Possible spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen Arrival.
The release of the movie Arrival last month prompted my interest in Seattle science fiction writer Ted Chiang. He has published only 15 short stories, novelettes, and novellas in print, including “Story of Your Life,” the inspiration for Arrival. He’s won Nebulas, Hugos, and host of other awards, far out of proportion to his published output, judging by most other writers I know. As a writer who’s only published one short story (not counting self-publishing), I had to read more by this man.
Penguin Random House has collected eight of his stories in Stories of Your Life And Others, including “Story,” most of them the award winners. It’s a remarkable collection that may become part of the core canon of science fiction and speculative fiction in general. None of the the stories hits a weak note, though I have favorites among them.
If there’s a single word that describes them all, it’s “precise,” demonstrating Chiang’s penchant for picking only the right words and phrases, and crafting every sentence as if his writing life depended on it. Chiang’s style may reflect his training in computer science; every line of “code,” if you will, is elegant and purposeful, and the result is often mesmerizing.
It’s easy to see why Arrival director Denis Villeneuve was drawn to the star of this collection, “Story of Your Life,” the most conventional of Chiang’s in this collection. The protagonist, Louise Banks, is asked by the military to communicate with an alien species that has just arrived at Earth. It’s long been said that learning a new language changes your view of the world, but Chiang takes the idea a step further, speculating on how learning a completely new kind of language might affect human consciousness. This is science fiction in its purest form, asking not only what it means to be human, but how an other-worldly contact might modify our view of time and space. The consequence of Chiang’s speculation on Louise is startling.
A confession: I bought Chang’s collection mostly for Story of Your Life, but the other stories are worth the time of any reader or writer. In his story notes, Chiang refers to “Tower of Babylon” as “Babylonian science fiction.” The story gives a sci-fi spin to the biblical Tower of Babel myth, though it could’ve been told by a craftsman living in ancient Sumer. “Division by Zero” explores the potential consequences of artificially enhancing human potential, but the results really don’t change humanity in fundamental ways. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” wonders at the nature of beauty, asking, What if beauty were irrelevant in human relations?
Chiang’s characters are as precisely drawn as his narrative, even if they are conventionally realistic for the most part. Chiang’s genius is placing ordinary people in circumstances that can’t exist in ordinary life, at least right now. That’s how he sucks us into his narrative, possibly changing the reader’s consciousness, just as Louise Banks learns in “Story of Your Life.”