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Book Review: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
This book, a collection of short stories was originally published with the above title in 2002. After the success of Arrival movie in 2016, the book was relaunched as “Arrival”. Here it may be pertinent to note that the Arrival movie is based on one of the stories that is titled “Story of Your Life”. The book has seven short stories, and one very short-short story.
This book shouts loud “Science Fiction”. And what wonderful stories, and the wonderful way in which they have been conceptualised and written. This is what pure science fiction looks like, that uses known science to create a world of stories that are at once realistic, fantastic, believable, and yet fiction. Given its element of “science”, some of the things are sure to go over the head, unless one re-reads them.
I particularly loved three of the stories:
Tower of Babylon, Story of Your Life, and Seventy Two Letters – this last one was a difficult, but interesting read.
If you have seen and appreciated Arrival movie, then let me say, this short story “Story of Your Life” of about seventy pages is far better conceptualised and executed than the movie. The kind of thoughts and visuals that the prose evokes, the visuals of movie is no match for it. The story is a joy to read and deal with issues that are at the very basics of a language – the words, grammar, symbols, sentence construction, assigning of meaning. A language of aliens that when understood gives the ability to see the future. A sample “Looking at a sentence like this one, I understood why the heptapods had evolved a semasiographic writing system… it was better suited for a species with simultaneous mode of consciousness. For them, speech was a bottleneck, because it required that one word follow another sequentially. With writing, on the other hand, every mark on a page was visible simultaneously. Why constrain writing with glottographic straitjacket, demanding that it be just as sequential as speech.”
In this framework of understanding the language of the aliens the future events as a result of the consciousness of acquired clairvoyance is well juxtaposed, with impending personal future, a tragic one, on which one has no control. Yet it is a triumph of human willpower to embrace such faulty future and keep moving ahead in life.
Tower of Babylon is a story that deals with creating a tower to reach the gods. It brings about a sense of continuous movement, of how fantastic it becomes as the height increases, and how the people tend to form communities even as part of caravan like movement.
Seventy Two Letters uses lots of scientific concepts along with power and importance of language in creation. This is an interesting story that reads like suspense.
These stories have been written as short story, but could well have been a full length novel. However, brevity of word has its own impact that makes these short stories full of punch. For the reader this means ability to remember the story far longer. The stories revolves around themes and concepts. The power of words and language as a theme in many of these stories have been executed with creative compactness. One would be hard pressed to find usage of any extra words than what is necessary. In an SFF framework this is a great achievement where imagination exhibits the rigours of a well disciplined wielder of prose.
A wonderful book to read and cherish.
Copyright © Anup Mukherjee
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