(or ‘Now I think I understand Fermat’s Principle of Least Time’)
I enjoyed reading the collection of short stories presented in this compendium. Likely the most well known is ‘Arrival’ , upon which the movie is based, and originally entitled ‘Story of your Life’.
In this story Chiang introduces us to the limits and capabilities of our words and thoughts. This appears to be one theme that threads through the short stories compiled in this version. The first paragraph of ‘Arrival’ describes a romantic encounter and defining point of the characters lives; yet I felt the language used was purposefully limited to the cliché. The joy and love expressed and hinted at is summed up in the (corny) phrase “Do you want to make a baby?”.
To the characters involved this is the ‘most important moment in our lives’ . As a reader I felt there were connotations of listening to a story of how a particular couple met. It may be interesting (or not!) but the love, passion and history of a relationship is often poorly condensed and conveyed by the linguistic detail. This contrast between thought and language and is one of many features and themes within the short stories. Chiang’s thoughtful and clear writing style helped me to develop a better appreciation of our language impacting our experience, empathy and interaction with others.
For me a short story should immerse the reader in the world the author is creating and quickly make it feel familiar. All the while maintaining the reader’s curiosity that keeps her turning the page. Chiang manages this deftly by weaving fantasy and science fiction with some fundamental philosophical questions. In ‘Hell is the Absence of God’ he presents the world accepting divine appearances, natural disasters and miracles caused by the visitations of angels. He explores the some of the morality and hypocrisy of religious beliefs in a way, to me, never feels imposing just thought provoking. Similarly his construction of ‘Liking What You See: A Documentary’ engages the reader in an intriguing two-sided debate about the aesthetics of beauty and the ethics of making choices for our children.
Another of the philosophical themes explored in these short stories is the idea of knowledge versus understanding. The most blatant example being ‘Understand’ which I found only slightly tedious and mostly darkly humorous. Living in Cambridge, this made me reflect on the particular status given to the acquisition of knowledge and the worth attached to some types of knowledge over another. Intellectual and academic knowledge is highly valued here but what about emotional knowledge and understanding ? Or the ability to communicate knowledge so that it can be understood in a practical, meaningful way. For me as a reader, Chiang, captured this balance perfectly.