I’m not normally a fan of collections of short stories, though I’m not entirely sure why. Even ones by authors I rather like, I tend to be a bit meh on. But we went to see the film Arrival as a flat, which is based upon Story of Your Life, and I liked the film so very much I felt I ought to read the book it came from, even if it was an anthology of short stories. Good decision. I honestly think this may be the best book I’ve read in 2016, and I read some really very good books this year.
Chiang’s stories all centre around a small idea, no surprises there for the short story, but the idea in each of them is so interesting… it really sucks you in. For all that I loved Arrival, I think my favourite is Seventy-Two Letters, whose central focus is on the creation of golems, and what if they could create themselves. It’s a beatiful snapshot of a nonexistant branch of Victorian science, and for me, it’s more successful at what it does than any steampunk novel or similar (and I’m including here Smoke, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and which explores not quite science but a different branch of thought in Victorian understanding). Somehow, in the space of 64 pages, it builds me a more believable world than, for instance, The Mechanical manages in an entire book. And that’s just impressive.
Beyond this, there’s no real unifying theme to the stories, and I think this helps too. I kept wanting to find one, and the way that Chiang seems to think through his ideas lures you into thinking there might be, but as far as I can tell it isn’t so. It’s just a way of looking at the world that he displays commonly throughout.
Mainly, I found all of his stories incredibly intellectually satisfying. They’re all so thoughtful, so ideas-focussed, that you can’t help but come away from them excited by the concepts. And when this leads to me being sad I don’t know enough maths to appreciate one of the stories properly… well. Spoilers: I am very rarely sad about my mathematical ignorance. But he has a way of setting out his ideas so they’re engaging, and just the right amount of confusing and comprehensible so you’re sucked in and want to know more. This is what I loved about Arrival as a film… and partly the absence of that, because I knew how the story was going to go, is what made Story of Your Life less stellar than I think it would have been had I read it afresh. But then again, I’d never have picked this book up if not for the film, so I can’t complain too hard. Story of Your Life is itself a beautiful story, told brilliantly. The way the film presents it is that it has a twist… a reveal… whereas the story here is more of a gradual dawning of understanding, and I wish I’d been able to experience that genuinely and fresh. I am pretty sure it would have been wonderful. As it is, I really appreciate what he’s doing, but lack some of the impact because I know the ideas. He’s also much less Sapir-Whorfy (and way more physicsy) than the film, both of which I found much more satisfying than I’d expect.
Interestingly, though not my favourite, the story that is sticking with me the most is one I had a much less positive reaction to. I’m not saying I didn’t like it, because I really really did, but more that the way the character it focuses on develops is very reminiscent of some tropes I’m familiar with (and intensely dislike in real life), and does so alarmingly believably. The story is called Understanding and is about a man gifted with increasing levels of intelligence after a radical treatment for his vegetative state after an accident. It is told in his voice, and follows his understanding of his growing intellectuality alongside his changes in attitude and character… and the person he turns into is so much a teenage internet troll, just with the mind they think they have. And it’s really compelling in a way I’d not have expected it to be. I don’t normally enjoy reading things where I dislike someone as intensely as I did him, but I don’t know… it was like Dream London, in some ways. The process of watching a self-narrated character reveal himself to be a horrible human being in his own words is just really fascinating.
His prose, like a lot of good prose, sits neatly in the background while his stories unfold, rather than dancing out in front for everyone to see, and in this instance, I think that’s the best course of action (though I know in other places I have loved the opposite very much). Likewise, for all that he does draw some really interesting characters, particularly in Understanding, but definitely in the other stories too, they aren’t the point either, and are very much vehicles for exploration of ideas. Normally this would bug me, but no. The ideas are great and the exploration of them is better, and it makes it all totally totally worth it. The way he just casually drops us into several different near-future settings, too, without any sort of drama… that backgrounding of everything other than what matters… it’s really skillfully done and I love it.
Also for goodness’ sake one of his stories is about people building a tower in ancient Babylon. Of course I was going to love it.
I could go into details about each of the stories and how they really are wonderful, but then the post would end up enormous. So I’ll just settle for saying that Chiang has a wonderful knack for sharing ideas, and it makes his work completely enthralling. I will definitely read more, and I will quite literally throw my copy of this at people so they read it if they don’t take subtler hints. It is genuinely, emphatically brilliant.