liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
[personal profile] liv
Author: Ted Chiang

Details: (c) 2002 Ted Chiang; Pub Orb 2002; ISBN 0-765-30419-8

Verdict: Stories of your life ranges from good to wonderful.

Reasons for reading it: [livejournal.com profile] coalescent recommended it to me forever ago. And then [livejournal.com profile] rysmiel recommended it to me in the strongest terms. And then [livejournal.com profile] lethargic_man told me I had to read it so he and I could discuss it and because it is REPLETE WITH MIDRASH (sic).

How it came into my hands: I bought it from Amazon and lovely [livejournal.com profile] hatam_soferet carried it across the Atlantic for me.

Chiang is doing a really interesting thing, namely creating worlds where various bits of theology are literally true and exploring the consequences in a slightly old-fashioned hard SF way. The best of the stories are technically gorgeous, and with really beautiful twists, and just the perfect exemplar of what an SF short story should be. The weakest stories suffer slightly from less than sparkling dialogue and a mild excess of sheer geekiness, but those are very minor problems. There's much in there to appeal to me specifically; as [livejournal.com profile] lethargic_man mentioned, several of the stories have bits of Judaism in them, and then there's linguistics as a scientific discipline, and a gorgeous fantasia on genetics, and maths used to tell an actual story, rather than the story being used to illustrate the maths.

The title story I've read previously in a different collection. It pleased me then but I liked it better on a second reading. I love the poignancy of the mother-daughter relationship, and the way that is intertwined with the science-y bits. I love the way it's playing with time and weird physics, but in a really subtle and original way. I love the satisfying first contact story. I love the pace of the reveal, which worked for me even on rereading. I think it may be the most perfectly executed short I have ever read, though Greg Egan's Orphanogenesis comes close.

My other two favourites are Division by Zero and Seventy-two letters. The first is doing maths SF really well. It is exploring a mathematically novel idea, using real-world maths as background, taking sexy things like Gödel's incompleteness theorem actually in context and not using it as an excuse for silly mysticism. And the characterization is exquisite, and I loved the ending. And the latter is just the ideal story to appeal to me. It has golems! And kabbalah! And genetics! And it's about scientists actually being scientists! And I did see the twist coming but that didn't detract from the cleverness of it. The only minor flaw in it is that I don't think Chiang captures his alt-history Victorian period very successfully, but that's a tiny nitpick. I am not sure if someone who is not me would be less starry-eyed about this one, but I do think it's good as well as suited to my particular brain.

Tower of Babylon is also cool, does a great job of drawing one into its highly original setting, and it combines early Genesis cosmology / theology with a rather gorgeous account of bronze age science. Hell is the absence of God, where the theology is the Helenized Biblical view of Job, is really disturbing, and I like (but don't passionately adore) what it's doing with disability. The transhumanist ones are by comparison less amazingly wonderful; Understand reminds me strongly of Asimov and I found the ending unsatisfying. The vignette The evolution of human science is cute, but not more than cute. The only weak story in the collection is Liking what you see, and even that is reasonably enjoyable for all its flaws.

If you generally like SF, you pretty much have to read this collection. If you don't it will probably leave you cold, it's that sort of book. Thanks so much to everyone who persuaded me to read it!

(no subject)

Date: 2008-01-28 11:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Thanks for posting this review. Of course, you would have to go and post it during the three-day window between my returning the copy I read to the library and buying my own copy, but hey...

Spoilers follow, for those that have not read the book.

My other two favourites are Division by Zero and Seventy-two letters. The first is doing maths SF really well. It is exploring a mathematically novel idea, using real-world maths as background, taking sexy things like Gödel's incompleteness theorem actually in context and not using it as an excuse for silly mysticism. And the characterization is exquisite, and I loved the ending.

I didn't. I didn't find it at all reasonable that he would abandon her so unequivocal.

And the latter is just the ideal story to appeal to me. It has golems! And kabbalah! And genetics!

