You Should Read: Kelly Link’s STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN (2001)

If you’ve all read and loved Kelly Link for the last decade it might surprise you to know that until about 6 months ago, I’d never heard of her. Thanks to some writers I admire pointing her out to me, I bought the .epub of her first short story collection, Stranger Things Happen, and read it all over a couple of days. (I’ve been bringing my nook to work with me, and this makes catching up on my To Read pile much easier, in little bits at a time).

“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” – A dead man isn’t sure where he is, what his name is, or how he died, but is quite certain that dead people shouldn’t masturbate as often as he does. The story is told in a series of letters the dead mad writes to his nearly-forgotten wife, hoping for her forgiveness, with little footnotes about his emotional state and other activities. The story makes perfect sense if you can imagine yourself in a place built from old memory and surrounded by waiting. My first impression of Link is that she writes longing very well.

“Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” – “Carnation, Lily” lacked description in a way that fits a story about a man who exists nowhere and remembers very little. “Waters” mirrors that tale, in the way that a mirror reflects the same image back to you, but backwards. Link’s voice is clear but at the same time, “Water” is full of details and adjectives. There is sound and there are smells and the taste of strawberry wine and the prickle of a black dog’s discarded fur. Mostly, the story is about a boy who has never lost anything, falling in love with a girl who expects loss to find her.

“The Specialist’s Hat” – Sometimes ghost stories are stories told by ghosts, about people who might be alive or might be Dead or might just be plain old regular dead. Also, don’t ignore your children, because while you’re keeping them out of your hair they’ll find their own way into trouble without you there to save them.

“Flying Lessons” – A much better take on the “updating a Greek myth” trope than I usually read.

“Travels With The Snow Queen” – Oh, second-person present-tense POV, how I hate you. But it’s fairy tales we’re after in this story, and tales are told, unfolding conversationally as if you are the subject and the listener all at once. I can forgive the perspective on this because I get the importance Link feels this story has.

“The Vanishing Act” – Another story about what happens when parents forget their children are still there. Where “The Specialist’s Hat” ends on a dour note, “Vanishing” at least has hope, and green water, and photographs of far off lands. It might not be a happy story, but it has the potential to be one after the words have trailed off the page, and I like having the option.

“Survivor’s Ball, or, The Donner Party” – I’m wondering if Link imagines that no one has heard of the Donner party, and therefore her introduction of them has a novel quality? Aside from that, this story might be about survival, or it might be about the kind of men who follow a woman to the end of the world, too empty of life to find their own path … and moth-like, follow the first bright flame of a girl into darkness.

“Shoes and Marriage” – this is four flash pieces strung together, pretending to be a short story, and I’d have preferred she left them as flash pieces. Of them, my favourite was the one about the pageant girls. I, too, would sit with my love under the blankets and fall head over heels for Miss Kansas. I appreciated the nod to Lovecraft too.

“Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water” – One of the most traditionally-formatted stories in the collection, Link allows a presumably-female narrator tell the story of how her friend Jak went mad, or, possibly, the story of how an invasion of blond alien women has really messed up his chances to get a date to have sex with him. Either one.

“Louise’s Ghost” – I’m not sure how necessary it was to make both of the women in this story carry the same name. I get that it’s a comment on the inter-changeability of women and all of that, and in the context of the story it’s possible to follow which is who, but only with some effort. It’s not that I prefer my stories to be simplistic, and I am willing to work at a good piece of insight, but it didn’t pay off for me. I didn’t learn anything about the human condition or being a woman or loss or … anything to make me feel that the purposefully convoluted characters were worth the effort. Perhaps if it had come earlier in the book I would have felt differently, but by this point we’ve already had ghosts (“Carnation, Lily” and “Hat”), unpleasant children (“Vanishing”), vague men (“Water” and “Donner Party”), strong women making all the decisions (“Flying Lessons” and “Travels”) and death (“Flying Lessons”, and again, “Carnation” and “Hat”). It seems the only new thing was the trick with the names.

“The Girl Detective” – When I started reading it, I didn’t realise that it was the last story of the book. Another rebooted myth, mixed with a little Nancy Drew, strongly in Link’s style.

