Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others

I am having lunch with frequent ITM commentator (and former GW undergrad) Liza tomorrow -- she whom I always make nervous through my penetrating glare. So that she won't feel like she's wandered into Torquemada's Truth Extraction disguised as a cordial repast, I've been re-reading an absolutely wonderful book she gave me when she left DC for Cambridge, England, last year. Instead of grilling her on her current seminars and life as a NYC intellectual, I'll ask if she really does believe that tentacled and multi-eyed aliens might speak a language that unmoors them from the chain of time.

Ted Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others is described on its jacket as science fiction, but that isn't really accurate: "cerebral speculative fiction" captures the trajectories of the these short stories better. With a humane touch, a love for words, and the ability to hybridize a jarring realism with disconcerting speculation, Chiang stages a series of thought-experiments that answer questions like: What if the Tower of Babel actually pierced the vault of heaven? What if in learning an alien's language, one were thereby so transformed by its syntax that it could alter the relationship between cause and effect, between being and time? What if nineteenth century pseudoscience was true? What is God, his angels, and hell carelessly manifested themselves from time to time, effecting fatalities and cures with a seemingly careless abandon?

Great fun to read.

7 comments:

SEK said...

Pages 17-44 are nont part of this book preview.

That's just mean, Jeff.

skg046 said...

One wonders what's wrong with calling Stories of Your Life and Others a collection of science fictional stories, since Chiang considers himself a participant in that genre.

There's a number of people (myself included) who consider science fiction one member of a larger generic set called speculative fiction, along with fantasy, slipstream, and other difficult-to-pin labels--but the contrast you draw escapes me. Could you say a bit more?

Or is this short piece relevant?

Liza said...

Thinking that quizzing me on a sci-fi book's philosophies of time and alterity, rather than letting me prattle on about my shiny new PhD program, will be less intimidating is such a charmingly Jeffrey Cohen way to approach the situation. Glad you liked it, and looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.

J J Cohen said...

Scott, I'm evil, what can I say? I will tell you this, though: the miners do pierce the marble vault holding back the waters of heaven via an Egyptian designed floodgate system, but then ... well you will just have to read the story.

skg046: I wasn't trotting out some specific genre-theory or arguing for an exclusive taxonomy of what should or shouldn't be included under certain labels, just observing that "science fiction" seemed too small a designation for what Chiang accomplishes. But that statement doesn't mean much coming from me, since I'm not all that well read in contemporary SF.

Liza, see you soon!

Karl Steel said...

But that statement doesn't mean much coming from me, since I'm not all that well read in contemporary SF.

Paging Adam Roberts....

Adam Roberts said...

[emerging dripping from the shower with a towel wrapped about his hips]: Sorry ... did my pager go off?

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey, thanks so much for the reference to this book: it's exactly the sort of thing I love to read, and since I've ripped through all the Kevin Brockmeier I could get my hands on [author of the stunning novel "The Brief History of the Dead," and one of the authors for whose work the genre "slipstream" is the usual moniker]. It is true that, over the years, the genre "speculative fiction" has emerged as a place for what might be called more "literary" science fiction, or, for fiction that is not fully "science" but at the same time, not fully "magical realism" [and also not "fantasy," in the terms of what that genre means to the pulp trade and beyond]. Somehow, over the years, "science fiction" gets a kind of bad or wierd rap, as skg046 points out, and I myself used to write what I thought was "speculative fiction," mainly because I didn't want to say it was "science fiction."

Interestingly enough, I [along with Betsy McCormick and Myra Seaman] am currently writing the prospectus for BABEL's next collection, "Fragments Toward a History of a Vanishing Humanism," which brings together medievalists with non-medievalists to collectively interrogate the open terms, "human," "humanity," "humanism," and the "humanities." The book will be divided into small thematic units in which 1 or 2 medievalists will be grouped with a humanities person who is a non-medievalist and then also either a scientist/social scientist or artist. One unit will be devoted to aesthetics and the question of the human/inhuman, and will include an essay by a novelist, Valerie Vogrin, on the genre of slipstream and its relation to the "realism" of capturing so-called "human experience." Anyway, isn't interesting how some things converge here at this place called In The Middle?