TED CHIANG – Stories of Your Life and Others (2002)

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (published in 2002 by Small Beer Press) is a collection of eight short stories (around 30-40 pages each).

Four of these (Understanding, Story of Your Life, The Evolution of Human Science, Liking What You See: A Documentary) are excellent in my view and touch on many complex issues regarding how we perceive life, other human beings and technological devices/discoveries.

Note: Story of Your Life will be made into a movie starring Amy Adams, with Denis Villeneuve directing. The basic synopsis:
Story of Your Life will star Adams as an expert linguist who is recruited by the military to determine whether a group of aliens crash-landing on Earth come in peace or are a threat. As she learns to communicate with the aliens, she begins experiencing vivid flashbacks that become the key to unlocking the greater mystery about the true purpose of their visit.

Read below what Chiang thinks of Hollywood’s somewhat simplistic treatment of Science Fiction material. It is of interest how the adaption will portray the aliens and their potential motives for visiting earth.

From a conversation between Ted Chiang and Betsy Huang where he talks about his personal view of SF:

TC: (…) One of the things I talked about was how my sense of science fiction differs from the popular conception of it. I think most people’s ideas of science fiction are formed by Hollywood movies, so they think most science fiction is a special effects-driven story revolving around a battle between good and evil, or something along those lines. While I like a story of good versus evil as much as the next guy, I don’t think of that as a science fiction story. You can tell a good-versus-evil story in any time period and in any setting. Setting it in the future and adding robots to it doesn’t make it a science fiction story.

I think science fiction is fundamentally a post-industrial revolution form of storytelling. Some literary critics have noted that the good-versus-evil story follows a pattern where the world starts out as a good place, evil intrudes, the heroes fight and eventually defeat evil, and the world goes back to being a good place. Those critics have said that this is fundamentally a conservative storyline because it’s about maintaining the status quo. This is a common story pattern in crime fiction, too—there’s some disruption to the order, but eventually order is restored.

Science fiction offers a different kind of story, a story where the world starts out as recognizable and familiar but is disrupted or changed by some new discovery or technology.(my italics) At the end of the story, the world is changed permanently. The original condition is never restored. And so in this sense, this story pattern is progressive because its underlying message is not that you should maintain the status quo, but that change is inevitable. The consequences of this new discovery or technology—whether they’re positive or negative—are here to stay and we’ll have to deal with them.

This is a quintessentially science fiction storyline and it makes sense only in the wake of the industrial revolution. To a pre-industrial society, this kind of story would be incomprehensible, because no one had ever seen the world change in their lifetime. After the industrial revolution, we understand this story because we’ve all seen the world change. That’s what I think is at the heart of science fiction and what I usually tell people who aren’t familiar with it, whose ideas are mostly informed by Hollywood.

There’s also a subset of this progressive story pattern that I’m particularly interested in, and that’s the “conceptual breakthrough” story, where the characters discover something about the nature of the universe which radically expands their understanding of the world. This is a classic science fiction storyline. In Asimov’s “Nightfall,” for example, the characters undergo a conceptual breakthrough. They discover that their world is merely one planet in a universe that is vastly larger than what they had imagined before. Or James Blish’s “Surface Tension,” in which the characters are microscopic organisms living in a pond. They build a craft to leave the pond, which means overcoming the powerful surface tension of the water’s surface. When they do, they discover that the world is vastly larger than they had conceived.

That is a story pattern I like a lot, because one of the cool things about science fiction is that it lets you dramatize the process of scientific discovery, that moment of suddenly understanding something about the universe. That is what scientists find appealing about science, and I enjoy seeing the same thing in science fiction.