Stories of Your Life and Others
by Ted Chiang
I read Ted Chiang’s Exhalation in February of 2020 and it’s a book I recommend to everyone. Shortly after finishing it, I learned that he had an older book, published in 2002, of the same concept: short stories that can only be described as mind-bending. Exhalation had ideas I still turn over in my brain today, constantly remembering and remolding them in order to keep their form fresh. I was more than ready to enter into Ted Chiang’s multiple universes once more.

Stories of Your Life and Others begins with the story of the Tower of Babylon. Hillalum has been tasked with the job of carrying supplies up to the top of the structure, a year’s journey, to complete construction of the tower at the entrance of the Vault of Heaven. Knowing that the Vault has been opened before to flood the earth, the miners consider how to make their way through to the other side without triggering another flood and destroying the town below. Hillalum alone makes his way to the other side of the Vault, with casualties among the cost of passage, and suddenly wakes up back on earth with no memory of traveling back to start. He comes across a caravan traveling across the desert on their way to Babylon, and realizes that heaven and earth are closer than he originally knew.

And then it came to him: a seal cylinder. When rolled upon a tablet of soft clay, [a] carved cylinder left an imprint that formed a picture. Two figures might appear at opposite ends of the tablet, though they stood side by side on the surface of the cylinder. All the world was such a cylinder. Men imagined heaven and earth as being the ends of a tablet, with sky and stars stretched between; yet the world was wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth touched.

My capacity to think about the universe shifts, chapter one.

The common thread I found in all the chapters of Stories of Your Life and Others is the quest to disillusion yourself to accepted mores of the universe, such as:
Chiang takes these ideas, makes obvious their binary restraints, and turns them inside out.
In Hell Is the Absence of God, Neil deals with the emotional aftermath of his wife Sarah’s death, chasing angel visitations (the very ones that caused the freak accident which killed Sarah) in order to be reunited with her in the afterlife. As Neil begins his journey of grief, God, and the experience thereof, is portrayed as a checkpoint rather than an immersive experience. Others whose lives were altered by the visitations of God’s angels, in addition to Neil, enter into a holy questioning — why me? Why was my life chosen to be forever changed? And rather than living onward to find out the answer in due time, they obsess over when and where the next visitation will occur: devotion as a means to an end rather than the end in and of itself. When the next visitation occurs for these individuals, their devotion earns them only eternal depravity, an ending written by an author who is committed to the idea that virtue is not always rewarded.

And though it’s been many years that he has been in Hell, beyond the awareness of God, he loves him still. That is the nature of true devotion.

Something I appreciate about Ted Chiang’s books is that they include story notes at the end. Notes that take you outside the world of the story and into the context in which it was written, how it was inspired, in order to expand each universe even more. Though I found Seventy-Two Letters and The Evolution of Human Science a bit too esoteric and convoluted with jargon for my liking, the concepts in this book yet again opened my brain up to the possibilities of what fiction can, and should, be: expansive, delicate, and unexpected.