Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of your life’ is as much a meditation on human ambition and ingenuity as a criticism of our incessant quest for elegance and beauty.
“One of the things we admire most in fiction is an ending that is surprising, yet inevitable. This is also what characterizes elegance in design: the invention that’s clever yet seems totally natural. Of course, we know they aren’t really inevitable; it’s human ingenuity that makes them seem that way, temporarily”. In his description of how he came about thinking of the story ‘Division by zero’, the unassuming author of Story of your life, Ted Chiang, reflects on this constant search for elegance in scientific pursuits and being wedded to an idea that’s inconsistent with itself. We like the fluid way in which the seemingly different elements of this world tend to project harmony and yet consistently refuse to even admit the possibility of intelligent design.
Chiang’s approach towards arriving at the plots in his stories demand, perhaps, greater conversation than the stories themselves because these are fresh and abstract thought experiments that looks and feels so close to the world we live in now, and yet are well steeped in a scientific virtual world. The central theme, apparently simple, tend to gain weight as the story unravels. In a way, the stories are extensions of the scientific method of inquiry, in that they extend logic by questioning the impact they bring to the world. There are 8 stories in this collection,
- Tower of Babylon is a medieval science fiction in that they are what science fiction would be if written in those ages. It follows a Babylonian stone cutter’s journey to the top of the mythical tower of Babel and his coming to grips with what he finds when he accidentally breaches the ceiling. As a parable there is a sense of concreteness and defined form in how the author describes the “science” behind building the tallest tower in the whole old-world. An attempt by man to find a way to reach heaven and the subsequent abandonment of the quest as the destination becomes closer makes for a paradox that’s telling in its simplicity.
- The germ for the story ‘Understand’ came from a source as unlikely as anything. From the author’s own admission, he went into a thought spiral through an off-handed comment from his friend who wondered aloud the possibility of living a life the opposite of what the narrator in Nausea by Sartre experiences – essentially the feeling of meaninglessness in everything around him. What if, by a stroke of science or genetic misadventure, a person could find and interpret meaning in everything around him? Harking back to elegant design again, this person could, theoretically, attain mastery through forming constructs of the world around him in his mind!
- Division by Zero: what if a mathematician comes up with a formulation that proves the inconsistency of the science of mathematics itself? What does it mean to know that the world you built around you was flawed because the foundations were themselves erroneous?
- Story of your Life is the original story behind the recent movie Arrival and follows a linguist’s journey to understand an alien language and in so doing dis-entangle the concept of time such that she discovers the rest of her life before living it, and yet continues to live the same way.
- Seventy-Two Letters plays with the author’s passion for linguistics and punk gothic formulations for golems that come to life through word constructs.
- The Evolution of Human Science is a short-short that is perhaps equally thought provoking as the other novellas/ short stories. What happens to the human scientific journals in the age of AI Robots? Is it reduced to deconstructing the scientific output of these super humans? Is that really what we have been doing all these years too?
- Hell is the Absence of God is a retelling of the Book of Jobs, in a more literal sense. An idea, that arose out of a seeming paradox within the holy book – Why does God restore Job’s fortunes if the central message of the book is that virtue isn’t always rewarded? Doesn’t that plod through the message itself?
- Liking what you see: A Documentary is perhaps one of the most perennially contemporaneous stories in that it reflects on the importance we attach to our external body. What if, through human ingenuity and a complete mapping of our DNA, we could develop mind-screens that could make us neutral to good looks? What kind of world would we live in?
Chiang’s stories bring up questions at surprising moments and explodes with their sense of impermanence. Many a times they spring doubts on the things we take for granted in our day-to-day lives by taking us to theories that existed and died in the past and reigniting those strands for exploiting whatever life is left in them. It’s as if the author maintains a running list of abandoned ideas and extends them to determine the consequences of living in an alternate world, one where those theories did come to roost – that quintessentially scientific headache regarding the randomness of nature itself.
As a writer, there is an understated beauty in Chiang’s writing that sticks to material accuracy and scientific detail in order to carry through with the arrived-at thought experiment. World is too rich to be only living in the physical realm. Imaginations such as these stories make the richness exciting and stimulating.