Courtney Johnston's Reviews > Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
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Jun 18, 11

bookshelves: borrowed, fiction, short-stories
Read from June 04 to 18, 2011

Speculative fiction is a new area for me; well, it is in the science fiction sense, less if you frame it up as an author posing the questions 'what if???' at the world. And Ted Chiang is a new author for me, recommended by astute reading friends.

I was utterly blown away by the first story in this collection, 'Tower of Babylon', in which Chiang asks: what if the world really was made the way Bablylonian cosmology understood it to be? A team of miners from the land of Elam are summoned to Babylon to help complete the Tower. They aren't there to work on the foundations though: their job is to break through the vault of heaven.

Were the towe to be laid down across the plain of Shinar, it would be two day's journey to walk from one end to the other. While the tower stands, it takes a full month and a half to climb from its base to its summit, if a man walks unburdened. But few men climb the tower with empty hands; the pace of most men is slowed by a cart of bricks that they pull behind them. Four months pass between the day a brick is loaded onto a cart, and the day it is taken off to form part of the tower.

We climb the tower with the miners, and learn it with them. The first team of cart pullers turns around after four days and returns to the base: they won't ascend until the vault of heaven is pierced. The tower is its on ecosystem and society: families grow up there, each working on their own section, growing their own vegetables on custom-built balconies. As the miners climb, they pass first the moon and then the sun:

Then they approached the sun. It was the summer season, when the sun appears nearly overhead from Babylon, making it pass close by the tower at this height. No families lived in this section of the tower, nor were there any balconies, since the heat was enough to roast barley. The mortar between the tower's bricks was no longer bitumen, which would have softened and flowed, but clay, which was virtually baked by the heat. As protection against the day temperatures, the pillars had been widened until they formed a nearly continuous wall, enclosing the ramp in a tunnel with only narrow slots admitting the whistling wind and blades of golden light.

In a way, I enjoyed the build-up more than the denouement: my imagination was captured by the notion of those suspended gardens sustaining families as they laboured in defiance of and in worship of god.

I was equally - perhaps even more - captured by 'Story of Your Life', the novella at the centre of Chiang's collection. It tells the story of Louise Banks, a linguist, who appears to be recalling a period earlier in her life when she was contracted in by the American military to try to decode the language of the heptapods, an alien species that has made contact with Earth. At the story's opening, Banks seems to be retelling, or setting down, the story to her daughter:

Your father is about to ask me the question. This is the most important moment of our lives, and I want to pay attention, note every detail. Your dad and I have just come back from an evening out, dinner and show; it's after midnight. We came out onto the patio to look at the full moon; then I told your dad I wanted to dance, so he humours me and now we're slow-dancing, a pair of thirtysomethings swaying back and forth in the moonlight like kids. I don't feel the night chill at all. And then your dad says, "Do you want to make a baby?"

... I'd love to tell you the story of this evening, the night that you're conceived, but the right time to do that would be when you're ready to have children of your own, and we'll never get that chance.

Telling it to you any earlier wouldn't do any good; for most of your life you won't sit still to hear such a romantic - you'd say sappy - story. I remember the scenaio of your origin you'll suggest when you're twelve.

Right from the start of the story the tenses are off. Many sections start with something along the lines of 'I remember one day during the summer when you're sixteen', or 'I remember a conversation we'll have when you're in your junior year at high school'. If you want the slow reveal of Chiang's story, you need to stop reading now. The cause the curious tenses is the time Banks spends learning to understand the heptapods' written language, Heptapod B - formed as what Banks called semagrams, somewhere between Chinese characters and mandalas, and quite distinct from the spoken language - fires Banks' intellect and imgaination.

Over time, the sentences I wrote grew shapelier, more cohesive. I reached the point where it worked better when I didn't think about it too much. Instead of carefully trying to design a sentence before writing, I could simply begin putting down strokes immediately; my initial strokes almost always turned out to be compatible with an elegant rendition of what I was trying to say. I was developing a faculty like that of the heptapods.

More interesting was the fact that Heptapod B was changing the way I thought. ... The idea of thinking in a linguistic yet non-phonological mode always intrigued me. I had a friend born of Deaf parents; he grew up using American Sign Language, and he told me that he often thought in ASL instead of English. I used to wonder what it was like to have one's thoughts be manually coded, to reason using an inner pair of hands instead of an inner voice.

With Heptapod B, I was experiencing something just as foreign: my thoughts were becoming graphically encoded. There were trance-like moments during the day when my thoughts weren't expressed with my internal voice; instead, I saw semagrams with my mind's eye, sprouting like frost on a windowpane.

It slowly transpires that the reason the heptapods prefer their written to their spoken language is that speaking forces one word to be issued after another, in a linear form. Even one word written after another on a page is still linear, can only be read in one direction. But the heptapods do not live with the past behind them, the future ever moving through the present and then behind them: instead, their consciousness encompasses all this. A semagram - a set of strokes built up non sequentially and grasped all at once - allows them to express this. And slowly, but irrevocably, as she learns to think like this Banks' memories and experiences and life to come merge into one.

This story made me think hard: if I already knew how my life was going to play out, would I still want to live it? If I knew how everything would end, could I enjoy the trip there? And most of all - if I knew all this, but the people I lived with and loved did not, could I cope with that? And yet the beauty of the idea of being surrounded at all times by your past and future and present, like translucent coloured veils that make new colours as they overlay each other - that's an achingly, head-breakingly wonderful idea.

This is where Chiang is most successful. I found the other stories in the book interesting as exercises (and enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes/Michael Chabon neurons that got triggered by 'Seventy-Two Letters', a story that imagines the machine age driven by golems) but didn't warm to them in the way I did to the magical detail of the opening fable and the intricacy of 'Story of Your Life'. Perhaps because they were more of the neuro-technical bent: I found the last story, a series of 'interviews', captured documentary-style, in which students and staff and marketers debate a proposal to make calliagnosia (a neural implant that causes a mild form of prosopagnosia, that prevents people from perceiving levels of physical attractiveness, thus preventing 'lookism') the thinnest of the set, almost like a smart philosophy tutorial, and without the emotional engagement of the best of the stories.

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