Writing about the album In Between by The Feelies, Rick Moody posits that rock ’n’ roll is in late middle age, its focus turned reflective and retrospective. I think much the same can be said of science fiction. Much as rock ’n’ roll has been supplanted by dance pop as the dominant popular music genre, SF has been pushed aside by fantasy. Roll over, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov, et al.; hail, hail, J.K. Rowling and George R. R. Martin.
In Stories of Your Life and Others, a collection of stories from the ’90s and early 2000s, Ted Chiang looks back at classic science-fiction concepts and reworks them, as well jumping to and fro across the line between old-school SF and more fashionable fantasy. And for the most part, he performs this dance with brio and grace.
“Understand” is the most emblematic example of Chiang rummaging through SF’s attic for treasures: Within just a couple of pages I knew I was reading an homage to Daniel Keyes’ classic “Flowers for Algernon” (which was adapted into the Oscar-winning 1968 film Charly). Assuming I knew how the story would turn out, I was disappointed. But I was wrong: Chiang takes Keyes’ premise (a man turned into a super genius through artificial means) in new yet internally logical directions, while repeating Keyes’ coup of convincingly imagining the mental landscape of a mega-mastermind.
Similarly, “Story of Your Life,” which was adapted into the 2016 film Arrival (which I have not seen as of this writing, though I look forward to it), reworks a concept from a science-fiction classic. To specify which one might be enough to reveal the premise of the entire story, so I won’t. What I will say is that Chiang builds on that premise to craft the most satisfying story in this collection, a triumph both as stimulating speculative fiction and satisfying emotional narrative, as well as a fine example of a male writer successfully inhabiting a female protagonist.
“Liking What You See: A Documentary” also reworks a familiar idea: Though its narrative is a bit unconventional, soon enough it becomes apparent that Chiang is updating the theme of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder,” with uneven results.
Several other stories in the collection are set in alternative realities where magic or miracles are operative, a la Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. “Seventy-Two Letters” imagines the impact of the mass production of golems in 18th-century England, a clever conceit at the heart of a somewhat dull story. “Hell Is the Absence of God” is a bleak vision of a contemporary world where angels from heaven visit regularly, leaving miracles and destruction alike in their wake with utter indifference. And “Tower of Babylon,” my favorite of these three, vividly portrays the life of a miner in a mythological milieu.
It can’t be easy, writing science fiction in an era when wizards and comic-book superheroes rule the box office. Ted Chiang does it with ingenuity and deep intelligence.