Most Honoured, Word for Word

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How to decipher an alien language without a Rosetta StoneAt first, I resisted reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel. A guy is stranded on a raft – it sounded like a concept that had been done before. But my friends raved about the book constantly, and when I finally broke down and read it, I found that it had some of the smoothest writing I’d ever encountered. Writing that managed to convey a lot of information but still was entertaining and gorgeous.

I said to myself: if only there were a science fiction writer whose prose could live up to the standard set by Martel. Someone who could recycle an idea just like the castaway and make it readable and interesting. Science fiction is filled with ideas that get lazily reused and it’s tiring to read such half-baked stuff. Not long after, I found an answer to my dilemma. His name is Ted Chiang.

I’m not the only one pointing in Chiang’s direction. He’s won every major award in the science fiction field once and the Nebula Award twice. He would be more well-known except for the fact that he’s a painstaking writer, and his only book, Stories of Your Life and Others, collects all of his fiction to date, only eight stories. That works out to more awards per word written than any other author in the genre. How do his stories stack up to this acclaim?

“Tower of Babylon” was Chiang’s first published work and it won him a Nebula Award. Hillalum is a Babylonian miner who is called to help at the great tower itself. After hundreds of years of construction, the tower has reached the vault of heaven; Hillalum’s professional services are required to help tunnel through the stone vault at the top of the sky.

Hillalum and his crew make the four-month ascent, passing through clouds, the zone of the sun (during which time they have to travel at night), and the stars. They tunnel through stone, taking care not to let loose the reservoir of water on the other side. What could possibly be beyond the stone and water barrier?

What a weird and vivid story! Chiang takes the notion of Babylonian cosmology and writes within that framework as logically as possible. When you read the story you are not only entertained, you also get caught up in the incredible detail and how all the strange elements work together consistently.

In other words, it’s enormously readable, but it’s also an intellectual puzzle that sticks in your mind after the story is done. If Chiang is showing us what a Babylonian mindset might be like, what could the outcome be? I won’t ruin the surprise of the story, because Chiang’s ending lives up to the potential of what has come before.

How to decipher an alien language without a Rosetta StoneAs good as “Tower of Babylon” is, the title story, “Story of Your Life” is better, a revelation. Louise is a linguist and she is called in to help out a project that has received a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence. First contact is one of the oldest ideas in science fiction, and this is one of the few such stories to focus how much work it would be to decipher an alien language. We couldn’t even read hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone, and there would be even fewer, if any, references in common between humans and aliens.

It’s tempting to skim the linguistic detail in the story, and you can get away with a bit of speed reading. But too much and you’ll miss a crucial part of the story. Chiang finds a basis for this alien language in a type of physics that is diametrically opposed to our own. If you miss this part of it, you’ll miss how this distinctive language is in the process of affecting Louise’s mind.

Chiang conveys this subtly, through our sympathy with Louise and what is going on in her life. This isn’t just character development tacked on to a hard science story; Louise’s life is key to what happens. Again, Chiang raises some fascinating issues and doesn’t disappoint in the payoff. It’s one of the best sf stories in a long time.

Are stories of first contact and aliens too abstract for you? “Hell is the Absence of God,” Chiang’s second Nebula Award-winning story, is terrifyingly real, and quite chilling. Of the stories in this collection, it’s probably the easiest to get. What if the world was shaped by the fundamentalist Christian point of view? Would life be hunky-dory?

Chiang gives us a glimpse. Angels visit Earth, but they are not the warm and fuzzy guardian angels of too many greeting cards and bad TV shows. An angelic visitation is a display of awesome power, and humans should probably get out of the way. The first line of the story gives away the ending: “This is the story of a man named Neil Fisk, and how he came to love God” (245). But the route to that conclusion is grim and surprising and, best of all, a logical outcome of what we are told during the narrative.

Stories of Your Life and Others has five other stories, and concludes with some author’s notes by Chiang.

This review was originally published in slightly different format at Challenging Destiny.

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