Whenever I meet another person who’s significantly smarter than I am, my brain immediately and involuntarily starts doing this thing where it starts looking for deficits. “Okay, sure, she may understand linear algebra in a way that I’ve never been able to, but I’d be able to understand it too, if I hadn’t devoted so time to developing a sense of humor to be a more well-rounded person.”
It’s complete bullshit, of course. And it should go without saying that it never actually works, because I don’t live in an 80s teen movie where people have one defining trait. And almost every time I’ve met someone frustratingly smarter than I am, they’ve also turned out to be creative, imaginative, and often funny. (And occasionally, infuriatingly, really good-looking as well).
It was a familiar feeling reading Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, a collection of short stories seemingly written by someone better than me at understanding linguistics, semiotics, and what it fundamentally means to be human.
Usually my attempts to read science fiction end in failure, even though it’s always seemed like I should be a fan. I think I bounce off “real” sci-fi for the same reason I didn’t enjoy taking astronomy in college: the amazing things that we’ve learned about the cosmos aren’t the result of seat-of-your-pants jaunts on a faster-than-light spaceship navigating through asteroid fields, but from centuries of earthbound study. On a purely intellectual level, I can appreciate the spectacular amount of work and brilliant insight that goes into just gathering images from outer space, but still I was disappointed that astronomy classes turned out to be 1% cool pictures of nebulae and 99% geology and physics. Science fantasy is flashier and more fun than science fiction, and both are orders of magnitude more fun than actual science.
It’s appropriate that immediately before this book, I read Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke for the first time. That’s long had a reputation as being a classic of “hard” science fiction, and for good reason: its drama comes almost entirely from insurmountable limitations of physics (along with some conjecture about interplanetary politics) instead of human interaction. Its characters speak in dry monologues, the attempts at humor are almost unforgivably corny, and there’s an air of just-give-her-a-smack-on-the-ass sexism that pervades the whole thing, although to me at least, it comes across as more musty and dated than genuinely misogynist. The only real personality in the book is that Clarke comes across as way into polygamy.
The preface to the edition of Rendezvous with Rama that I read acknowledges the weakness of character development, but gives it a pass because the book isn’t “about” that. It’s a stereotype about science fiction that I’ve long just accepted as true: a story can either have scientific rigor or good character development, but never both, because they’re inherently mutually exclusive.
The aspect I love the most about Stories of Your Life and Others is that it completely refutes that idea. It takes concepts from science fantasy (and high fantasy), tells them with the rigor of science fiction, and uses them to explore some of the same ideas as contemporary literary fiction. Most of the stories in this book are deeply, profoundly human.
And they don’t use the crutch of direct allegory to make their point — like using the story of an android to ask what makes us human, which can be well-told and effective, but is still processed intellectually. The stories in this book explore a fantastic premise in all its permutations, layering on idea after idea to leave the reader with less of a conclusion and more of a feeling. I didn’t understand “Division by Zero,” for instance, and I still don’t. Even (especially?) after reading Chiang’s afterword describing the impetus for the story, I don’t feel like I can understand the depth of its premise, or fully appreciate the implications of its premise. And still, it left me feeling shaken, in a way even more troubling because I couldn’t explain it. I had to put the book down and couldn’t go back to it for a couple of weeks.
That’s why I can’t say I loved the book, even though I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call it genius. I do think the stories at the end of this collection were well told but felt either a little predictable or a little too direct when compared to the others, but honestly only suffer when compared to the strength of the first few stories. But more than that, it took an emotional toll on me, as if I’d read seven complete novels in the time I’d intended to read one. I’d expected a short story collection to be a light read, but it was anything but. These short stories don’t feel like sketches, but like sucking on bullion cubes of densely-concentrated ideas.
I haven’t yet seen Arrival, but it’s such a beautiful idea that makes perfect sense for a movie translation. And I’ve already got Chiang’s latest collection, Exhalation, but I’m not eager to jump into it right away. One of the review blurbs calls it “relentless,” and there’s a story called “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” both of which make me think I need to take a break first and read something lighter. I can tolerate somebody being smarter than me, and I can tolerate somebody being more insightful than me, but pulling both at once just seems unfair.