Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Other Stories

TedChiang has some very imaginative and thought provoking stories in his volume Stories of Your Life and Other Stories. We can see Borges’s influence in stories such as “Tower of Babylon,” “Division by Zero,” “Seventy Two Letters” and “Hell is the Absence of God.” “Seventy Two Letters” also reminds us of stories by Umberto Eco. Chiang’s science fiction gives due to science but he creates worlds based on pseudo sciences and forces the reader to think hard about their implications.

Tower of Babel
“Division by Zero” is a fascinating inquiry into the incompleteness of mathematics (Gödel’s Theorem). What happens when a mathematician finds out that the system of mathematics isn’t consistent, that the foundation of everything just gives way?

“The Story of Your Life” dwells into the nature of time via relativity: that time is just another variable like x, y, and z. What if we can perceive the span of time (as a continuous segment rather than discrete points) as we do in space (as a span of space rather than a single point)?  Something like Henri Bergson’s continuous time.

In “Seventy Two Letters” a scientist and an inventor try to save the human race using artificial insemination and the power of name to animate or give life (like the breath or word of God). Chiang added an assassin and a cabalist just for fun.

Space-Time Curvature
“Hell is the Absence of God” is a thoughtful study of suffering and devotion. How would we respond to various blessings and misfortunes? After a misfortune, one turns to God while another away. One is troubled when she is healed and could no longer evangelize. Another wants to be the mouth of God but he receives neither blessing nor misfortune, as if he doesn’t exist. Then Neil Fisk, “though it’s been many years that he has been in Hell, beyond the awareness of God, he loves Him still.”

In “Liking What You See: a Documentary,” students in a school vote to decide whether to mandate a device to eliminate the appreciation of physical beauty. Is it fair or unfair to put everyone on a “level playing field” where beauty has no advantage? What about other attributes such as mental and physical skills?

Yellow Roses for Samantha

Three women struggle with their lives after losing their children through a school shooting. Missy checks into a sanitarium, Jessica finds comfort in the arms of Missy's husband, and Linda takes a bottle of sleeping pills. "Yellow Roses for Samantha" is a tale of the search for hope and renewal amid tragedy.

Yellow Roses for Samantha

Greg Egan's Permutation City

Permutation City is smart and delightful, and messes with the reader’s mind. This novel of virtual reality with multiple levels of simulated word is an example of great world-building.

1.      Start with basic science.
2.      Change a few principles and laws to create pseudo-science.
3.      Build a world based on this new pseudo-science.

Greg Egan creates the new world by laying down the new principles and laws, and challenges the reader to take the journey into the unknown. As a result, he gives credit to science and makes pseudo-science a key character in the story, rather than just using some fantastic science as the background, or as an excuse to a story that could happen in many other settings.

The True Believer

Eric Hoffer wrote in the 1940s about the mass movements such as the rise of the Bolshevists, the Fascists and the Nazis, but he seemed to be describing the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Arab Spring, and the current populist movements such as Brexit.

Demonstration in Tunisia
We may say that he was a prophet, but more accurately, he had isolated the ingredients that make up mass movements. He understood that mixing discontent for the present and hope for the future breeds a desire for change. He understood that a person plunges into a mass movement to dissolve his/her hated self and to replace it with a grand and almost immortal collective self. He understood the psychology of those who would tend to become followers, as well as those who would seize the chance to lead the movements. He discovered the phases of mass movements and the types of individuals who would lead, from the intellectuals to the fanatics to the pragmatists. He discovered self-sacrifice and unifying actions as the key ingredients to sustaining and advancing mass movements.


 Hoffer’s The True Believer is required reading for our age, when populist movements dominate the global arena. It will give us insights into the who, what and how of these mass movements, insights that would help us navigate through our times.