One thing that stood out at me was the lack of a strong male character. Each man that appears is a wraith, a shadow of his potential, wrapped up in or around the women in his life. The women are the movers and doers and decision makers. Even when the main character is male, the women compel an action from them as if the men have no choice but the react. The closest one comes to a male-driven story is “Water”, where he does choose to chase after Rachel, but only to be able to settle into the comfortable stillness of letting her make the choices. He will subsume himself in her family and become part of the things which happen around her.

I don’t like Link’s men very much. I prefer strength and clarity of self. But, as characters, they do highlight their female counterparts in interesting ways.

Overall, I loved this collection. Link’s stories aren’t purposefully linear, as is she is remembering important bits while telling a different part of the story. She pauses delicately to tell you the piece she’d forgotten and then goes on with the piece she’d started with. Link is clearly a storyteller, letting you imagine the words falling from her lips instead of imagining yourself as a character in the tale. The whole thing has a rambling smoothness to it that turns even a chronologically fragmented piece of writing into one solid story. There were a few that I didn’t love as much as the others but I think that was more a case of too much of the same thing all in one place. Perhaps if I’d read them all, individually, with some months of space in between, I would feel differently. Perhaps not, but there are enough great stories in Stranger Things Happen that it doesn’t matter.

Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen, Small Beer Press, 2001.

What I’ve Been Reading: 2 issues of Weird Tales, and some H.P. LOVECRAFT’S MAGAZINE OF HORROR

I recently subscribed to Weird Tales (and you should too!) and along with my first issue, Summer 2010, I also got two old issues of H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror. The Spring 2011 issue arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago … I was feeling overdue for some seriously weird reading. The magazines include more than fiction, but it’s the fiction I’m concerned with, so I’ve left out the other bits (reviews, interviews, etc). There are 30 stories in this review, so I’ve put them after the jump.

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You Should Read: MACHINE OF DEATH, ed. by North, Bennardo & Malki !

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words DROWNED or CANCER or OLD AGE or CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. It let people know how they were going to die.

The problem with the machine is that nobody really knew how it worked, which wouldn’t actually have been that much of a problem if the machine worked as well as we wished it would. But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. OLD AGE, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death — you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does. (More at http://machineofdeath.net/about)

I picked up a copy of MACHINE OF DEATH about a month ago, in a bookstore which was closing (but now, isn’t) in another state while wandering around my favorite small town. “I’ve heard good things about that,” the man I was with said to me, looking down at the antholgy. I picked it up, trusting his judgement about books. It was thick and had a lot of names on the back and was edited by a couple of guys I was certain I’d never heard of, but a dystopian collection of short fiction about a machine which ironically predicts the exact manner of your death? I was sure I’d love it.

Turns out I was only right about one of those things.

MACHINE OF DEATH was at least 1/3 edited by Ryan North, based on an idea he’d put into one of his comics a while back. While I couldn’t place the name of the guy, the name of the strip was DINOSAUR COMICS and upon realizing that I did a happy little dance. I love T-Rex and Utahraptor and Dromiceiomimus! and follow them on Twitter and I even tolerate the regular appearance of GOD, who in this comic is usually high anyway. (What, no one else thinks that? It’s just me? Hmm.) I belatedly remembered the strip in which the idea appeared, where T-Rex decides he’ll eventually write a story on the idea that a machine can predict your death, which in the case of cows just means there were a lot of prediction cards which read MADE INTO DELICIOUS CHEESEBURGERS.

It could have stayed a joke. It could have, even after submissions started rolling in and the idea became an anthology, stayed funny, and maybe even veered into ridiculous.

It didn’t.

MACHINE OF DEATH is, when you get down to it, pretty brilliant. There are a few funny stories and a few silly ones and a few which take an alt-history view of the world but for the most part this is our Earth and our frail and brittle humans and a machine which does only one thing but does it perfectly. What do you do then, when you know how you’ll die? When everyone everywhere knows how, but almost never when they’ll shuffle off this mortal coil (and to be honest those perfectly right predictions are vague in a sort of unhelpful way)? Whether the characters hide, plead, bargain, grieve, and refuse to live what time they have left, or use it as a way to live recklessly by indulging in every whim except the one attached to their prediction slip, the stories in this collection show you something worth thinking about.

