You Should Read: Ted Chiang’s STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS

Ted Chiang (born 1967) is an American speculative fiction writer. He was born in Port Jefferson, New York and graduated from Brown University with a Computer Science degree. He currently works as a technical writer in the software industry and resides in Bellevue, near Seattle, Washington. He is a graduate of the noted Clarion Writers Workshop (1989).

Although not a prolific author, having published only twelve short stories as of 2010, Chiang has to date won a string of prestigious speculative fiction awards for his works: a Nebula Award for “Tower of Babylon” (1990), the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1992, a Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for “Story of Your Life” (1998), a Sidewise Award for “Seventy-Two Letters” (2000), a Nebula Award, Locus Award and Hugo Award for his novelette”Hell Is the Absence of God” (2002), a Nebula and Hugo Award for his novelette “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (2007), and a British Science Fiction Association Award, a Locus Award, and the Hugo Award for Best Short Story for “Exhalation” (2009). (From Wikipedia)

I was sick for five weeks, down with a bronchial infection that my work schedule wouldn’t let heal. I would get up, go to work, come home and pass out again, over and over, until it finally passed. I wasn’t reading, and certainly wasn’t up to coherently reviewing anything.

When I did recover I started reading Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others. I didn’t used to enjoy short stories, and up until about a year ago I only owned one anthology. Recently I’ve started reading flash fiction, micro-fiction, and more traditional-length short stories, finding the craft in carefully constructed worlds designed to blossom, burn bright, and die within 4,000 words or so. A short story has to be meticulously worded to fit the maximun amount of meaning into the smallest space. Often the best ones tell a second story in the empty spaces, adding to the original tale by the implication of what they left out.

Having read Chiang’s collection, I come close to accepting why he publishes so little and so rarely. His stories are crisp and pure, releasing words the way a melting icicle gives up its essence, drip by drip. There’s nothing tacked on unecessarily, and at the end of each story I was left with the peaceful sense that each tale ended exactly as it shoud have. On the other had, this is the longest it’s ever taken me to finish a book of any length, because I found I couldn’t read more than one story at a time. I would finish one, then need to push it away from me, come up for air. A week would go by, maybe more, before I felt ready to open the book and let myself be engulfed by Chiang’s words again.

My thoughts on the collection as a whole mirror much of what’s already been said about Chiang, so I’ll focus on the stories that stood out to me:

“Tower of Babylon”: From the very first story in the collection, Chiang shows his abilty to thoroughly embody his chaaracters, to know how they move, how they work, how a piece of stone feels under their fingers. He sees the sun in the sky as his characters do, feels the wind blowing, and by knowing these things he can put into words the simplest explanations of how that world works. The stone masons and metal workers who travel to the Tower, construct of legend, suffer mental and physical side effects from existing at ever-increasing altitudes – who thinks of that? It isn’t a thing which the plot hinges on, but a thing which would be true, if the place and the people existed.

“Understand”: What if everything started to make sense to you? Society, language, music, psychology, math, government, violence, dominance, and even murder? The story shows you what that might be like, and the feeling of understanding the potential in that much coherence is at least momentarily overwhelming.

“Story of Your Life”: By far, my favorite story of the collection. It’s a story for people who have loved enough to understand going through all the pain and sorrow and loss of real life, just to feel the good parts again. Like everything else Chiang writes, it also features a sideways look at a real science (in this case, both physics and linguistics) and how that might be viewed differently in a world where the rules aren’t the same as ours. I enjoyed this story for the emotional aspects, the way it made me feel something deep in my chest, and the way it let me empathize with a character I could see, clearly, had no other choice. I was also intrigued by the description of a race of extra-terrestrials that truly was alien, instead of simply a scaly/tinted/tailed version of  a human society.

