Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 1984-2017 Evelyn C. Leeper.


"Exhalation" by Ted Chiang:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 06/19/2009]

"Exhalation" by Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two) is a different take on resource depletion and entropy. As usual, Chiang comes up with a premise and then carefully works out the details and ramifications. In this regard, this most resembles Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters" in its construction of a different world-view. (One might think of Richard Garfinkle's CELESTIAL MATTERS or Jay Lake's MAINSPRING, but neither of those develop their premises in the thorough and serious manner than Chiang does. It is possible that Chiang has written a story that was not great, but if so, I haven't found it yet.


"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/11/2008]

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang (F&SF Sep) is another story with its roots firmly in the fairy tale/Arabian Nights genre even as it is also a very tightly plotted multiple time-travel story. The less said about before you read it, the better you will enjoy it. Chiang has so far appeared incapable of writing a less than stellar story, and this is no exception.


STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS by Ted Chiang:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/02/2010]

Greg Egan is the author most people think of when they think of "mathematical" science fiction authors. but STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS by Ted Chiang (ISBN-13 978-0-765-30419-3) proves that Chiang is another who relies heavily on the "Queen of Sciences". For example, "Tower of Babylon" is a story built upon geometry (pun intended)--in specific, the idea of a curved universe in which if you travel far enough in a single direction, you return to your point of origin. (There is also an element of topology in the intertwining spiral staircases.) Of course, it also relies heavily on the Bible, and on early theories of the universe--not precisely Aristotelian (as in Richard Garfinkle's CELESTIAL MATTERS), but having aspects of that cosmology. (This is one reason why quibbles about air density, temperature, and gravity are beside the point.)

"Understand" is to some extent the standard story (usually told in the first person) of someone whose intelligence is enhanced to superhuman levels (e.g., Daniel Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon" or Poul Anderson's BRAIN WAVE). As with most such stories, the problem is that the (un-enhanced) author has to be able to write convincingly from the point of a super-genius which is, in effect, the same as trying to write from the point of view of an alien. One thought from it did connect to other stories by Chiang, the idea of gestalt: "In each case, I don't have to consciously memorize rules, then apply them mechanically. I just perceive how the system behaves as a whole, as an entity." And later, "My new language is taking shape. It is gestalt-oriented, rendering it beautifully suited for thought, but impractical for writing or speech. It wouldn't be translated in the form of words arranged linearly, but as a giant ideogram, to be absorbed as a whole."

"Division by Zero" is clearly mathematical, being based on the idea of discovering that mathematics is not consistent, but somehow it never seemed to go anywhere.

"Story of Your Life" is told in a very non-linear fashion, in keeping with the way the aliens in it think. And this is what I remembered most clearly about the story. But a recent viewing of "Breaking the Mayan Code" brought a whole new set of connections to mind.

For example, Chiang's protagonist writes, "Their script isn't word divided; a sentence is written by joining the logograms for the constituent words. They join the logograms by rotating and modifying." This is almost exactly what the Mayans did with their symbols; in fact, the documentary has a lot of scenes in which we seen several logograms in a row, and then animation shows then transforming, rotating, and uniting to form a single glyph. However, in the alien language, "a noun is identified as subject or object based on the orientation of its logogram relative to that of the verb." I do not think this applies to the Mayan language.

What really sums up the idea of the story, though, is this: "This meant the heptapod had to know how the entire sentence would be laid out before it could write the very first stroke. ... The heptapods didn't write a sentence one semagram at a time; they built it out of strokes irrespective of individual semagrams." (I actually use something like this in programming one of our VCRs, as it sometimes saves button presses to program the fields out of order.)

Mathematically, Chiang also makes references to the calculus of variations.

"Seventy-Two Letters" is a story of golems, and homunculi. The idea of the creative power of language--the use of "charms" of seventy-two Hebrew letters to animate golems connects to the notion of performative language as described in "Story of Your Life". The interconnection of the two--golems and homunculi--is quite deft, and makes the story more than "just" another Frankenstein clone (if that's not mixing one's metaphors). (I will add that this story won the Sidewise Award for alternate history.)

"The Evolution of Human Science" was originally published in "Nature" as one of their short-shorts, under the title "Catching the Crumbs from the Table" and, like "Understand", looks at a sort of post-human intelligence, though from a different point of view, one more in keeping with the notion of the Singularity.

"Hell Is the Absence of God" revisits the problem of reconciling the existence of God and of evil, but in a somewhat different fashion than usual. The earth of Chiang's story is experiencing angelic visitations. These sometimes cause sickness, injury, or death; other times they provide miraculous cures. In addition, Hell is sometimes visible, and one can see who is there. Hell is not a place of eternal punishment but "merely" the "absence of God." What determines who is blessed by an angelic visitation and who is cursed, who goes to Heaven and who to Hell, and how all this affects people's beliefs, philosophies, and feelings is Chiang's subject.

