Stories of Your Life and Others: Book Review

Jiayi Zhu, Staff Writer

In November 2016 the mystery/science fiction movie Arrival received critical acclaim for, among other things, its masterful dramatic presentation of the exploration of communicating with alien life. While the film is considered one of best of the year, few moviegoers are aware that the plot originated in 1998 as a short story written by American science fiction author Ted Chiang.

In the world of science fiction, Chiang is legendary having won four Nebula, four Hugo, and four Locus awards with a staggering number of other honors despite a relatively small body of work. His first eight stories are compiled in Stories of Your Life and Others and each, is no short of a miniature masterpiece from the mesmerizing “Tower of Babylon” which won Chiang his first Nebula award to “Story of Your Life,” the basis for Arrival.     

While Chiang’s short stories fundamentally revolve around common elements of science fiction such as superhuman intelligence, human interaction with extraterrestrial beings and the future of mankind, they carry a haunting philosophical element beautifully connected with the scientific or mathematical subject at hand. “Division by Zero” speculates what would happen if we suddenly realize math is not consistent, while “Understand” illustrates the destructive side of intelligence in the clash of two humans who become super-intelligent as the result of a new drug. Given the variety of deeper meanings behind each story, the simplicity of the plot of each work along with the discussions of complex scientific topics without the jargon add to the refreshing charm of Chiang’s writing.

Science fiction is not everyone’s cup of tea but Stories of Your Life and Others, while presented as speculative fiction, has much to offer beyond alien invasions and advanced, futuristic societies. In some of Chiang’s stories, the science fiction portion, while still there, is not so easy to identify. “Tower of Babylon” revisits the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel and follows the journey of a group of men as they climb to the vault of heaven where what they discover is stunningly simplistic but staggering in its implications.

Despite containing Chiang’s earliest works, Stories of Your Life and Others does not pale in comparison to the author’s more recent short stories. If anything, it is a most suitable starting point for newcomers to Chiang’s work and a must-read for individuals with various interests including but not limited to history, psychology, philosophy, religion and science or if you’re just a simple person with simple wants like getting your mind blown, this book is good for that too.