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Stories of Your Life and Others
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2014 Reads > SoYLaO: The Common Thread of the Stories (Mild Spoilers)

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message 1: by Carolina (last edited Sep 12, 2014 12:30PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Carolina Yesterday I was telling my boyfriend how he seriously has to read this book, telling him how I've loved the short stories, the whole rhythm, etc. And then he asked me: is there a common theme or are there disconnected from each other?. I could've gone with the GR description and said that what they have in common is a sudden change in their lives, which wouldn't say much about the book itself. I didn't want to give too much away for him but here is what I though. More than just sudden change, I believe that the common thread that this collection has is preconceptions and destroying or debunking them. I have only finished the 4 first stories, but half into the 5th one (Seventy-two letters) I keep having this feeling that this would be the common subject. There might be mild spoilers ahead

We start with Tower of Babylon that for me represents debunking of world view (a cylindrical continuous Earth), then Understand that shifts the concept of intelligence, without using the trope of "we only use 10% of our brains" and rather goes on how the brain is connected internally. Followed by Division by Zero, changing the view in Mathematics and with this, once again, the perception of the world. Story of your Life and Others deals with language and how we construct and perceive communication. Seventy-two letters would change the concept of procreation and eugenics.

This is not to say that I do not agree with the fact that the stories do indeed show how the characters deal with change, but I feel like is more than that confronting the reader with their concepts of language, intelligence, etc. I would like to know if anyone gets the same feeling or if it's just me reading too much between the lines...which has happen before :/

message 2: by Rob (last edited Sep 14, 2014 11:42AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rob  (quintessential_defenestration) | 1035 comments No, you're totally on the right track, in my opinion. The stories all do seem to involve preconceptions and some kind of overturning of those preconceptions, both in the character's minds and those of the readers. I think more broadly speaking they're all concerned a bit with epistomology, how we learn/know things, and whether knowing things is ever at all possible. Overall, it seems like Chiang is pretty skeptical about us ever being able to know anything at all, even scientifically-- even in stories in which the reader and characters both seem to be actually successful in achieving knowledge, lots of questions are left unanswered/unknowable (viz, we learn something about the Earth in Tower, but the bigger theological questions raised by the characters are totally unanswered. Story of Your Life gives the protagonist real knowledge about her own life, but the first contact situation, no matter how hard we try to understand it, remains totally mysterious. etc.)This is of course most extreme in Division by Zero and Hell is the absence of God.

Another undercurrent is the relationship between knowledge and free will-- sometimes (like in Division by Zero) it seems like they're opposing forces, or in Understand our protagonist frames his situation, as his mind expands, as something he and his opponent barely have any agency in; they know the paths they must take. In 72 letters we have a universe were knowledge/words literally creates autonomatons (but also gives, possibly, oppressed people some agency to fight back against their oppressors).

I think a lot of people see this collection in terms of religious themes treated scientifically, and while that's true, I think those religious themes really just fall into the epistomological stuff and the free will stuff, without broader statements about religion/God/organized religion ever being made.

Steve (plinth) | 179 comments To me, there is a lot in this book that has to do with themes in logic and metalogic.

As I mentioned in another thread, there are themes based around Godel's incompleteness theorem. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is an interesting co-read as is The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul.

I'm also reminded of a story told by Raymond Smullyan at the end of a lecture on the relative sizes of infinities. Raymond Smullyan, in his youth, was a magician for kid's parties. At one party, he had a kid who was unhappy with the typical tricks and wanted real magic. Smullyan asked him what real magic was. "Well, could you turn me into a lion." "Yes, of course. Unfortunately, if I said the magic word, it wouldn't turn you into a lion, it would turn all people into lions and there would be no one left who would say the word to turn us back." "OK, but could you tell me the word?" "Yes, but by saying it, it would turn as all into lions and again, there would be no going back." "OK, could you write the word down for me?" "Yes, but the moment I write it, we would again all be turned into lions." After some thought, the kid asked Smullyan, "so how did you learn the word?"

Carolina Both of your points (epistemology and logic)support so well what it came to mind when I finally finish the whole collection. I am certainly happy I asked for more opinions :) Thanks!

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