Tuesday, June 24, 2008
I read a lot of science fiction when I was in junior high and high school — Bradbury, Asimov, Harlan Ellison — but for a long time afterward I left it alone. In recent years, though, Jenn has gently reintroduced me to writers like Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, and now Ted Chiang. Chiang is unnervingly good, and seems to have been that way from the start. “Tower of Babylon,” his first published story, won the Nebula Award, and his subsequent stories have won a slew of other major awards. Though Stories of Your Life and Others is Chiang’s only full-length book, Chiang doesn’t seem to have achieved the fame and fortune he deserves. Chiang’s stories are generally long, and are often categorized as novellas. They’re long because he doesn’t simply play with an interesting premise: He examines it from all angles, including its emotional impact on his characters. The first Ted Chiang story I read, “Hell Is the Absence of God,” takes the beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity as literally as possible. People not only go to hell, but can be actually be seen there, under the earth. The visitations of angels are as devastating as tornadoes, and they attract angel-chasers who are just as obsessed and reckless as tornado-chasers. Other stories, like “Tower of Babylon,” use a similar strategy, asking “what if this were literally true?” and following out the implications. But it was the title (or almost-title) story of this collection, “Story of Your Life,” that impressed me the most. One strand of the story describes how the narrator, an accomplished linguist, finds a way to communicate with aliens who resemble barrels with tentacles, and in so doing begins to perceive time in a different way. The other strand presents moments from her daughter’s short life, which the scientist mother now perceives as simultaneous. It’s a moving story, with characters every bit as believable as those in “literary fiction.” It seems significant that although the appearance of the aliens made me think of the Antarctic creatures in H.P. Lovecraft, and the mother’s time perception reminded me of Slaughterhouse-Five, the grip of the story was strong enough that those connections didn’t occur to me until I’d finished it.