What if you knew? What would you change about the life you’re living right now?

In a way, I think that’s the best part of this anthology. It acts as its own memento mori, holding up its artifice and saying, “Remember your death – it’s coming,” but by shrouding it in fun and whimsy, you get to feel safe about it. It’s almost like getting bad news while being wrapped up in comfy blankets, snuggled with your favorite person/pet/stuffed animal, while cookies bake in the oven, and knowing that if you don’t like the news, you can always put it back on the shelf and look at it again later when you’re ready. We all die, kids, most of us faster than we’d have liked, and it’s refreshing to be reminded of it every so often. It could be CANCER or LOSS OF BLOOD or a CRASH of some kind or even something interesting like MURDER or EXHAUSTION FROM HAVING SEX WITH A MINOR but one way or another, we all go. No matter who you are, there’s a death in there for you, and a story which will make you consider your own choices.

And if you’re not up for that, there’s always FLAMING MARSHMALLOW.

What I’ve Been Reading, Mar 4th edition

As the “being sick” portion of the program has gone over the scheduled performance time, I don’t have much writing or editing to report. In between lots of sleeping and thinking about the things I’ll be doing once my brain, you know, works again, I have been getting some reading in. Several graphic novels and some short stories this week:

Unwritten Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity; Mike Carey (author) and Peter Gross (illustrator), Vertigo, 144 pages. In a world where Harry Potter was, at least for a while, the King of All Media, it’s no surprise that someone would write the “our wizard is better and also very similar but better because he’s really real!” story. And yes, you can say it’s analyzing the way our society reacts to the creation of the classic boy hero archetype blah blah blah. It doesn’t matter. Whether Carey is ripping off (or being inspired by) Potter or Timothy Hunter or Luke Kirby or T.H. White’s Wart, it doesn’t matter. Carey pulls in literature and alt-history possibilities and a league of extraordinarily bad men, and puts his own spin on the whole adventure. What you get, then, is a book that is literate and almost delicate in the way the pieces slide together. I loved it, and can’t wait to get the rest of the series.

Locke & Key Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft HC [Hardcover]; Joe Hill (author) and Gabriel Rodriguez (illustrator), IDW Publishing, 152 pages. Beautiful, brilliant, and oh yeah, fucking dark. I mean, let’s start the story with some gruesome murder, shall we? And, while we’re at it, let’s throw in a bunch more. In between the loss and pain and moving across the country and (by the way) there’s a creepy thing in the well, Hill’s written a mad masterpiece. You just know that everyone he brings into this tale is going to die miserably, but the story is so good, you’re kind of willing to make that trade. They die, you’re entertained, and you’ll keep coming back for more.

Planetary Vol. 1: All Over the World and Other StoriesWarren Ellis (author) and John Cassaday (illustrator), WildStorm Productions, 160 pages. Oh, Warren Ellis, you’re so meta. A comic book about superheroes who don’t act like superheroes but find out our world has been mixed with other worlds where comic book things have happened? And their superheroes want to fight ours? And Asian men talk about their testicles while worrying over the corpse of Mothra? *sigh* So far, I’m not in love with the series, but it’s interesting. I do like Ellis’s work, and the writing isn’t bad (the art’s lovely too) so I think I’m just having a hard time with the HA HA HA IRONIC USE OF TROPES of it all. There are moments where I think I might be too well read, and reading PLANETARY isn’t helping.

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die; Ed. by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, David Malki, 464 pages. From the first story, I loved this collection. The premise, first bandied about by a cartoon T-Rex, is that a couple of guys create a machine which tells you, often in one word, the manner of your demise. From the first story (“Flaming Marshmallow”), which tells how such a machine can change the social structure of a high school lunch room, to stories about how the machine can make you afraid of love and death and sex and the machine itself, this anthology says something about the human reaction to such perfect news of our mortality. The machine is, after all, never wrong – it’s just a little vague, as in the story where death by SUICIDE doesn’t exactly mean you’re going to kill yourself. Definitely recommended.

