Alright, time for our first ever review! I’m excited! I’m nervous! I’m unprepared! Am I doing it right? It doesn’t feel like I’m doing it right.
Whew. Ok. Deep breaths. Let’s do it.
I just…don’t even know what to say. I’ve spent a very long time trying to figure out how to properly convey how much I enjoyed this collection, while also making you understand that I’m a smart and educated gentleman. But that hasn’t really been working, so instead I’m just going to say what I feel.
I fucking loved this book.
Oh my God did I ever love this book. Peoples, this collection holds within it what might very well be my favourite short story of all time. Considering the fact that you could probably circle the earth by laying every short story I’ve read down page to page, that’s saying something.
Even the ones that aren’t my favourite are so, so good. They’re smart, unique, emotionally affecting, and beautifully written stories. My favourite of the bunch, Story of Your Life, made me ugly cry in public. On the seabus. And I didn’t give a shit who saw me. That’s how great it was. I don’t want to tell you too much about it, because I wouldn’t want to ruin or colour your first experience of it, but even if you don’t buy the book seek this story out. It’s well worth it.
Another gem, Understand, is the only time I’ve ever read a story about an experiment or drug raising somebody up to crazy super-intelligence that I actually bought. Most of the time when you read or see something along those lines (I’m staring you right in those beautiful baby blues, Mr. Cooper) it’s the material itself that tells you that the person is a genius, not their actions. Sure, they’re depicted doing some things we know would require a full sack of smarts (counting cards, writing long, complicated novels, gaining the upper hand over foes, etc.) but they don’t really change their behaviour in any meaningful way. It’s the old problem of having writers try and write characters who punch above their own intellectual weight. It almost always ends up coming off as false at best, ridiculous at worst. Not so in Understand. Ted Chiang writes about super intelligence as if he’s lived it. The *very mild spoilers* two super intelligent characters, their actions, their conflict, the reasoning behind their conflict, and finally its resolution, all play as both believable and the inevitable consequence of their super intelligence. So great. Crazy fucking great.
Are all of them master pieces? No. But even the worst of them is pretty damn good. Tower of Babylon is inventive and well done, but a little emotionally flat, and not particularly gripping. Division by Zero, my least favourite story, might appeal more to people who have a greater love of math than I do, but I found the characters mostly uninteresting and unappealing, and the revelation at the heart of the story lacked impact. Having said that, there’s still some emotional insight there, and the relationship between the two main characters was subtle and well drawn.
Ok, so this went a lot longer than I was actually planning, and I promise in the future most reviews won’t be quite so lengthy. It’s just not very often that you get a collection of science fiction stories that are this consistently interesting and intelligent, and I felt the need to do it some sort of justice by giving it a little more space. I didn’t even get to talk about all the stories! Like the one where people can get a part of their brain altered so they no longer notice physical beauty, an act of rebellion against a media that constantly uses sexual impulse to manipulate them (it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’m trying my best to paraphrase). Or a weird, steampunkian story about golems and homunculi and classicism.
Basically what I’m trying to say is buy this book. Or borrow it. Or steal it (not from me though, I’ll hunt your ass down). Doesn’t matter. Just get your hands on a copy.
You’ll be glad you did.