“Seventy Two Letters”: A weird little tale about homunculi and golems and the secret powers of words. I had to read this twice before I settled into liking it, not because the story was written badly (it certainly wasn’t!) but because the oddity of the material required another look. I actually love golem stories, ever since I was a kid and found out what they were. I always thought of them as being a secret art, whispered about only in silent libraries and dark corners of a temple, not something right out in the open where any kid could learn how to make his clay toys walk. Thinking of that way, it’s obvious how the story should unfold, which is how it does – and another great aspect of Chiang’s writing is that he doesn’t work against the grain of the story. He doesn’t need to rely on twist endings to shock the reader or to make a statement. Simply by showing us a world which works the way he thinks it should, he shows us something worth seeing. No tricks required.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary”: It’s the style of writing, in bits and pieces, a journalistic pastiche, that intrigued me about this story. Though I actually found the story to be one of the few in the book which covered already-written-about territory, the way in which Chiang presents it is novel enough to make it work.

I talk about Chiang’s collection in terms of feelings and understanding, because that’s how it affected me when I read through it. I had an emotional reaction to many of the pieces in Stories of Your Life and Others which I hadn’t been expecting, but am grateful for. So many writers can be clever or subtle or quick or brilliant, but how many can be all of those things and affect your heart as well?

Trade paperback/ebook · October 2010 · 9781931520720, Small Beer Press

 

You Should Read: Seanan McGuire’s AN ARTIFICIAL NIGHT

Synopsis: Everyone in the Bay Area knows about Blind Michael, the unseen, dangerous figure whose Hunt sweeps the Berkeley hills on full moon nights. He’s a familiar hazard of life in the Kingdom of the Mists, and most people don’t waste time worrying about him. October “Toby” Daye certainly doesn’t. She has better things to worry about, like paying the electrical bill on time. So it’s understandable that she’d be upset when Blind Michael suddenly starts taking an interest in people that matter to her, like the youngest children of Mitch and Stacy Brown. (FromSeananMcGuire.com)

I make it a habit to avoid fairy stories because modern interpretations usually lack the pain and fear and loss of traditional fae tales. I don’t enjoy putting myself through misery, but the watered-down and sparklier versions kids read these day are too plastic, too PG, too Disney for me to take seriously. McGuire suffers from no such white-washing. Her fairies are dark, broken, and dangerous. They need humanity as much as they despise it. In the classic style, McGuire’s fairies take what they need when they need it, and few of them worry about how it affects us. They steal clothes, money, blood, and children …

This is where An Artificial Night begins: children are missing. Of course, it’s missing fairy children that get Toby’s attention, but to her credit she doesn’t back down when she discovers that human children are missing too. Chasing down the path of the lost kids takes Toby through one of Oberon’s children and into the realm of another. She endures a changed shape, altered perceptions … she’s hunted, enthralled, beaten, tortured, and abused. It’s a path that only heroes choose to walk, because only heroes are broken enough to throw themselves thoughtlessly into the face of danger over and over again.

Which, of course, is exactly what Toby does, no matter how close to death she comes – and did I mention May, her Fetch, who shows up on her doorstep to usher in that death? Yeah, that happens. By now we’re not so surprised at Toby’s self-destructive behavior, but sometime before the end of the book is the realization that she’s doing this to herself on purpose, and just possibly might want to stop.

McGuire’s third novel in the Toby Daye series makes me cry like a wounded child for the first seven chapters or so. She goes on to present a story much darker than what’s come before for Toby, and one that is arguably her best to date. It isn’t a happy story, even when Toby seems to have found her way back into the light. It is a good story, a complex story, and one I recommend you get your hands on.

I reviewed the first two books in this series as well;Rosemary and Rue is the first and A Local Habitation is the second.

Seanan McGuire, An Artificial Night, DAW Books, 2010. 368 pages. ISBN0756406269.

 

You Should Read: China Miéville’s THE CITY AND THE CITY

Summary: When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined. (From Random House)

A very good book is one which, when it’s over, you can’t clearly define a place where you’d have written it differently. The City and The City is like that for me. I started the beginning of the book being intrigued by a noir-ish murder mystery, then being confused by the concept of the split towns, then fascinated by the controversial history of the place.

