Books that Built Us: ‘Stories of Your Life And Others’ by Ted Chiang

Thursday, November 8, 2018 - 5:52pm

One side effect of coming late to everything is that I have a lot of submerged influences; my past resembles a neglected attic. I’m always surprised when my friends can see themselves as somehow continuous with who they were at age 14, like they haven’t experienced the kind of abrupt, dizzying turnaround I did when I left adolescence and stumbled into adulthood. I still sometimes remember vague hints of my experiences, but my memories usually feel like they happened to someone else. My conception of my past is both gallingly calcified and shifting, amorphous, as if hidden behind a curtain blowing in the wind.

One thing I can clearly remember from my childhood and preteen years is how much I read. I was not precocious, and my taste was conventional. I read the “Eragon” trilogy, every “Harry Potter” book, “The Lord of the Rings,” et cetera — the kind of narrative fiction that the reader lives in, at once comfortingly Manichean and vibrant. I think it was this desire for built worlds that led me to also spend a great amount of time immersed in popular science books, especially the large, illustrated coffee-table kind, usually about space. The workings of faraway stars felt both fantastical and fundamental, grounded in some kind of self-consistent celestial logic. I didn’t really understand anything I was reading, I just wanted somewhere to go.

My mom, a science fiction author and editor, lent me her autographed copy of Ted Chiang’s 2002 anthology “Stories of Your Life and Others” when I was somewhere in middle school. She might have been prompted by my entirely aesthetic interest in science and technology, but I also recall that she mentioned the book on more than one occasion as one of her favorites. The stories were unlike anything I had ever read before, and I remember being shocked by their energetic, yet concise structures. As I grow into what she calls “literary fiction,” I find that the collection is one of the only books we still have in common. When I revisited it a few weeks ago, I was just as surprised by it as when I had first read it. For a moment, I seemed to be seeing out of my younger self’s eyes, experiencing the stories’ wonder anew.  

Chiang’s day job is a software engineer, which is arguably the cultural role that the Medieval monk and later the Renaissance alchemist occupied previously — the universal chroniclers, arbiters and discoverers. Software engineers now create entire worlds from scratch, building the Borgesian map over our shared reality. More than one story invokes ancient engineers, alchemists and scholars as stand-ins for the cultural role of the creative programmer. One story, “Seventy-Two Letters,” places the ancient Jewish myth of the Golem — an automaton that is activated by a slip of paper with a “name” on it — in a rapidly industrializing 19th-century context. Chiang’s stories operate by the logic of the Golem — his stories read like little literary automatons, put into play by their own mechanical logic. He juxtaposes the tower of Babylon myth with contemporary cosmological speculation, he uses a specific linguistics problem to investigate free will, he brings a parable about attractiveness and charisma to jarring conclusions. In his laser focus on extremely specific ideas, he doesn’t lose the capacity to surprise. If anything, it’s his relentless drive to reach the logical conclusion of his assemblages that, more often than not, makes the stories feel so strange and surprising.

Rereading the anthology reminded me of my past fixation with technology and logic as ends in themselves. Chiang creates with his stories a feeling I usually associate with finally grasping a complicated math problem — the joy of consistency (perhaps sharing an affinity with the German term Funktionslust). I frequently forget that I came close to majoring in computer science — I used to be so much more attracted to this feeling of completeness, of making things work. The more subtle, incomplete affects I revel in now came later. Chiang’s stories serve as sort of a bridge between those two versions of myself, rendering my past mental life in terms that I can understand now.

The anthology also gave my present self two stories that reminded me of what I dislike about this mentality. “Understand” and “The Evolution of Human Science” both have an unfortunate fixation with superhuman intelligence that posits a positivist, quantifiable vision of intelligence, and even of personality, that I now find narrow-minded. “Understand” follows a brain-damaged patient treated with a neuroregenerative drug. When he finds himself mentally “enhanced” beyond the capabilities of ordinary humans, he spends the rest of the story basically marveling at the “gestalts” he is able to grasp that “ordinaries” don’t. It’s frustrating to read lines like “The quotidian patterns of society are revealed without my making an effort,” and it’s a little embarrassing to think of what the 16-year-old version of me would have thought of that line. It’s hard to deny that even the better stories exist in the cultural space also occupied with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, TED talks and XKCD. This affinity was invisible to me on first read but painfully obvious when I revisited the collection.

Even so, Chiang manages to hover over the self-satisfaction of the other fabulists of STEM, using speculation like a wedge to crack reality open in unexpected ways rather than falling into received notions of progress and the universal utility of science. The true connection between Chiang’s work and the contemporary culture of STEM lies less in tone than content — Chiang is satisfied with a working concept rather than a working plot, and his stories primarily serve the ideas they grow from rather than their characters. It’s this, rather than his ability to interrogate through fiction, that I think I have outgrown since the first time I read it.

I think what I ultimately learned initially from the collection was that fiction was capable of changing the way I thought about things. In speaking the language I then understood and then breaking it apart, the anthology changed the way I thought about writing in general in a way that I wouldn’t realize until much later. I now ascribe the ability to create and destroy worlds to language, and this belief has its roots in this unlikely collection of stories.