Indeed, special magical genetics where you can compress as much information as you like into seventy-two letters and not lose any of the information in it. But I was willing to buy the concept for the sake of the story, and I did like it myself, particularly the way how the different strands of ideas threading their way through the story all come together for the end. I loved the way the steampunk setting was gathering itself up to invent half of our world's twentieth century technology through completely different means. And also the way they've taken golem-making and turned it into a science, and considered the one kabbalist they actually encountered a relic of the Middle Ages.

I did see the twist coming but that didn't detract from the cleverness of it.

I didn't. Though maybe I should have done. I was just too busy boggling at the concept of matrioshka homunculi, and macrofoetuses and the like.

The only minor flaw in it is that I don't think Chiang captures his alt-history Victorian period very successfully, but that's a tiny nitpick.

Why not? There were one or two places where the author's American-ness shows through, but only one or two.

I am not sure if someone who is not me would be less starry-eyed about this one, but I do think it's good as well as suited to my particular brain.

Well, I'd cite myself, but you remember what [livejournal.com profile] bluepork (or was it Mrs Pork?) said about you the first time they met you?

Tower of Babylon is also cool, does a great job of drawing one into its highly original setting, and it combines early Genesis cosmology / theology with a rather gorgeous account of bronze age science.

<nods> It was also a case of start as you mean to go on, viz. with a setting in a world paralleling ours but very different in a particular way, with absolutely no explanation of how this was so. You just had to buy it (though there's a little part of my mind trying to come up with reasons.)

I'd be intrigued to know where he got the names from; whether they were genuine Babylonian and Elamite names. (Particularly as Elamite wasn't a Semitic or Indo-European or Sumerian-related language at all, but related to the Dravidian languages confined today to the southern tip of India.)

Hell is the absence of God, where the theology is the Helenized Biblical view of Job, is really disturbing,

That it is. What exactly do you mean by "Helenized Biblical view of Job"? I mean, I can see it matches the model of "sh*t happens, and you gotta like it or lump it, 'cause you can't question the Ineffable", but there's a whole load more to the theology than that; and I don't recall the Book of Job condoning, frex, playing with fire because you think the divine blessings you have received are a test. I really didn't like the theology in this story; it put me off it a lot.

and I like (but don't passionately adore) what it's doing with disability.

All of it?

(no subject)

Date: 2008-01-28 11:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com

The transhumanist ones are by comparison less amazingly wonderful; Understand reminds me strongly of Asimov and I found the ending unsatisfying.

Ah, well that just goes to show that we are, after all, different. I liked "Understand", and did like the ending. It didn't remind me of Asimov, but then I've read hardly any Asimov. (I also liked the concepts both of communicating through pheromones, and the story acknowledging the limitations of doing so; I also liked the idea of reducing communication to the absolute symbolic minimum and still getting the message across.)

The vignette The evolution of human science is cute, but not more than cute.

In its context, I doubt it could do more than be so.

The only weak story in the collection is Liking what you see, and even that is reasonably enjoyable for all its flaws.

Why did you think that was weak? That and "Understand" were the two stories in the collection I gave the rating "excellent" in my book log. (The title story got the extremely rare rating "superlative".)

I gave the collection as a whole an "excellent" rating, but I don't think it was far off a "superlative"; it piqued my sensawunda in a way I'm always looking for, but only very rarely find. (I intend to post about this in a little more detail at some point.) In summary, I'm very glad I read it.

(no subject)

Date: 2008-01-28 11:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
I'm most amused by what I got when I followed the link to "Plain of Shinar" at the top. Maybe LJ's geographical engine is Mormon. ;^b

Orphanogenesis

Date: 2008-01-29 12:21 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pw201.livejournal.com
Have you read Diaspora, the book which follows on from the short?

Soundbite

Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

Top topics

October 2017

S M T W T F S
1234567
8 910 11 121314
15 161718192021
22232425262728
293031    

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags

Subscription Filters