I’ve also been keeping up with the daily offerings at Everyday Fiction. They’re not always great but the flash-length stories are new every day, short enough to be read on a break from work or while dinner’s cooking, and it’s good exposure to a wide variety of writing styles. Bonus: a better idea of what does or does not work in terms of storytelling under 1000 words.

You Should Read: Stephen Elliott’s MY GIRLFRIEND COMES TO THE CITY AND BEATS ME UP

Synopsis: Fiction or memoir? Stephen Elliott’s blistering new collection inhabits a mysterious area in between. As with all his work, these stories have the raw ring of truth filtered through Elliott’s downbeat poetic sensibility. No subject is too controversial, no image too taboo to put to paper in these brilliant first-person narratives. (From Cleis Press)

I almost don’t think I should review this book, because I’m not sure what needs to be said about it. Elliott presents a collection of short stories, all based on his real life, though fictionalized to different extents. He doesn’t dress it up or down or sideways, he just presents it. Here you go, he seems to say. Do what you want with it. Then he hands you the book, and doesn’t stick around to find out what you thought. The book just is. It’s simple. It’s honest. It is almost pedestrian, the way Elliott describes being tied up, beaten, cut, abused, and loved. His stories, though probably more extreme than most people’s, aren’t that unusual either. They’re familiar, if you’ve been there, and that’s kind of what adds to their brilliance.

The thing is, there are two kinds of people drawn to the BDSM scene. Of course, there a million kinds and everyone is special and no one wants to be pegged (unless that’s your thing, in which case, there’s nothing wrong with that), but the truth is, it’s those two kinds that make up the biggest population. The first are people who’ve experienced it all before, in nothing like a good way, and are eroticizing their abuse in order to get a happy ending to an event or a lifetime which scarred them badly. The second people are the ones who don’t feel enough, who want to feel more, and they’ve tried everything else. They weren’t loved enough, or wanted enough, or desired enough, and they’ve usually given up, and maybe don’t even think they deserve it anymore, to feel something so strongly, but they’re still hoping. In a way, Elliot’s book is like a good scene – you get what you wanted out of it. Either you read through to the end, past the hurt and fear and subjugating your body to the whims of crazy people, and you find the happy ending, or you feel what you’ve been longing to feel. You experience this man’s alternative history. While in the pages of the book your heart has raced, you’ve been scared, disgusted, compassionate, aroused, and curious, depending on the page. Either way you got what you came for.

Would I recommend the book to others? If you’ve read this far and aren’t certain this is a book you need to read, maybe you don’t. It’s too personal to force onto people, too specific in its kink to pass around to the mass market readers. It’s a book for people who look at it, and know.

MY GIRLFRIEND COMES TO THE CITY AND BEATS ME UP. Elliot. Cleis Press. 144 pages. ISBN 978-1-57344-255-8

 

You Should Read: THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF J. G. BALLARD

First published in 1978, this collection of nineteen of Ballard’s best short stories is as timely and informed as ever. His tales of the human psyche and its relationship to nature and technology, as viewed through a strong microscope, were eerily prescient and now provide greater perspective on our computer-dominated culture. Ballard’s voice and vision have long served as a font of inspiration for today’s cyber-punks, the authors and futurist who brought the information age into the mainstream. (Amazon)

I think I’m going to let my friends tell me what to read for a while longer. Fresh off finishing Ted Chiang’s amazing collection, the same friend who recommended that book also gave me this one. Next up on the review list is John Joseph Adam’s Brave New Worlds, suggested to me by a different friend. My advice to you: if you want to read great books, befriend readers.

J.G. Ballard is one of those authors I can’t believe I didn’t know about. What he writes fits so perfectly with the kind of hard-science, dystopian, speculative fiction I’ve loved from writers like Clarke and Asimov and Niven. Taken as a group, it’s clear to see the guy was worried about overpopulation, unchecked capitalism, and government control, but his forays into the science of sleep make for some interesting fiction as well.