Imagine a detective story set in a non-US country that’s a little old-fashioned, maybe just getting used to the idea of 21st century commercialism. Set it in a place that used to have a bigger, grander, and ultimately impossible sort of economy, a place that has recently become exposed to the influence of the West, like Russia after the fall of the USSR. Now take the feel of the place, and set it somewhere geographically more Mediterranean, or move it West so that it’s still in Europe but closer to Spain. Give it a strange set of rules about who you can look at, which buildings you can acknowledge, which traffic accidents you’re allowed to notice. Into that story I want you to set an old-school detective, working in a strictly controlled environment with only barely-modern equipment and forensic science, who’s got to discover the identity of a dead girl that no one admits to knowing, and who might be from that part of the city that you’ve been raised since birth to ignore.

With all of that, you might have an idea of what Mieville’s book is capable of. This one geographically confined place morphs into three cities by the time the tale is done, due to overlapping and contested territories, but Mieville makes it work for him, until you’re nodding along with the story thinking, “Oh, well, yeah, that makes sense.” Of course, that’s not even half of the story, which also involves the people who patrol the borders of a city that is both two places and only one place at the same time, a few more murders, and one hell of a conspiracy theory.

The City and The City does make sense after all, and by the time you reach the end and the conclusion and the understanding washes over you and you finally see not just one city but all three of them at the same time, the book becomes so clear you wonder why you didn’t notice that in the first place.

ISBN: 978-0-345-49751-2 (0-345-49751-1) Format: Hardcover, 336 pages (Though I read it as an eBook)

 

You Should Read: J. P. Moore’s TOOTHLESS

Summary: Toothless is an epic tale of war and redemption set in 12th century Europe. An ancient evil is on the march. An army of demons and undead rampages across the countryside, spreading death and destruction. Judgment has come. The world of the living teeters on the edge of ruin. One knight, a failed Templar, returns to the battlefield to avenge his wife and daughter. The dice are cast against him, and he is slain only to rise in service to the very evil that he hoped to destroy. He is a gifted minion. But life is not done with him yet. (From DragonMoon Press)

Toothless is the story of a zombie hero, if there can be such a thing, set in a medieval Europe devastated by the advance of a demonic army. Riding ahead of this unstoppable mass of death is a plague which strikes any living creature. Behind the plague comes the army of risen undead, pulled from the recently killed soldiers who died trying to defeat it. Toothless is told by an omniscient narrator who gives us the stories of two outcasts: Martin, the dead Templar who’s second life as a zombie with no lower jaw is the subject of most of the book, and Lil, the deformed psychic teen girl who just happens to be protected by the church.

Part of what I love about Moore’s work is that he took a story which, on its surface, seems a little ridiculous, and made it not only believable but gripping. His world is darker and gets darker still with the introduction of a main character that you slowly realize is never going to become a better person. Toothless is a monster. That he may also save world is beside the point. As an exploration of humanity, Toothless is terribly exciting because, freed from the living Martin’s responsibilities, he devolves into a creature who does remarkably bad things, over and over again. At some point the not-yet-dead around him realize his potential as a saviour, and rally around him on his journey to defeat the source of the desolation, but that doesn’t make Toothless a good guy. He still kills, still thrives on the blood and energy he’s washed in with the death of every victim, and is still an unabashed drunk.

He simply aims his talent for murder in the direction of the bad guys for a while.

Moore’s book, which began life as a podcast, is not cheerful, and only barely hopeful. It exists in an alternate history of our own Earth, in a dark age we very nearly can’t climb out of.

I loved reading this book.

I am, admittedly, a zombie fangirl, and I’m always on the lookout for new takes on the decreasingly-original theme. J.P. Moore’s Toothless is startlingly original, with a breadth and depth unusual in a zombie novel, but one that only adds to the feeling of withering melancholy which rises up from this story the way Martin rose up and became Toothless.

Toothless is due out October 31, 2010.

J.P. Moore is @jpmoo on twitter, and the cover artist Scott Purdy is @scottpurdy on twitter

 

You Should Read: Stephen King’s THE STAND

Synopsis: One man escapes from a biological weapon facility after an accident, carrying with him the deadly virus known as Captain Tripps, a rapidly mutating flu that – in the ensuing weeks – wipes out most of the world’s population. In the aftermath, survivors choose between following an elderly black woman to Boulder or the dark man, Randall Flagg, who has set up his command post in Las Vegas. The two factions prepare for a confrontation between the forces of good and evil. (from StephenKing.com)

Obviously, the first question is: Why am I reviewing a book that came out in 1978?

