Sunday, July 12, 2015

Weird & Wonderful: Stories of Your Life

For the last meeting of City Lit Books' "Weird and Wonderful" club, we discussed Ted Chiang's "Stories of Your Life and Others" (2002).

What a collection! This is a book I frequently recommend to people--it's a great example of some of the best kinds of things being done in SF today. It doesn't hurt that Chiang is one of the strongest short-form writers out there. The collection also frequently makes it into SF/F reading groups: I know at least Think Galactic & Chicago Nerds have discussed it.

We read and discussed (at least briefly) all the stories herein,  and given the nature of short stories there may be SPOILERS BELOW!
We jumped around a lot in our discussion, but I'm going to arrange some of our comments by story:

"Tower of Babylon"- we liked this story, and praised the realistic feel of it. Something this showcases is Chiang's ability to take a really rigorous SF "what if x were the case" scenario and really follow it through--he takes a big radical idea and, rather than making it mysterious, thoroughly naturalizes it, so our sense of what's fantastic about it is grounded in seeing how the world works. This works all the better, of course, because of his skill in infusing the world and characters with a lot of believable detail. You see this happening in different ways with all the stories in this collection, but "Tower" does it perhaps most straightforwardly. "Tower" is also the kind of story that exactly captures both the "Weird" and "Wonderful" that our group looks for. It's also that ol' "sense of wonder" most prized by SF fans, all the more impressive here since it's a strictly bronze age setting.

A lot of our discussion of this collection centered not on Chiang in particular but in the short story as a medium--a few of our members hadn't read much or much gotten into the short forms, preferring novels. It seemed like everyone really liked this collection, though, so we talked a lot about what medium-specific things we noticed. With "Tower of Babylon", one thing we noticed was that there's very little of the standard plots/arcs/devices one sees at novel length--no villain or romance, for instance, and arguably no big change in the character (though their worldview has perforce changed a bit by the end). The story is very straightforward, a straight journey or exploration, and succeeds brilliantly because of that, and while we thought of some counterexamples we mostly thought that is an extremely difficult thing to do at novel-length.
Why is it a rule that films
about intelligence are
almost invariably dumb?

"Understand"- another fun one. I'm still kind of irked that Neil Burger's film "Limitless" (2011) gives Chiang no credit (seems like it might be plagiarism but I suppose independent invention is possible). Also, utter aside, but James Altucher, whose podcast we mentioned last time at Weird & Wonderful, is a commenter on that thread. Also also, it appears "Limitless" is being made into a television series.

Anyway! "Understand" is a first-person narrative of a person whose intelligence is dramatically increased by an experimental medical procedure. We liked it but didn't discuss it or its connection to the "suddenly smart" sub-genre very much. One thinks of "Flowers for Algernon" (Keyes, 1959), "Brain Wave" (Anderson, 1953), just for starters. Also, in the comments Chiang mentions that he wrote this as kind of a reversal to the nihilism in Sartre's "Nausea" (1938)--how did I not bring that into discussion?! I'm really sliding here. But we dug the story.

Also this was produced as a BBC Radio Play, which you can still find online here.

"Division by Zero"- generated a ton of discussion, both teasing out the premise and what the math means (ALL the maths, that is) and talking about suicide and the husband/wife dynamic here.

"Story of Your Life"- this is the title story of the collection for good reason. This is a real gem of a story. Briefly: very strange aliens visit and don't do a whole lot, but in learning their language our narrator also acquires their perception of time, which is non-linear. The story is a perfect intersection of a few different themes and ideas: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that language radically structures our experience of the world), Fermat's principle (an area of physics that, if looked at the right way, really messes with our naive conception of sequential causality), and how those ideas interact with free will and human experience.

So you can see how that generates a lot of discussion. We compared it to "Slaughterhouse-Five" (Vonnegut, 1969) and Dr. Manhattan's chapter of "Watchmen" (Moore & Gibbons, 1987), both of which feature characters whose perception of time is non-sequential--Billy Pilgrim is "unstuck in time" and jumps around to different periods of his own life, while Dr. Manhattan's consciousness has enlarged to the point that he perceives the past and future simultaneously. Both characters, much like Dr. Louise Banks in Chiang's story, develop different attitudes to life as a result. In Banks' case, it reminds me most of a sort of Buddhist non-attachment, at least as expressed in the narrative--foreknowledge and awareness of inevitability temper the suffering of experience.

We also talked about the mechanic of knowing the future but not being able to say anything about it--the "Book of Life" idea--and how that makes her narrative necessarily, completely internal. We brought up the idea of the Akashic records (a Theosophist idea about a sort of eternal record of events a lot like the book of life) and some of the paradoxes in the Laplace's Demon thought experiment (an entity that could perfectly predict the future based on immense knowledge and computational ability couldn't act to reveal that, because local actors could always act contrary to these predictions).

Something that perhaps isn't apparent from these notes is how emotionally affective this story is. You should really read it. Parents at the group also talked about the impact of the mother/daughter angle and how that works in complement with the more abstract alien plot.

"72 Letters"- bit of a hung jury on this one, lots of folks didn't really dig it. Personally I just adore it, and, indeed, any speculative take on the Royal Society, those intrepid and sometimes insane-sounding bunch of early scientists. This story also finely displays that "what if" follow-through we lauded in "Tower of Babel", in this case bringing together kabbalistic golem theory with early biological ideas. Perhaps a fair criticism is that this story relies almost entirely on the intellectual delight of these ideas and their consequences, while failing to give us an emotional hook--no characters we're deeply interested in.

"The Evolution of Human Science"- you know what, I lied, I don't think we discussed this brief satiric piece at all. Well, if we had, I would have probably compared it to the situation with Synthesists, baselines, and post-human intelligences in "Blindsight" (Watts, 2006). If one reads it as skewering "pro-baseline" apologetics, then I might also suggest Aaron Diaz's excellent "Enough is Enough: A Thinking Ape's Critique of Trans-simianism" (2007).

"Hell is the Absence of God"- another one that we had a fairly brief discussion of, mostly sussing out how much this is skewering religion; it's hard to tell. Most interesting perhaps for how it literalizes divine events as sort of unpredictable, fundamentally non-just occurrences of nature, and the way people try to rationalize them. We were reminded a little bit of Vonnegut again, and also James Morrow, whose "Towing Jehovah" (1994) Weird & Wonderful read last year.

"Liking What You See: A Documentary"- while the subject matter here is very intellectually stimulating--a reversible neuro-modification that blinds subjects to facial beauty, thus removing a major aspect of "lookism" from social interactions--it was primarily the style that we praised. It's presented as the audio track of a documentary: we only get the words of the people interviewed, with no external descriptions or narrative. It works astonishingly well. "Calli" (the neuromodification), how early socialization patterns ramify into larger societal ones, and the "aesthetic arms race" also make for great discussion.

A good group as always! By the way you can read many of Chiang's works online, for free.

Weird & Wonderful's next selection is "My Real Children" (2014) by Jo Walton.

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