Thursday 9 January 2020

Arrival - Ted Chiang (2002)

Rating: Admirable

Arrival was originally published as Stories of Your Life and Others, but as I actually read this collection under the former title I'm sticking with it. The name change was, of course, brought about by the American film Arrival (2016), which is an adaptation of this collection's Story of Your Life. The film was impressive both because the Americans actually managed to make an intelligent science fiction movie, but also because the premise was a unique and intriguing first contact narrative. Appropriately the story found in this collection is conceptually brilliant and has a strong emotional core, which is something you don't always find in science fiction; actually there is something unique about all of the eight stories in Arrival. The collection begins with one of the better stories, Tower of Babylon, in which humanity is actually building the Biblical tower in an effort to reach the 'vault of heaven'. The story is compelling because you do not really know what to expect, and despite my best guesses the ending was a surprise, something that is difficult to produce when it comes to an audience familiar with science fiction tropes.

The stories that follow are all quite different from each other. The protagonist in Understand takes a drug that has the side effect of giving him a genius level intellect, but also gives him access to the parts of the brain that are normally shut off from the conscious mind. Division by Zero is the standout story, featuring a structure that mirrors the premise and leads you to an ending that is devastatingly poignant and brilliant. I did not actually understand the story until the next morning, when its significance hit me as I indulged in my muesli and coffee; now that's the kind of story every author would love to write. Unfortunately the final four stories do not quite match the brilliance of the first half. Seventy-Two Letters is inventive and entertaining enough, but Chiang's dry style strips some of the flesh from the narrative bone. The Evolution of Human Science is prosaic, despite its startling premise and Hell is the Absence of God and Liking What You See: A Documentary, are both lacking a stylistic spark that would make them much more compelling. Despite the stylistic limitations these stories feature fantastic ideas and are well worth reading. It is unfortunate that I enjoyed them less the further I proceeded through the collection, resulting in a certain degree of disappointment in the end.

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