The answer: I review what I read. My husband decided to read it this week, which means he and I are talking about it, and since I’ve read it dozens of times, I thought I should talk to you about it too. Good reason? Ok then.

Next question: What’s it about?

Normally I prefer to talk about my opinions instead of giving a more thorough overview, but The Stand is over 800 pages long, so the paragraph synopsis isn’t going to be quite enough. It begins with the setup, introducing you to the characters you’re going to be spending so much time with, a few that won’t stick around for very long, and the world itself, which as you can guess isn’t going to be with us for too long either. The Stand is told from the point of view of an omnipotent narrator, who sees all and knows all, so you get the thoughts and feelings of characters who don’t ever get to meet up with our hero, Stu Redmond. This book unfolds before you, no secrets held back, no stone left unturned. King can give you two sentences about a random girl, but in those two sentences you know something intimate about her character, making her a real person. Who’s about to die. Along with nearly everyone else on the planet.

You also get a New York charmer, smooth and a bit slimy, in Larry Underwood. He’s the underfoot, under-appreciated, underdog, that Larry Underwood, just trying to make a name for himself as a singer and guitar player. Of course, he “ain’t no good guy,” as his mother and just about every other woman in the book point out. It’s pretty obvious that Larry’s going to want to be Stu, since Stu’s the man that everyone is going to want to be. After all, he’s the guy that’s going to have the plan, save the girl, and lead his people out of the desert. He’s the Texan, the straightforward cowboy hero, and if he doesn’t have a horse to ride in on, well that’s ok, because King thoughtfully provides him with a motorcycle, which will do the trick. Hallelujah.

Thankfully, King doesn’t actually make Stu into someone quite so perfect, and even Stu ends up wanting to be more like the man everyone thinks he is. It just takes 500 pages to figure that out.

What’s the conflict?

You’d think the world as we know it dying in a fit of phlegm would be conflict enough, but it actually serves as the beginning of the story instead of the end. The real story is about the classic fight of good vs. evil. Larry isn’t the real bad guy, he’s just not a great guy to begin with, and has to struggle to learn how to be better. Stu isn’t the only good guy, either, he’s just trying to be the man everyone needs him to be. The bad guys of the story all have their reasons for being on the wrong side, making them complex characters who can’t easily be dismissed. Our Good Guy squad is rounded out by the Girl That Guys are in Love With, the Old Professor, the Disabled People, the Happy Hick, a few Doctors, and a Friendly Dog. On the other side of the story, the side with storm clouds, neon signs and hot rods, are a Slutty Teen, The Whore of Babylon, the Ex-Additcs, a Grumpy Cop, few Criminals, and some Wolves.

King needed truly bad and truly good to give all those other people flags to rally under. Good and Evil as archetypes are too simple to be human, since we have far too many flaws and hopes and guilty pleasures to ever be just one thing. King brings in the big guns, the angel and the demon, God and the Devil, and introduces their champions as the flag bearers for the darkness and the light.

The sheer number of characters in this novel is astounding – King’s population rivals that of a major metropolitan city.The Stand gives us old women, young women, mothers, new wives, children, and angry victims. It shows us a retarded man and a deaf-mute, who manage to find each other and, in their own ways, make useful contributions to their new society. It gives us bad guys, selfish guys, criminals, soldiers, stupid people, lost people, and Trashcan Man, who lives to burn. Each of them has a past, a present, a favorite thing. When you meet them in the story you see the color of their hair and the patterns on the soles of their shoes. It’s these details that make what was, otherwise, your average viral apocalypse into a story worth reading.

King’s power to tell a great story is in his willingness to go on, and on. And on. He’s not interested in getting to the end of the story as much as he wants to show you every excruciating detail along the way. If you’re looking for a book that will take you into the belly of a new world and carefully describe everything from the color of the dust beneath your feet to the feel of snow on your skin to the sound of wolves howling up on the mountain, I can’t recommend The Standstrongly enough.