Stories of Your Life and Others
Click on image to enlarge.
by Ted Chiang
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy Nebula Award(R) Winner, Sturgeon Award Winner, Seiun Award Winner, Locus Poll Award Winner, Hugo Award Winner
Description: A woman learns an alien language that enables her to see her future. A man endures the death of his wife at an angel's hands, but must learn to love God in order to be reunited with her in the afterlife. Students on a college campus make a political statement by disabling their ability to recognize beauty. Combining scientific curiosity and narrative intricacy, Ted Chiang's award-winning collection examines what it means to be alive in a world marked by uncertainty and constant change, and also by beauty and wonder.
eBook Publisher: Small Beer Press, 2002 2002
eBookwise Release Date: September 2010
17 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [428 KB]
Reading time: 264-370 min.
"Shining, haunting, mind-blowing tales . . . this collection is a pure marvel. Chiang is so exhilarating so original so stylish he just leaves you speechless. I always suggest a person read at least 52 books a year for proper mental functioning but if you only have time for one, be at peace: you found it."
--Junot Díaz (author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao)
"Chiang writes seldom, but his almost unfathomably wonderful stories tick away with the precision of a Swiss watch--and explode in your awareness with shocking, devastating force."
--Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"The first must-read SF book of the year."
--Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Puts the science back in science fiction--brilliantly."
--Booklist (Starred Review)
"Essential. You won't know SF if you don't read Ted Chiang."
Praise for Ted Chiang's stories:
"Meticulously pieced together, utterly thought through, Chiang's stories emerge slowly . . . but with the perfection of slow-growing crystal."
--Lev Grossman, Best of the Decade: Science Fiction and Fantasy, Techland.com
"In Chiang's hands, SF really is the 'literature of ideas' it is often held to be, and the genre's traditional "sense of wonder" is paramount. But though one reads Stories of Your Life with a kind of thematic nostalgia for classic philosophical SF such as that of Asimov and Theodore Sturgeon, the collection never feels dated. Partly this is because the "wonder" of these stories is a modern, melancholy transcendence, not the naive '50s dreams of the genre's golden age. More important, the collection is united by a humane intelligence that speaks very directly to the reader, and makes us experience each story with immediacy and Chiang's calm passion."
--China Miéville, The Guardian
"Ted is a national treasure . . . each of those stories is a goddamned jewel."
--Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing
"Chiang's work confirms that blending science and fine art at this length can produce touching works, tales as intimate as our own blood cells, with the structural strength of just-discovered industrial alloys."
--The Seattle Times
"Summarizing these stories does not do justice to Chiang's talent. Seemingly ordinary ideas are pursued ruthlessly, their tendons flayed, their bones exposed. Chiang derides lazy thinking, weasels it out of its hiding place, and leaves it cowering."
--The Washington Post
"Chiang is one of those authors who prove the power of science fiction by looking at things in totally new ways."
--The Denver Post
"Abounds with examples of why Ted Chiang's stories have continued to be award winners. From "Understand", which both plays homage to and expands upon Daniel Keyes' classic "Flowers For Algernon" to "Story of Your Life," in which a linguist confronts the relationship between language and reality, it will not take readers new to these stories very long to appreciate their quality and beauty. Science fiction has always depended on writers who work best at shorter lengths to continue to examine new ideas and push the boundaries of the field. In the decade plus a few years since he first started publishing, Ted Chiang has shown himself to be more than up to that task."
"Reading a Chiang story means juggling multiple conceptions of what is normal and right. Probably this kind of brain twisting can be done with such intensity only in shorter lengths; if these stories were much longer, readers' heads might explode. . . . They resemble the work of a less metaphysical Philip K. Dick or a Borges with more characterization and a grasp of cutting-edge science."
"Brilliantly conceived and emotionally moving."
"A quirky, inventive and morally sober collection . . . Discovering Chiang is one of those pleasures reserved for those of us not snobbish about genre SF. He is an important short-story writer."
--Roz Kaveney, Time Out London
"Absolutely mind-blowing and stunningly creative--Ted Chiang is the future of science fiction!"
--Jamie M., Powells.com Staff Pick
"This marvelous collection by one of science fiction's most thoughtful and graceful writers belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in literary science fiction . . . Chiang has the gift that lies at the heart of good science fiction: a human story, beautifully told, in which the science is an expression of the deeper issues that the characters must confront."
"The level of ideas and concepts at work are nothing short of breathtaking."
"Can he be the best SF writer to come down the pike in the past thirty years? I honestly believe that he is."
"[Chiang] is a master of prose as a precise instrument, or rather a well-stocked toolbox of instruments, subtly choosing and coolly crafting the right style not just to convey the particular content but to suit the particular form."
--Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine
"It has often been said that the short story is the heart of sf. On the evidence of Chiang's first collection, the genre heart is beating strongly and in a very healthy state indeed."
"The qualities for which Ted Chiang is well-known--conceptual originality and dazzling clarify, for starters--are on show throughout."
"Sheer originality . . . a remarkable collection. Every story amply repays the investment put into reading it."
"Chiang is a consummate stylist, and these lyrical tales aren't just great SF; they're great literature."
--The Globe and Mail
"Ted Chiang's collection is probably--without exaggeration--the most anticipated short story collection of its generation."