This is indeed a daunting task, but Chiang is up to it. As evidence, here is part of his afterword: "For me, one of the unsatisfying things about the Book of Job is that, in the end, God rewards Job. ... Why does God restore Job's fortunes at all? Why the happy ending? One of the basic messages of the book is that virtue isn't always rewarded; bad things happen to good people. Job ultimately accepts this, demonstrating virtue, and is subsequently rewarded. Doesn't this undercut the message? It seems to me that the Book of Job lacks the courage of its convictions: If the author were really committed to the idea that virtue isn't always rewarded, shouldn't the book have ended with Job still bereft of everything?"

"Liking What You See: A Documentary" is about calliagnosia, a condition in which someone is unable to recognize "beauty" (or "attractiveness", if you prefer). In the world of the story, one can have a simple operation to "install" this condition (and conveniently, the ability to turn it on and off with ease). Not surprisingly, many of the early proponents are college students, but there are also those who are against it.

(As an aside, when did the plural of "passerby" become "passerbys" as it is in the book?)

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/29/2002]

I can say that Ted Chiang's new story, "Liking What You See: A Documentary" (in his collection STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS), is up to Chiang's usual standards. It reminded me a bit of Greg Egan's "Reasons to be Cheerful" and a bit of Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," while also being quite distinct from either of them. Chiang takes on "lookism," but doesn't decide for the reader which side he or she should be on. Rather he presents positives and negatives for both sides, and leaves the matter as ambiguous as, say, the matter of faith in his "Hell Is the Absence of God."

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/07/2017]

In 2010, our book discussion group read STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHER STORIES by Ted Chiang (ISBN 978-01-101-97212-0). This year we re-visited it, with specific emphasis on "Story of Your Life", which was the basis of the movie ARRIVAL. [Note: there will be spoilers.]

One person suggested that the radial symmetry of the heptapods-- with no beginning and no end--was reflected in their view of all time simultaneously, rather than moving from a beginning to an end.

The question of free will and determinism came up, of course, since the notion that the heptapods know or can see the future would seem to bring up the question of what happens if one sees himself do something in the future, and then purposely does something different. It is yet another version of the philosophical question of whether all time exists "simultaneously" and we just move through it, or whether the future is created moment by moment. (English really lacks the words to express a "simultaneity of time.")

One person in our group thought the idea of someone being able to see the future made no sense; his suggestion was that Chiang had the narrator use this as a device to tell the story, much as one could write a story in the second person, or in the present tense, but that in fact it was told entirely from a point in time *after* the latest event related.

I also talked about how the rotation and modification of the heptapod glyphs that united to form a sentence reminded me of the way Maya glyphs also could be rotated and modified to fit together in a more pleasing figure. Of course, the haptapod modifications were very specific and added meanings (e.g., putting the word in the objective case), while the Maya modifications were more aesthetic (similar to how English cursive script changes to make the connectivity to the adjacent letters work). (I just got a copy of BREAKING THE MAYA CODE by Michael D. Coe, and will probably review it after I read it. I certainly enjoyed the NOVA episode "Cracking the Maya Code", and I need to try to find the feature- length version, BREAKING THE MAYA CODE. [I assume one is a subset of the other, since Michael Lebrun directed both.)

The vast majority of Amazon reviews are positive, but it was instructive to read the negative reviews. Discounting the reviewers who complained that they did not realize they were ordering an e-book, or the book never arrived, the negative reviews indicated some basic misunderstandings.

For example, one person complained that the book was "just unrelated stories." This person was apparently unfamiliar with the notion of a single-author collection (or perhaps even of an anthology). Related to this was, "Had nothing to do with the movie." (The story "Story of Your Life" is actually the penultimate story in the book: apparently the reviewer got to it.)

Also, there were such comments as, "You have to be a physicist or a mathematician to follow along." Lord help these people if they ever have to read a Greg Egan story.

To order Stories of Your Life and Others from amazon.com, click here.


THE LIFECYCLE OF SOFTWARE OBJECTS by Ted Chiang:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/11/2011]

Having said how uninterested I was in the adventures of the protagonists in the virtual reality world in Greg Egan's ZENDEGI, I find it ironic (or something) that I enjoyed THE LIFECYCLE OF SOFTWARE OBJECTS by Ted Chiang (ISBN 978-1-59606-317-4), which is almost entirely about adventures of the protagonists in a V.R. world. Maybe it is because Chiang focuses more on the interactions of characters in our world with the constructs, while Egan spends too much time in the detailed construction of virtual reality scenarios.

To order The Lifecycle of Software Objects from amazon.com, click here.


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