I am currently taking a module in writing short fiction, and though we have some excellent set texts I wanted to branch out a little and read more SF, so having loved the film Arrival, I picked up Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Honestly I have some very mixed feelings about it, as is usual with a collection I suppose, not every story will be 100% to anyone’s liking, but instead of talking about each individual story, or even the ones I liked I want to try a different approach and talk about the collection as a single entity.
The collection kicks off with a story about the Tower of Babylon. This was a bit of a shocker to me as I went into this collection expecting solely SF, nothing too religious, but religious themes crop up throughout the collection sitting comfortably alongside mathematics and physics. Though I didn’t enjoy these stories quite as much as the solid SF I really did enjoy reading them. One story in which angelic visitation is the equivalent of a natural disaster seemed reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters which (though I might be reading into it a tad) seemed like a lovely literary reference. What struck me though was that between the Tower of Babylon, angels, and even Golems the religious aspects seemed to take on more of an old testament spin. Just like the old testament they were steeped in violence and fire and brimstone but told almost clinically which brings me to Chiang’s writing style.
Almost all the stories had a cold, almost distant narrator whether that be an omniscient third person narrator or a focalised third person, they read much in the language of science. For me this added a layer of tension to the stories. Chiang gives us mind boggling and often terrifying ideas with the cool calm of Brian Cox in a BBC2 documentary telling us that matter doesn’t exist. The tension this creates is not a tension within the story itself, but more a tension between reader and narrator. I felt myself at odds with a previously suicidal man feeling almost nothing whilst trying to help his currently suicidal wife after her mathematical discovery discredits mathematics entirely, and reading about it made me feel wretched in so many ways that I could almost feel Chiang toying with my feelings through the page. It felt as though he had made the act of reading the story a whole layer of the story in itself. And like all the greats he made it seem so effortless.
What he also made effortless, was the science itself. In Story of Your Life (later to become the film Arrival) there was a monumental amount of physics that needed explaining to the reader, but Chiang managed to explain it with such skill that I found the heavy science was no barrier. The idea that writers can’t explain the science sufficiently is what puts people off SF in my opinion, but Chiang would dispel their fears immediately. I wouldn’t say I’m smarter for reading this book, but I certainly feel as if I am! If not in terms of physics, then at least I have learned what a beautifully crafted story really looks like.