ambivalence of nature/the divine.
This is the bad one. A man who suffered a traumatic brain injury receives radically experimental treatment, becomes inhumanly smart. Like Tower of Babylon, I can’t say I’ve read this exact story before, but somehow I really felt as though I had. Unlike Tower of Babylon, Chiang does nothing new with it. More unforgivably, as a writer, he does a bad job of explaining what it is to be super smart. The main character’s voice doesn’t change enough, and he takes extreme contemptuous umbrage at really minor things, which Chiang could have handled better, I think. The main character, despite having only disdain for humankind, spends an awful lot of his new intelligence on appreciating things made by ordinary humans. From classical music to complex scientific theorems, all he does is notice patterns and understand things. He doesn’t make anything new of his own. He adds nothing, just passively receives the wisdom of the ages and is smug about it. Then he has a superhuman chessmaster brain-showdown with another supersmart individual, where they communicate by releasing pheromones and contracting their muscles to induce subconscious understanding of visual cues I guess? And I just can’t. At one point, the main character says “We will speak aloud, since somatic language has no technical vocabulary,” but then later he’s saying things like “Have you used the destruct command on normals?” in the somatic language. In a note later Chiang says this was the first story he tried to shop around and no one accepted it, which makes sense. Then he did a Clarion writing course, submitted it again with the course on his CV and it was accepted. Which is depressing.
Division by Zero
This is the story that didn’t do it for me (see why I was underwhelmed for a chunk of the book? These two one after the other made Tower of Babylon look like a fluke). The premise is that a genius mathematician has discovered a way to make any number equate to any other number. The conceit of the formalism forms the theme of the story as well – Renee the mathematician who’s disproved mathematics, Carl the compassionate man who empathises but can’t love, the contradictions that nevertheless exist throughout the story. It’s clever – but. Renee is so completely and utterly unlikeable that it undermines Carl’s thread (not only cold and superior, but really needlessly sharp and cruel all the time). I mean, damn, I wouldn’t love her either. Carl’s final position is not a surprise or a wrench for the reader, just logical based on her treatment of him. When she wonders later about whether the suicide attempt brought on by her disproving mathematics will brand her forever, the narrative tells us “She had never asked Carl if he had felt such anxieties, perhaps because she didn’t hold his attempt against him,” but to be honest, at this point the reader knows that the real reason is that she didn’t care. Not that all characters should be likeable, but her unlikeability really does undermine the clever structure Chiang is trying to build.
Story of Your Life
Luckily, these two were followed by this absolute gem of a story. Story of Your Life is fantastic. Chiang deals in impossible concepts (inhuman intelligence, an impossible mathematical theorem, here an alien language) and lets the reader’s imagination do much of the work, or asks us to take certain things on trust, and that technique worked incredibly well here. As a translator by trade, the concept of the story (a linguist learning an alien language) had an intrinsic appeal for me anyway, but he pulls it off so beautifully, and the twist is just perfect. I didn’t even see it coming, even though it’s literally right out there in the open for all to see, from the very first sentence. Fascinating concept, compelling plot and excellent execution make this almost a perfect story in my eyes, and I only say “almost” because I’ve been conditioned by my school years to believe that perfection in the arts is impossible to attain.
This is one of the longest stories in the collection, and I wished it was longer. Set in an alternate London (isn’t it funny how when someone says “alternate London” you automatically think “alternate Victorian London”?) where golems and golem technology is a basic tenet of life. The best of Chiang’s short stories aren’t just clever and written with skill, as I noted above, but have inherently interesting premises, and this is another good example. Setting the story during a time of scientific advancement and the glorification almost of progress and curiosity, Chiang lets the reader learn along with the characters how this very scientific magic works and doesn’t work. It’s a great world, and the plot is full of action and conspiracy, but I felt like some of the themes were a bit hastily-sketched in. Quite early on, the main character gives his reasons for wanting to reform the golem industry as being the appalling conditions of the working class upon whose backs the middle classes are able to live cheaply. But this is forgotten quite quickly in favour of dilettantes and guilds and politics, which sort of takes away that refreshing twist, which is a shame. The same with the religion question, which could have been a really meaty theme and ends on a bit of a cop-out… But don’t let my nitpicks fool you. I really enjoyed this story, especially the ending, and most of my complaints are “why wasn’t it a full length novel???”
The Evolution of Human Science
This one is too short to really have opinions on, I think? It was an interesting little idea though, and nicely written.
Hell is the Absence of God
OK, so “enjoying” is absolutely not the right word for this story, but I did, you know. The notes at the back of the book for this story just cemented my uneasy feelings that the story was “right”. It has a very bold ending, and Chiang is utterly unapologetic. I think this is perhaps the story with the most emotional whiplash in the collection. The beginning is full of black humour and the sort of quirky/grim fantastical/mundane detail that I love in an urban fantasy setting (assuming we take “urban fantasy” to mean “a fantasy set in our world”. I’m less and less interested in coming up with different subgenres for everything) – angelic visitations are real, and they regularly cause havoc and destruction, with lots of bureaucracy and consequences. I won’t say too much about the plot because I feel like the not knowing really heightened the experience for me, but suffice it to say that Chiang has managed to integrate the full-on, honest Old Testament into a normal human world, and it’s just as amazing and terrifying as it should be.
Liking What You See: A Documentary
At first I wasn’t convinced by this one; I thought the concept wasn’t up to some of the other stories in the volume (debates on new technology that allows people to choose to become unable to see beauty) but I must admit that by the end I was hooked. It started off a bit simplistic, and to be honest I was wondering if he was going to make the story a cheap crack at student unions (which have been pretty great at making terrible decisions lately, it’s true, but I find that making fun of them is a very hard tightrope to walk without falling over into being a bit awful). But the layers of complexity build up, and he gives us backstory, context, and soon I had accepted the almost gimmicky premise as a real issue to grapple with, so full kudos to Chiang.
That’s all the stories in the book. I suppose my final conclusion is that it was a good collection on the whole, full of great ideas to think about and mostly very well executed, but those few duds really hit hard for me, which was a shame. I think I’ll keep an eye out for him in future, though.