Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

July 23, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

Let’s get two things out of the way. First, this is an outstanding collection of short fiction. I strongly recommend it to anyone. Second, it fell just short of getting a five star rating, and since I think it is so good I need to explain that while the stories are all excellent, they just don’t quite have the oomph of the books I have given 5 stars to. No doubt some of this is simply my bias against short stories, and the fact novels allow the author to work up to a bigger crescendo. Nevertheless, while the stories are great, I feel like the impact on the reader is exaggerated due to the modern rarity of this type of story and not entirely from their intrinsic worth.

So having established that you should read this collection, but that it isn’t quite the greatest thing the genre has ever produced, I want to spend the rest of this review explaining just what “type of story” these are and so defend my statement. These are science fiction stories. Reading them made me realize how little science fiction I read. Oh, sure, if you look at the books I’ve rated on this site, it’s embarrassing how limited in scope most of my reading is. But out of all this alleged science fiction, some of it is admitted fantasy and much of the remainder is implicit fantasy (Startide Rising for example is all fiction, no science). And the science in, say, Book of the New Sun is extremely sparse…the book is concerned more with the human condition, metaphysics, character, etc. I knew all this intellectually before, but when I thought of “hard” science fiction (I’d rather call it true science fiction) I thought of the dreary, soulless stuff that Clarke and Asimov mostly put out.

There’s no way around it. Ted Chiang writes true science fiction. And he writes it very, very well. Each of his stories is grounded on speculation in mathematics, linguistics, neuroscience, physics, and engineering. That’s not to say the fiction is “hard” the same way the word is usually used…several stories are not meant to be plausible by any means. Instead, they are explorations of the world built upon different scientific principles. People operating logically in a world governed by different rules. You can define these stories as fantasy if you like, but throughout the collection there is always a governing principle of observation, experimentation, and applying logic to these observations.

It’s a shame how rare genuine scientifically oriented fiction is, especially well written examples of such fiction. If you have even the slightest interest in reading well written scientific fiction, you must read Stories of Your Life and Others.

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