I have had this book in my bookcase to show that I’m not at all small-minded after hating on the Arrival movie that came out a few years ago. I carried an unpopular opinion that the alien encounter movie designed after the short novella by Ted Chiang called Stories of Your Life and Others was actually a big pile of poo. It should not have been released with a strong teaser trailer indicating a possible invasion when the actual subject matter was the use of linguistics in order to communicate with the alien species.
What I was surprised about was the fact that the book was actually a collection of stories out of which only one dealt with the Corny Flying Almond Movie
- “Tower of Babylon” (Nebula Award winner)
- “Division by Zero”
- “Story of Your Life” (Nebula Award and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award winner)
- “Seventy-Two Letters”
- “The Evolution of Human Science”
- “Hell Is the Absence of God” (Hugo Award, Locus Award and Nebula Award winner)
- “Liking What You See: A Documentary”
- “Story Notes” (story collection essay)
I was blown away by the first two stories and then it kept getting better. I was getting goosebumps, sharing screenshots of my favourite passages to my friends and absolutely going through this book like a hot knife through butter. And the heptapods were no longer so shitty as initially viewed when you consider an alien species does not have to look human or think human.
So I think the main question is – does being human and the necessity to live and share things create language or is language a meta form of expressive art.
Primitive language using letters and words
Tower of Babylon by Ted Chiang
Together with a crew of other miners and cart-pullers, Hillalum is recruited to climb the Tower of Babylon and unearth what lies beyond the vault of heaven. During his journey, Hillalum discovers entire civilizations of tower-dwellers on the tower—there are those who live inside the mists of clouds, those who raise their vegetables above the sun, and those who have spent their lives under the oppressive weight of an endless, white stratum at the top of the universe.
The world-building was believably detailed, the mythology and psychology almost real. Whole communities live at levels on the tower, never coming down to earth, with ingenious ways of growing food. At higher levels, “the light of day shone upward” and plants grow sideways or down.
At the very top, they walk among moving stars and “the sight of the vault inspired unease”.
They question the theology and consequences of what they are doing: might Yahweh punish their arrogance, or be pleased at their aspiration and endeavour? They continue, cautiously, using ancient techniques of fire-setting and simple picks and drills, slowly creating huge chambers in the smooth granite vault.
The dramatic conclusion causes a complete reappraisal of beliefs about God, man, and their relationship. Ultimately, “By this construction, Yahweh’s work was indicated, and Yahweh’s work was concealed.”
Understand by Ted Chiang
Told from the first person perspective, this Sci-fi story is about the effect of “hormone K” in regenerating the intelligence of the previously brain damaged subject to hyper-awareness levels.
Of course Governments want to use him for their own purposes, and his evasion and the cat and mouse games that ensue provide the dramatic content.
It’s also about the next step in human evolution, and the dramatic end is the consequence of two competing visions of the human existence. Great existential drama, enjoyably told.
PS: This is my absolute favourite from the entire collection. It’s cool, it’s short and has some insane ideas. Imagine if you could control more than your heartbeat – like your pheromones. Make people instantly like you or hate you. The story is about truly understanding how our minds work and the alteration of perception.
I‘ve developed abilities reminiscent of the mind control schemes offered by tabloid advertisements. My control over my somatic emanations now lets me provoke precise reactions in others. With pheromones and muscle tension, I can cause another person to respond with anger, fear, sympathy or sexual arousal. Certainly enough to win friends and influence people.
I can even induce a self-sustaining reaction in others. By associating a particular response with a sense of satisfaction, I can create a positive reinforcement loop, like biofeedback; the person’s body will strengthen the reaction on its own. I’ll use this on corporate presidents to create support for the industries I’ll need.
Source; Full Novel by Ted Chiang
Division by Zero
Mathematicians tend to view numbers as the natural constituents of the universe, existing independently in a Platonic realm of perfection. Such a universe is orderly, reliable and comprehensible even if it is more than occasionally painful.
But the existence of love is overwhelming evidence that the universe is not constructed according to entirely consistent principles. Love appears to have no principles. It arrives randomly and dissipates the same way. Love contradicts itself by denying its own self-interest and inherent irrationality.
The existence of love, therefore, brings into question the fundamentals of mathematics, even the most basic idea that 1+1=2. Love demonstrates that one number can be equivalent to any other number one wishes. Love exists, in short, because arithmetic is inconsistent
Seventy-Two Letters by Ted Chiang
Robert Stratton is a Victorian-era scientist working on the science of robotics and nomenclatures. The concept of “names” works akin to a magic spell, rendering an inanimate work of ceramics or clay (golems) with an essence or soul, so to speak. As a researcher, Robert has discovered such spells to give robotic hands an almost human-like dexterity. He aims to create automatons that can assist the poor with their labour, but this idea is met with resistance. Later he is acquainted with Lord Fieldhurst, an influential nobleman, who recruits Robert on a clandestine project he has been working on which aims to, essentially, create animated human beings just by using the spell. Having forecasted earlier the limit of generations human beings can survive to, new ways of procuring “names” are to be employed if human survival is to be ensured. From thereon, the direction in which human evolution proceeds can be dictated by those who hold the power to these “names.”
