Pretty much any time I meet someone who says they like science fiction, I ask them, “Have you read Ted Chiang?” The answer is almost always a no. I can’t much fault them. Up until I was in college, I had never heard of him either. Then a professor and trusted source for awesome books handed me her copy of Stories of Your Life and Others and said, “Here. This is a good stuff.”
For a guy who has made such a mark on the field of science fiction, Ted Chiang actually has a pretty small footprint. His first eight stories are published in Stories of Your Life and Others, and since then he has published a few more and two novellas, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate and The Lifecycles of Software Objects (for the record, both awesome). For an author whose first story appeared in 1990, that’s not a lot of output.
The reason for this is that everything he puts out is polished to an uncanny sheen. The collection’s first story, and Chiang’s first published work, “Tower of Babylon” won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette, one of sci-fi’s highest honors, a feat almost unheard of for a first publication.
The stories in the collection run spectrum of the mythic and biblical (“Tower of Babylon” and “Hell is the Absence of God”) to the hard scientific (“Story of Your Life”) to the fantastic (“Understand”) and all spaces in between (including, but not limited to: Victorian golems, angels who take the form of tornados, and a drug that turns off the human response to physical attractiveness). There is not a dud in this collection, and each of the stories feels drastically different from the others. Chiang’s writing process takes so long because he finds an idea, interrogates it until he understands his symbolic and metaphoric connections intimately, and then drops in more content than some writers put into whole novels into 40-50 page science fiction masterpieces.
Reading Stories of Your Life and Others for the first time remains one of my all-time favorite reading experiences. Chiang’s stories are so well realized and so expertly told that they made me drastically reconsider what was possible in the field of science fiction. He employs no clichés, is complacent with using no set tropes. These are thoughtful, heart-felt, and deeply interesting stories.
When people tell me that they haven’t read Ted Chiang before, I can’t help but feel a pang of jealousy. He’s one of the very best writers we have, regardless of genre distinctions. I can’t recommend the collection enough. It’s recently been reprinted in a smart paperback edition by Small Beer Press (which is managed by another SFF titan, Kelly Link).
Stories of Your Life and Others is one of my favorite books of all time. Forget pieces of lasagna. This gets five whole lasagnas.