Nov 3 2009 4:24pm

So good your head explodes every time: Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others

Ted Chiang has never written a novel, but he’s one of the top writers in science fiction today. He writes short stories and novellas, and he isn’t very prolific with those. He just comes out with a story every year or so that does everything right.

You know how some people are ideas writers, and their ideas are so amazingly brilliant that you don’t care they can’t really write character and plot? Ted Chiang is like that, except that his characters and plots are that good as well. His stories all arise out of astonishing SFnal ideas, they couldn’t happen except in the contexts where they do happen, but they have characters with emotional trajectories that carry them along as well. He always gets the arc of story exactly right, so you know what you need to know when you need to know it and the end comes along in perfect timing and socks you in the jaw. I think Chiang is one of the great science fiction short story writers of all time, along with Varley and Sturgeon and Tiptree.

Usually when I re-read and write about a collection, I talk about themes, because usually reading a whole pile of short work from one author brings their themes forward very visibly. Chiang doesn’t have themes in the sense of obsessions he keeps coming back to. He has a huge range in the kind of thing he writes, the kind of character, the kind of style. What he does a lot of is looking at weird worldviews as if they were real. “Tower of Babylon,” his first story, asks “What would it feel like if the world was the way Babylonian cosmology thought it was?” “Story of Your Life” asks “what would it feel like if you saw future events simultaneously, but lived through them sequentially?” “Seventy Two Letters” asks “What would it feel like if kabbalistic ideas really were how life worked?” It’s not just that he has ideas, it’s that he integrates idea and point of view perfectly.

There tends to be a moment when I’m reading a Chiang story when I realise the layers of what it’s doing. When I re-read them and come to that moment, it’s like a landmark—oh yes, that’s where my head exploded. For instance, there’s a bit in “Tower of Babylon” where they’re climbing the tower of Babel and they get to the bit where they pass the sun. The builders didn’t use bitumen mortar there, of course, it would have melted... of course it would. It’s all so real, and so simultaneously weird. “Story of Your Life” is even weirder, as it replicates what it means to have that happen to your consciousness.

The thing about this head-exploding thing is that it’s what I used to read SF for, when I was young. It’s “sense of wonder.” I remember having this effect with Arthur C. Clarke when I was ten years old, and with Zelazny when I was fourteen. Then I grew up and I kept reading SF because I like planets and aliens and weird worldviews and the odd little glimpses of wonder. I get absorbed in things, I say “Hey, that’s nifty,” but it’s not often these days that I have that “What? What? Wow!” experience. Chiang does it for me practically every time. There’s no wonder he keeps winning awards—he really is just that good.

I generally try not to simply burble incoherently that things are brilliant and you have to read them, but faced with stories this awesome, that’s pretty much all I can do.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

piaw na
1. piaw
Thanks! I also reviewed this book as well recently: http://piaw.blogspot.com/2009/10/review-stories-of-your-life-and-others.html

Too bad it's out of print!
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
Piaw: It is a pity. In an ideal world good books would stay in print forever.
David Bilek
3. dtbilek
A truly excellent collection, ranking in my mind up near Greg Egan's Axiomatic, which I consider probably the greatest non-"best of" collection of the past few decades. Or maybe longer.

Egan, of course, writes and writes and writes and writes to get such a collection. I'm not taking anything away from him; if the talent isn't there it doesn't matter how many words you spew on to the page. But with Chiang it sometimes seems like his stories erupt, all too rarely, fully formed from his mind like Athena from the skull of Zeus.

He does, however, serve as a cautionary tale to would-be authors: No matter how great your talent, be nice to the people you need to make your book a success. Or else.
4. JoeNotCharles
The other thing he does a couple of times (I was going to say "often" but now I can only think of two) is to show characters make a discovery about the way their world works which is an analogue to a famous real-world scientific theory. Noticing the parallel tends to be the payoff for me, so I'll see if spoiler tags work here:

The self-replicating words in 72 Letters are an obvious parallel of DNA.
The decreasing air pressure in Exhalation is a form of entropy.
ennead ennead
5. ennead
Jo & dtbilek: Chiang and Egan are the two authors who consistently blow my mind, over and over.

Ted Chiang actually talked about an unifying theme for his stories in his Locus interview (2002): "the notion of an ideal language, the language in which thoughts can be articulated perfectly and things can be described perfectly."

Here's the relevant passage:

Jo Walton
6. bluejo
JoeNotCharles: And still with spoilers for 72 letters -- it's not just that it's the equivalent of DNA, they've got the kabbalistic equivalent, and then they actually invent DNA. Amazing.

Ennead: Interesting. Yes, that does fit.
Jeff LeBlanc
7. Jeff_LeBlanc
dtbilek: What did you mean by the last part of your comment? Is there some specific incident to which you are referring?
8. Crimson
Fortunately, while out of print, it is available at the Multnomah Co Library (in Oregon). 5 copies, even.
Genevieve Williams
9. welltemperedwriter
I adore that collection and dip into it often. I'd be happy if I wrote half so well.
p l
10. p-l
Out of print? How is that possible? This is truly one of the best science fiction books by a living writer. Everyone I talk to about SF, I recommend Ted Chiang to them.

