Ted Chiang 2015. Stories of Your Life and Others. Picador ebook. 352 pp.

Sought this out because of the fourth story in this SF collection, Story of your life, which formed the basis for the film Arrival.

The first story, and the best one, Tower of Babylon, is a re-imagining of the Tower of Babylon as if by Borges. In this parallel fantastical world the tower is being built over many generations and now reaches the border of the dome of Heaven. Miners ascend (a 4 month journey) to tunnel up to discover what lies there. But it is something of a Möbius tower, or rather the world itself and reality is of different inimaginable geometry and dimensions in this parable.

Understand is a page-turner narrative of a patient with brain damage from a near-drowning. Thanks to a new drug he is not only repaired but made mentally superhuman, vastly superior to the doctors and CIA who created him and who are left in the dust. But there is one other such.

Division by zero invents a mathematician who is discombobulated to discover a truth in the spirit of Kurt Gödel: mathematics contains an inherent contradiction. But there is an unsatisfactory end (or rather none). More likely I didn’t get it.

Story of your life The movie Arrival is both less and more than the story. More, because the movie has a stronger narrative. Less, because what seems the central idea of the story, that the alien’s written language is what awakens an element of timelessness in the conciousness of the linguist, is a detail that I don’t remember being a part of the movie.

Seventy-two letters imagines another parallel world where a weird steampunk genetics prevails. Golems are animated by names which are also porograms. A chaotic parable of AI, chauvinism, automata. Here there are no mendelian genetics, meiosos or recombination, instead sperm contain homonculi. “Geneticists” are nomenclators (= programmers). Another thought experiment that failed to hold my interest.

The evolution of human science is very short, another thought experiment about whether humans would continue to do scientific research their own slow way, or would delegate to enhanced intelligence.

The final two stories are Hell is the absence of God and Liking what you see: a documentary. I don’t know whs, at least the modern ones, seem not to suffer this problem to the same degreeat they are about, I’d lost interest by then.

The enduring impression from this collection of stories is while the ideas are interesting, they are not backed up by strong writing. Like so much SF, but especially short stories where the “thought experiment” theme seems to satisfy the author who doesn’t bother with the discipline required to turn that idea into a memorable piece of writing. Instead, give me a decent SF novel where just a few of these great ideas are explored with more skill (Iain M. Banks, where are you?). Judging by effusive praise for Ted Chiang from other SF writers I am, however, in the minority.

There are some slightly interesting story notes at the end of the volume.