The Evolution of Human Science
Chiang’s “The Evolution of Human Science” is an interesting short story (only three pages) which doesn’t have any characters. It is written as an editorial appearing in a future issue of Nature which notes that humans are no longer making any breakthroughs in scientific endeavors. Metahumans who have been genetically modified are the ones who are pushing the boundaries while humans can, at most, synthesize the metahumans’ achievements for a broader audience. The humans aren’t always good at that since many of the successes of the metahumans, while beneficial to the mere humans, can’t really be understood by the unenhanced mind.
While Chiang could have written the story as a cautionary tale, it reads more like an understanding and embracing of evolution. Humans have been superseded by metahumans of their own creation. While that doesn’t mean that humans no longer have a role in society, it does mean the role has changed and Chiang’s editorial board is espousing that humans understand the difference and learn to contribute where they can, while understanding that since human ingenuity brought about the evolutionary step that created the metahumans, there is still time for human ingenuity to boost the rest of the human race before it’s too late.
Least Favourite of All. Feels like an introduction to a writing exercise where you’re left to write the story.
Hell Is the Absence of God
In a world much like our own, the existence of Heaven and Hell are objectively proven. Indeed, the souls in Hell can be seen, and angels occasionally come to Earth, typically causing a mixture of miraculous events and capricious disasters.
Chiang points out several angels by name to remind the reader of the essentially personal character of the miraculous: Makatiel, Rashiel, Nathanael, Barakiel, and Badiel. All traffic easily if somewhat clumsily between Heaven and Earth in the execution of divine correctives to the state of the universe. Admittedly there is frequently collateral damage from their visitations – accidental death, maiming and destruction of property – as a consequence of the somewhat heavy-handed angelic interventions. But even these side effects can be considered a God-send. After all “just living through a visitation made many people appreciate their situations.”
This story is no mere descriptive confirmation of Christian metaphysics. There is an important moral lesson that Chiang clearly wants to impart through his narrative: Looking a divine gift-horse in the mouth is not a good idea. If you feel compelled to inquire about the price of miraculous visitations, you clearly can’t afford them. To make the point explicitly: overt heaven-seeking is only likely to get one to Hell in a hand basket fairly promptly (these seekers can be identified, for reasons Chiang explains with deep understanding, by their ownership of four-wheel drive SUV’s). In short, “everything in life is love, even pain, especially pain.”
Liking What You See: A Documentary by Ted Chiang
For decades people have been willing to talk about racism and sexism, but they’re still reluctant to talk about lookism. Yet this prejudice against unattractive people is incredibly pervasive
Once again Ted Chiang strikes just the right cords in this masterfully crafted short story based on the central theme of aesthetics of beauty perceived either as a blessing or a curse. Narrated in form of a documentary, the story comprises of various interviews and speech extracts from people in favour of or against calliagnosia. So what is calliagnosia? In a distant future, neural technology allows humans to remove judgements based on appearances. This particular brain modification enables people to not be swayed by facades posed by advertisers and cosmetic producers which in turn aims to create a more equal and unbiased society.
A calliagnosic perceives faces perfectly well; he or she can tell the difference between a pointed chin and a receding one, a straight nose and a crooked one, clear skin and blemished skin. He or she simply doesn’t experience any aesthetic reaction to those differences.
So calliagnosia by itself can’t eliminate appearance-based discrimination. What it does, in a sense, is even up the odds; it takes away the innate predisposition, the tendency for such discrimination to arise in the first place
The story balances both sides of the equation by bringing forth arguments in favour of calli and against it. This reversible procedure allows people to have more nourishing and wholesome relationships with one another. It also acts as a boost to self-esteem as those who are unable to judge others by their looks become more confident in their own skin. Advertising stocks plummet as people become immune to unrealistic standards of beauty suggested by models. But at the same time, those who possess natural beauty criticise calliagnosia for rendering them as outcasts in an increasingly unprejudiced society. After all they were blessed with beautiful features by nature, with no fault of their own. And beauty, in whatever form or shape, requires praise and appreciation.
Maturity means seeing the differences, but realizing they don’t matter.
Running parallel to social dynamics and perceptions to beauty is the recurrent question of the nature and degree to which beauty must be celebrated. Blind adulation for beauty beyond a certain limit renders it superficial, but vilification of even the slightest forms of beauty negates the very purpose for which it was composed for.
Our beauty receptors receive more stimulation than they were evolved to handle; they’re getting more in one day than our ancestors’ did in their entire lives. And the result is that beauty is slowly ruining our lives