I suppose the silver lining is that he's slowly accreting enough new stories to eventually release a second collection... Of course, I'll have read them all in their original venues by then.

@dtbilek: I'm curious, too. Do tell.
Andy Leighton
11. andyl
Still available in the UK (from Amazon/Book Depository and possibly elsewhere) in large paperback format.

It is a book that is outstandingly good and if you haven't read the stories before then you need to buy this book.
Marcus W
12. toryx
I'm sure I've read some of Chiang's stories here and there but this review has got me wanting to read the anthology.

*sigh* Time to add another book to my wishlist.
Soon Lee
13. SoonLee
There is always the used book market.

I've bought multiple copies to gift to friends. I highly recommend this book.
Darius Bacon
14. Darius
Spoilers for "72 Letters" yet again: if you've studied computer science (which Chiang got his degree in) then the solution is familiar, but still it had me going "OMG, cool, here comes the recursion theorem!", not "Wake me when they've discovered recursion".

I ought to reread it all -- wonderful collection.
David Dyer-Bennet
15. dd-b
I'm glad I read this, quite apart from contributing to my general knowledge of the field (Jo isn't the only one who thinks highly of Chiang!).


Lots of his stories miss me. They're not, for me, about the real world at all, so they lose most of my interest. Kabalah and golems and towers to the sun and transparent pavements with demons under them don't read as real to me.
Jo Walton
16. bluejo
DD-B: You sound exactly like my aunt saying she just can't get into these stories with spacestations and elves because they're just not real. You do have to be able to suspend your disbelief, and you do have to swallow fantastic premises and see what leads from them -- but isn't that pretty much a given for SF?
17. Rosemary Kirstein
Head-exploding.. Yeah, that's the term. I remember first encountering Chaing in the pages of Asimov's with the story "Understand". I just couldn't stop reading it, sat stock still in exactly one position until I was done.

Starting out with what seemed like a too-common SF trope, and then taking it further and further... And with such clarity, and such believeable science. And the twists. After that, I started searching out every Chiang story I could find.

My favorite reamains "Story of Your Life" -- although "Exhalation" is running a close second these days. ("Exhalation" is available as a free download, and as a podcast. Google and ye shall find.)

I truly hope Chiang NEVER writes a novel! Because his brain seems to be so perfectly geared for the short story, that I fear he will only be good at a novel. Plenty of people write good novels; but very few people write short stories that grab me the way Chiang's do.

Plus, if he ever writes a novel, he instantly becomes My Competition. At the moment, my admiration for him is a pure thing, not sullied by comparisons.
Jo Walton
18. bluejo
Rosemary: When I met him, I asked him if he intended to keep on writing the best novellas in the world, and he said that he did, and that everybody was always asking him when he was going to write a novel. I think there's a general perception that novels are more real and significant than short stories, but it's wrong -- within science fiction a lot of what's most interesting has always been happening at shorter lengths.
19. bookluver321
Don't you just love it when you find a great author! I recently found a great author that I absolutely love. Her name is Selene Cardenas and she is the author of an awesome fantasy series called The Clear Water Series. She has the most wonderful imagination. The most amazing thing about her though is her age... she began writing the clear water series at the age of 13. If her books are great now, I can't even imagine how great her work will be in the years to come. Thanks for recommending Chiang's short stories. I will definitely be looking for them.

Jo Walton
20. bluejo
My my, Bookluver321. Look! A Vontaborg! *You* are the author of the Clear Water series and I claim my five pounds!

But... you're also clearly a human being, and you're trying awfully hard, and it was almost on topic, and this is such an old one it makes me feel a little nostalgic so I'm not going to immediately flag your post as spam. Don't do this again, it's really transparant. But good luck in your future career. Spend the time on writing, let other people do the promoting.
p l
21. p-l
@19 & 20: So there's actually a term for this practice? Vontaborg? It must have a fascinating etymology, possibly involving defamation of an individual named Vonta. Speaking of fascinating, you know who's a fascinating commenter on tor.com? P-l, that's who. His posts are always entertaining and thought-provoking, even though he only began writing them a short time ago! Imagine what we can expect from him in the future! I will be on the lookout for more comments by p-l!

David Bilek
22. dtbilek
Huh, I see a couple people asked me a question and I missed it. Sorry I've been quite busy and never got back to this thread. Doubt y'all are still reading this thread but without getting all gossipy in public I'll say that, as a general rule, you shouldn't make a huge stink about your cover art or you might just end up with no cover art at all which everyone knows full well is a kiss of death in the ol' sales department.
23. some call me Tim
Any latecomers to this post and its comments will be happy to know that Ted's book will be back in print in October this year! Thanks to the kind folks at Small Beer Press, I won't have to shell out $50 for a used paperback after all.


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