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REVIEW: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

REVIEW SUMMARY: A good, but not great, collection of stories.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Collection of eight stories, one original, including the Nebula Award-winning “Story of Your Life” and “Tower of Babylon”, and the Locus Award-winning “Hell Is the Absence of God”.


PROS: Interesting premises.

CONS: Some stories were longer than they should have been.

BOTTOM LINE: Thought-provoking but needed some extra oomph.

Ted Chiang is a writer with a high award density. That is, he has written relatively few stories but has a multitude of award nominations and wins, which is why I went into this collection with some high expectations. The stories all had an imaginative premise (and one where mathematics usually played some role or other), but for me they seemed to lack something in the delivery; some were long-winded, some lacked adequate characterizations. I suppose that’s why it took me nearly 3 weeks to finish this 330 page collection.

Reviewlettes follow.


  1. “Tower of Babylon” [1990 novelette] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 12/04/04]
    • Synopsis: A group of miners climb an enormous tower to the ceiling of the world to dig their way into heaven.
    • Review: Really good story. The miners’ task takes generations and along the way, they catch glimpses of small enclaves living on the tower. Near the end, when they were contemplating the will of God, I was expecting some sort of world-within-a-Dyson-Sphere ending and was surprised (pleased) that was not it.
    • Note: Winner of the 1991 Nebula Award for best novelette.
  2. “Understand” [1991 novelette] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 12/06/04]
    • Synopsis: The recipient of an experimental drug gets more and more intelligent until he the intelligence itself becomes the drug.
    • Review: Good story but a little drawn out with Leon getting smarter. The better parts were when Leon outwitted the CIA and his super-intelligent counterpart.
  3. “Division by Zero” [1991 short story] (Rating: 2.5/5) [Read 12/08/04]
    • Synopsis: A woman mathematically proves that 1 is equal to 2 and it makes her suicidal.
    • Review: Interesting concept, but the story, particularly the ending, left something to be desired.
  4. “Story of Your Life” [1998 novella] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 12/09/04]
    • Synopsis: A linguist is hired to interpret the language of aliens who orbit the Earth and make contact through an artifact. Her understanding of the aliens written language bring to her a unique view of her life.
    • Review: Very good story. The narrative splits between the linguist communicating with her daughter and telling how she came to understand the alien language. Good stuff.
    • Note: Winner of the 200 Nebula Award.
  5. “Seventy-two Letters” [2000 novella] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 12/19/04]
    • Synopsis: In old-time London, scientists have the ability to animate objects by invoking its “true name”. Expert invoker Robert Stratton’s initial goal of social reform is supplanted by the survival of the human race when it is discovered that mankind is doomed to extinction within five generations.
    • Review: Good story with some interesting ideas. The right to play God plays prominently in the story.
  6. “The Evolution of Human Science [“Catching crumbs from the table”]” [2000 vignette] (Rating: 2/5) [Read 12/19/04]
    • Synopsis: A futuristic magazine article in a scientific journal that discusses the merits of scientists since the advent of superhuman intelligence.
    • Review: Meh.
  7. “Hell Is the Absence of God” [2001 novella] (Rating: 3/5) [Read 12/22/04]
    • Synopsis: The story of a man (Neil) who tries to find love for God after his wife is killed amidst a visitation by an angel.
    • Review: Good story that tackles issues of faith head-on. The dialogue-less story follows two other people, each with their own devout quests.
  8. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” [2002 novella] (Rating: 4/5) [Read 12/27/04]
    • Synopsis: A trivial neurological procedure makes it possible to induce “calliagnosia”, the inability to detect beauty or ugliness in a person’s face.
    • Review: Great concept that asks hard questions about a person’s true beauty and self-worth. The story is told in bite-size scenes and therefore is made up of a few smaller story lines.
About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

1 Comment on REVIEW: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

  1. Here’s author Ted Chiang’s interesting account of how the cover art for his collection came to be. Or rather, not to be. [Link via Coode Street]

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