It’s doubtful I’ve ever had a more daunting though rewarding belly-flop into science fiction than after reading Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. Curiously, for someone who hasn’t written a whole lot, readers most likely won’t find a more highly praised and deserving work of short stories. Apparently he can literally write no wrong.
Perhaps it’s because Chiang restores a sense of balance in what we have conceived as science-fiction. Many, perhaps most writers in the genre focus solely on the fiction, and relegate the science to some fantastical, nebulous and/or contrived aspect of the story that is ultimately incomprehensible but nevertheless important somehow; we as readers and viewers simply have to take the scifi aspect on faith, which is irony stabbing us in the eye when closely pondered. It’s the current mentality you’ll see on TV, whereby viewers are force-fed tried and boring apocalypse movies, criminally underwritten Star Wars remakes and even more inane mecha-squirrel vs. dino-possum nonsense that really should be categorized under horror and general stupidity, or worse, willful lack of imagination rather than “science-fiction”.
That being said, the stories written by Chiang are slow, complex and require effort. They take time to comprehend, but if the reader follows closely enough, his stories build a momentum of brilliance. Admittedly, even I was doubtful as the stories are literally surrounded, even choking on the multitude of blurbs, from cover to cover. Chiang uses several familiar settings like alien visitations, mad scientists, rogue collectives, and even cybernetic experimentation, but with a tender detachment and unexpected conclusions. Despite the effort required, the reward is certainly worth the effect of emerging a more enlightened reader than a merely entertained one. My favorite entries include Understand, Story of Your Life, Seventy-Two Letters, and Liking What You See. It’s literature that’s more than just science, more than just fiction.