--The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
Tower of Babylon
Were the tower to be laid down across the plain of Shinar, it would be two days' journey to walk from one end to the other. While the tower stands, it takes a full month and a half to climb from its base to its summit, if a man walks unburdened. But few men climb the tower with empty hands; the pace of most men is slowed by the cart of bricks that they pull behind them. Four months pass between the day a brick is loaded onto a cart, and the day it is taken off to form a part of the tower.
* * * *
Hillalum had spent all his life in Elam, and knew Babylon only as a buyer of Elam's copper. The copper ingots were carried on boats that traveled down the Karun to the Lower Sea, headed for the Euphrates. Hillalum and the other miners traveled overland, alongside a merchant's caravan of loaded onagers. They walked along a dusty path leading down from the plateau, across the plains, to the green fields sectioned by canals and dikes.
None of them had seen the tower before. It became visible when they were still leagues away: a line as thin as a strand of flax, wavering in the shimmering air, rising up from the crust of mud that was Babylon itself. As they drew closer, the crust grew into the mighty city walls, but all they saw was the tower. When they did lower their gazes to the level of the river-plain, they saw the marks the tower had made outside the city: the Euphrates itself now flowed at the bottom of a wide, sunken bed, dug to provide clay for bricks. To the south of the city could be seen rows upon rows of kilns, no longer burning.
As they approached the city gates, the tower appeared more massive than anything Hillalum had ever imagined: a single column that must have been as large around as an entire temple, yet rising so high that it shrank into invisibility. All of them walked with their heads tilted back, squinting in the sun.
Hillalum's friend Nanni prodded him with an elbow, awestruck. "We're to climb that? To the top?"
"Going up to dig. It seems ... unnatural."
The miners reached the central gate in the western wall, where another caravan was leaving. While they crowded forward into the narrow strip of shade provided by the wall, their foreman Beli shouted to the gatekeepers who stood atop the gate towers. "We are the miners summoned from the land of Elam."
The gatekeepers were delighted. One called back, "You are the ones who are to dig through the vault of heaven?"
* * * *
The entire city was celebrating. The festival had begun eight days ago, when the last of the bricks were sent on their way, and would last two more. Every day and night, the city rejoiced, danced, feasted.
Along with the brickmakers were the cart-pullers, men whose legs were roped with muscle from climbing the tower. Each morning a crew began its ascent; they climbed for four days, transferred their loads to the next crew of pullers, and returned to the city with empty carts on the fifth. A chain of such crews led all the way to the top of the tower, but only the bottommost celebrated with the city. For those who lived upon the tower, enough wine and meat had been sent up earlier to allow a feast to extend up the entire pillar.
In the evening, Hillalum and the other Elamite miners sat upon clay stools before a long table laden with food, one table among many laid out in the city square. The miners spoke with the pullers, asking about the tower.
Nanni said, "Someone told me that the bricklayers who work at the top of the tower wail and tear their hair when a brick is dropped, because it will take four months to replace, but no one takes notice when a man falls to his death. Is that true?"
One of the more talkative pullers, Lugatum, shook his head. "Oh no, that is only a story. There is a continuous caravan of bricks going up the tower; thousands of bricks reach the top each day. The loss of a single brick means nothing to the bricklayers." He leaned over to them. "However, there is something they value more than a man's life: a trowel."
"Why a trowel?"
"If a bricklayer drops his trowel, he can do no work until a new one is brought up. For months he cannot earn the food that he eats, so he must go into debt. The loss of a trowel is cause for much wailing. But if a man falls, and his trowel remains, men are secretly relieved. The next one to drop his trowel can pick up the extra one and continue working, without incurring debt."
Hillalum was appalled, and for a frantic moment he tried to count how many picks the miners had brought. Then he realized. "That cannot be true. Why not have spare trowels brought up? Their weight would be nothing against all the bricks that go up there. And surely the loss of a man means a serious delay, unless they have an extra man at the top who is skilled at bricklaying. Without such a man, they must wait for another one to climb from the bottom."
All of the pullers roared with laughter. "We cannot fool this one," Lugatum said with much amusement. He turned to Hillalum. "So you'll begin your climb once the festival is over?"
Hillalum drank from a bowl of beer. "Yes. I've heard that we'll be joined by miners from a western land, but I haven't seen them. Do you know of them?"
"Yes, they come from a land called Egypt, but they do not mine ore as you do. They quarry stone."
"We dig stone in Elam, too," said Nanni, his mouth full of pork.
"Not as they do. They cut granite."
"Granite?" Limestone and alabaster were quarried in Elam, but not granite. "Are you certain?"
"Merchants who have traveled to Egypt say that they have stone ziggurats and temples, built with limestone and granite, huge blocks of it. And they carve giant statues from granite."
"But granite is so difficult to work."
Lugatum shrugged. "Not for them. The royal architects believe such stoneworkers may be useful when you reach the vault of heaven."
Hillalum nodded. That could be true. Who knew for certain what they would need? "Have you seen them?"
"No, they are not here yet, but they are expected in a few days' time. They may not arrive before the festival ends, though; then you Elamites will ascend alone."
"You will accompany us, won't you?"
"Yes, but only for the first four days. Then we must turn back, while you lucky ones go on."
"Why do you think us lucky?"
"I long to make the climb to the top. I once pulled with the higher crews, and reached a height of twelve days' climb, but that is as high as I have ever gone. You will go far higher." Lugatum smiled ruefully. "I envy you, that you will touch the vault of heaven."
To touch the vault of heaven. To break it open with picks. Hillalum felt uneasy at the idea. "There is no cause for envy--" he began.
"Right," said Nanni. "When we are done, all men will touch the vault of heaven."