The genre of science fiction can conjure thoughts of bold encounters like galaxy-wide explorations or dystopias with AI creations gone wrong. Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, however, delves into the genre in a subtly different way. In his collection of short stories, worlds are developed and explored not just through the driving forces of plot and action, but also the unfolding of a scientific theme which oftentimes culminates in what Chiang terms a “conceptual breakthrough.”
“Division by Zero,” for example, revolves around a woman’s exploration of one mathematical formalism—and her subsequent breakdown when she realizes that all math is theoretical. In “Story of Your Life,” arguably one of Chiang’s most famous short stories (you may have seen Arrival, its movie adaptation), aliens arrive unexpectedly on Earth with mysterious intentions. However, rather than focusing on the growing animosity between humans and aliens, with all signs pointing to an interstellar war, Chiang instead bases the story around how possible re-interpretations of physics and language acquisition can change our consciousnesses. The result is an impactful and intricate collection of stories that showcases Chiang’s ability to narrativize the wonder of scientific discovery.
Despite the complex nature of his stories, however, Chiang’s tendency to focus on concepts and characters make his writing personable to read. Despite the bizarre situations Chiang’s characters struggle and suffer through, one can’t help but feel a human connection to them.
This emotional tug of Chiang’s stories is surprising; his style of writing in the collection is precise and straightforward, almost distant. Oftentimes, its tone can feel more like a scientific documentary or research project than a piece of fiction.
Chiang’s detached tone may come as a result of his application of philosophical concepts and ideas in each story, which take precedence over more grounding details. As the stories unfold, Chiang leads the reader along a subtle, but lofty, exploration of topics such as grief, religious faith, and love, to name a few. Louise, the main character in “Story of Your Life,” is a conduit for Chiang’s examination of how our conceptualization of time and knowledge of the future will impact our decisions. What if we saw time as simultaneous, rather than sequential? What if we could experience our past, present, and future all at once? How would this foreknowledge influence the way we lead our lives?
Fortunately, Chiang is also very skilled at explaining his scientific concepts in layman’s terms—there are useful physics and math diagrams incorporated into his stories, which make for a more entertaining and interesting read than one might expect. Despite terms like “index of refraction” and “Fermat’s principle” holding significance in “Story of Your Life,” the effect is compelling rather than confusing. Or, at least, the curiosity inspired by Chiang’s exploration of these concepts in relation to his stories is more powerful than the confusion that scientific principles can often evoke.
In this way, Chiang incorporates the best of the science fiction genre into his work, threading together the complexities of technological innovation, science, and power of human wonder.