Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang is a collection of short stories. The
entries were published independently over the course of ten years, and as you
might expect, there’s very little uniting them.
From ancient Mesopotamia in “Tower of Babylon,” to the Victorian-era European
city in “Seventy-Two Letters,” to the not-so-distant future of “Understand,”
there’s no common setting or atmosphere. The narrative style varies, too:
there’s traditional first-person (“Story of Your Life”) and third-person
(“Division by Zero”) and also more unique non-fiction forms (like the
transcript of a fictional documentary in “Liking What You See” and even an
academic white paper in “The Evolution of Human Science”). The characters are
men and women, young and old, single and in relationships (sometimes, they’re
even in unique interstitial states). Not even the genre is consistent. Before
starting to write this review, I had internalized this as a science fiction
collection. Really, though, half of the stories (e.g. “Hell Is the Absence of
God”) aren’t rooted in any reality we might know and are better described as
It might seem odd to be searching for consistency in a collection like this.
It’s just that I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I wanted an explanation
beyond, “Chiang did the writing good.” I think it comes down to two things.
Just about every story is melancholy in some way. None are cynical, and most
aren’t dark, but they all have a sense of loss. I wouldn’t call myself a
tragedy junkie (hopefully nobody would), but it takes a strong writer to convey
that feeling. By hitting the mark so consistently, Chiang not only demonstrates
his chops as an author–he gets you to empathize with his characters. After the
first couple stories, I came to expect an emotional connection. That alone
would have been enough to keep me turning the pages, but there’s more.
Chiang’s thoughtfulness also comes across in every story. That’s kind of vapid
praise for a book review, so let me elaborate. The short story format makes it
easy to lean on the novelty of the set piece to motivate the narrative.
Stories of Your Life could have gone that way–each entry certainly has an
intriguing premise. There’s the mathematician who accidentally proves that our
number system is incoherent, and a world where angels regularly visit Earth in
the form of terrible natural disasters. But the stories aren’t about these
things so much as they are sketches of the people who have to deal with them.
The mathematician is driven to depression by her discovery (and her significant
other struggles to connect with her), and those angels are perilously sought
out by a man who is desperate to be reunited with his wife. While Chiang might
be painting with some odd brushes, the result is no less relatable for it.
Stories of Your Life has some of the best short stories I’ve read in a long
time. I find myself recommending one story or another to my friends and family
quite often, and it’s a safe bet that at least one of them will get the book
for Christmas this year. If you’re looking for a feel-good collection, then
keep looking, but if you’re up for some tragic beauty, you’ve come to the right