After having seen Arrival in November and having our minds blown, Logan and I purchased this book as soon we could find it. We were excited to see how the story was explained in the written word and how it compared to the film by Denis Villeneuve. What I think neither of us expected was this collection of short stories that explores our humanity through the lens of science fiction and religions. I am going to give a brief summary of each story, and then go into my comments.
Tower of Babylon
This story plays off the idea that the Tower of Babylon from the bible continued to be built, and is near completion. A group of miners are sent to the top to dig through the bottom of heaven and complete the process. It takes them 4 months to get to the top, and it is a harrowing experience. We discover that people are living on the tower itself, with whole ecosystems forming. As they climb, some of them keep thinking that this feat is unnatural (and I certainly thought the same) but these worries are brushed aside. They think, “if God didn’t want us to do this, he would have stopped us by now.”
Eventually they get to the top and while the miners are digging, they find that there is a reservoir of water above them that they must try to maneuver around. Almost inevitably, they eventually puncture this reservoir and it appears the miners will all drown. Our protagonist fights for his life, and crawls through a hole which he believes will lead him to heaven. Instead, when he pulls himself up, he find he is in the desert a few miles from Babylon. On Earth.
The reader and himself are both confused, but he comes to the conclusion that earth is close to God and we are supposed to appreciate it for what it’s worth.
This story starts with our male protagonist, who we learn has been in a vegetative state and suffered brain damage from it. He has undergone some experimental treatment called ‘Hormone K’, that is repairing his brain damage but also increasing his intelligence past what it was before. He starts to realize this as he takes an exam and scores in the 99th percentile, something he would have never accomplished before. At first he relishes his newfound intelligence and tests his skills. At one point even buying a bunch of books, even technical ones, and understanding them with relative ease. (Isn’t that the dream?!) He has to check in and receive new doses every few weeks so the doctors can continue to monitor him. His abilities continue to grow and eventually someone from the CIA comes in to question him. As he is super intelligent at this point, he sees the outcomes of this situation and decides to deceive the interviewer so that he will not be used for the government.
“A superintelligent person is too difficult to control.”
He stops checking in with the doctors and government, and so they start trying to track him. The problem is, he is now many steps ahead of them. He can hack into government databases and has also found that his physical abilities have improved as well. So he is continuously on the run, and always covering his tracks – staying ahead of those who want to find him. Interestingly, he eventually hits critical mass, which is a concept that is really interesting for me to ponder on even if it wasn’t fleshed out fully in this story.
In conclusion, he eventually finds another individual who has achieved this critical level of intelligence and this is an equally scary and intriguing concept for him. When they meet in person, it is a duel of the minds.
Division by Zero
This story opens with a woman being released from a behavioral health hospital where her husband is picking her up. We learn that she is a mathematician who has attempted suicide. The story seems to imply a jump in time, where we see her frustrated with some math equation that she is working on. The story goes on and it explains that she has found an equation that proves 1=2, and that essentially math isn’t real. This is difficult for her to take, as everything she believed in and studied isn’t real. We find out this is what has led to her suicide attempt.
Almost as an afterthought, we also find out that her husband had his own bout with mental health issues. He states that he doesn’t care for his wife anymore, and though he wants to help her through it, he doesn’t know how or really care to.
This one was rather short, but was still impactful and had me thinking.
This story takes place in a world where many tasks are performed by ‘automatas.’ They perform one tasks, whichever is assigned to them. These automatas relate to the religious story of God animating a clay figure with words alone. In this existence, men have figured out the words needed to animate their “automatas.” One man tries to improve economic problems by making a dexterous automata, one with fingers that move. His boss looks down on this and discourages him from continuing the project. He is then hired by a group that has discovered humans are going to infertile within a few generations. They are experimenting with keeping sex cells alive until they are full grown, but they are still not human. The main character is assigned to find the “word” that will animate the human cells like the automata. As he progresses through his study, he is hunted down by an assassin. He finds the notes of a religious man that he met earlier in the story and they just may lead him to the answers he needs.
Evolution of Human Science
This shorter story seems to be a letter out of an academic journal in a future where there is an intellectual divide. Now there are humans and metahumans. Metahumans are ultraintelligent, to the point of not being understood by humans. The author of the letter argues that even through meta-humans have done research far beyond human comprehension, it is important for humans to try to understand their world through science.
Hell is the Absence of God
This story focuses on a man who has been disabled from birth. He is not religious, but his wife was. In this world, angels often come down for visitations, leaving miracles – but also damage in their wake. Buildings are destroyed and people are hurt each time a visitation occurs. If you see the light of heaven during these visitations, you are ensured to go to heaven. Some of the people who are hurt accept it as a gift from God.
This man has lost his wife in the disaster following a visit. He is grieving, and wants nothing more than to be with her again. He doesn’t know how to ‘thank’ God for the loss as some suggest, and he somewhat resents God. He feel she will go to hell because he doesn’t love God, and wants to change that to be with his wife again in heaven. He devises a plan to see Heaven’s light so he will go to heaven. This story also includes the perspective of two others and how they shape their lives after the visitations.
Liking What You See
This final story in this collection was much less dense than the others, although the topic was still very intriguing with many facets to it. At this point in time, humans have discovered a way to turn on and off the ability to see beauty. And it’s not that you can’t appreciate the beauty of the world, but it more guards against manufactured beauty as well as the prejudices they give us. Like not running in the same circles as the pretty people or airbrushed advertisements that set a unachievable standard.
This concept is made easy to understand by the way Chiang presents it in this story. It takes place at a college where there is a movement to require everyone to get the procedure done in an attempt to create social equality. Like in documentary format, he gathers the thoughts of all kinds of people so that you get a fuller understanding of what people think about it. You hear from scientists, advertisers, professors and students. Some of these people have had the procedure their whole lives, others only a short time, while others are staunchly opposed.
Overall, I really enjoyed diving into these stories. Ted Chiang did an excellent job posing questions within religion and science and the way he unravels them is very interesting. This was definitely a book I had to take in chunks, so I read about one story a day. They were all packed with information so I really needed the rest of the day to sort through my thoughts on it.
My favorite story was definitely still Stories of Your Life. I loved how it covered parts that the movie didn’t, but the message was still the same. My least favorite was probably 72 Letters. I just couldn’t get into or understand the concept of the automatas very well. I’ll also add that “Hell is the Absence of God” screwed me up. That one was so heartbreaking, but I think it also cut to the soul of even a slightly religious person with some of the questions and fears it presented.
We are definitely keeping this book, I think I could read just one story and get something new out of it each time. They presented so many interesting questions that really stretch the mind, and I enjoyed how it did that in a way other books I’ve read haven’t.