“The Concentration City” starts the collection off with a great story about a possible future where space – up, down, left, right – is valued at a price per foot, and the city itself is a huge mass of buildings clustered together. Ballard’s male protagonist (and they’re always men, it should be noted) is one of the forward-thinking types he favors, and this fellow has the idea to ride the train out of the city, just to see how far he can get. The story is meant to make us think about space, government, inbred agoraphobia, and mob mentality, and it does all of those things well. This might be my favorite story except for the existential twist Ballard throws in at the end, which in my opinion he didn’t need to do at all. It turns the tale from a brilliant look at the mentality of an overgrown city-state into a “oh, look, it’s spooky!’ morality play. Didn’t care for it.

“Manhole 69” looks at what happens to men who no longer need sleep. Again we’ve got Ballard looking at science as a way to explore psychology, and I like what he does here, though I felt the end was a bit rushed. We could have used a few more pages about the subjects’ descent into madness, instead of “oh, look, it’s scary!” But unlike “Concentration City” the twist at the end of “Manhole” actually makes perfect sense, if thrown in earlier than feels comfortable.

“Chronopolis” I loved. Ballard’s future city here is one that saw the rise of the government culture, fed on organization and efficiency, and rebelled against it. The protag’s rebellion then isn’t against the oppressive regime but against the unorganized society which arouse from those that had overthrown the past. In Newman we get a kid who’s seen the future and the past both, and makes it his life’s work to get back to a kind of interwoven lifestyle he feels we should never have left.

“The Voices of Time” was about the science, for me. The interpersonal moments, of which there are more than usual, seem to be there to support the science. The core idea is that when the world is ending, we’ll sleep more before we die. This takes us back to “Manhole 69” in a way, Ballard playing with the idea of sleep, and of the two stories I prefer “Voices”. It may be the difference in the way that “Manhole” internalizes the actions of the main characters and “Voices” allows them to be affected by external forces.

“Deep End” wasn’t as moving for me. Perhaps it’s that the moral of the story – stupid boys ruin everything because mankind is inherently destructive – is one I’m all too familiar with. It’s a dystopian staple to have the enlightened main character be hurt at the end because other humans just don’t “get it”. Ballard does it, everyone does it. Before you point out that this collection is 30 years old, yes, I do acknowledge that, but this particular idea was old even in the 70s.

“The Overloaded Man” is a lot of fun, if you enjoy darkness and not being able to tell if the main character’s discovered a super power or has gone insane. Personally I prefer to think of it a la Twilight Zone, and imagine that Faulkner has found the ability to destabilize form from function into idea. One of my favorites.

“Billenium” reminds us that we are our programming. It was so sad for me to see that at the end, Ward succumbs to the idea that it’s better to live in a closet than to have room enough to breath. He doesn’t rebel, he doesn’t struggle against the system, he just quietly lets it roll over him. The character’s actions made perfect sense, given his society, but personally I’d have loved for him to have his secret room and to have been the one person who understood freedom.

“The Garden of Time” is boring. There, I said it. It feels more like a writing exercise than a story. What are we supposed to be emotionally invested in?

“Thirteen for Centaurus” is another one of Ballards thought experiments. He takes a psychological problem and explores the minds of the subjects who’re part of the testing process. It reminds me of “Manhole 69” though they’re set in completely different facilities. Again, Ballard feels the need to do the “shocker” twist ending, which neither feels twisty or shocking, but sort of a reasonable ending given the story. (You can tell it’s meant to be shocking because it’s in italics!)

“The Subliminal Man” takes the theme of unchecked capitalism and agressive government thought control and nails it. It’s pitch-perfect, start to end.

“The Cage of Sand” – This story felt longer, as if Ballard had more time to let the story unfold naturally, even though it’s about the same size as several of the other tales. I think it much more effectively explored the dying world theme than “Deep End”.

“End Game” – By this point I was a little tired of Ballard telling me how fascinating his own ideas were, but if you can ignore that, it’s a exploration of a mental game to see how long it takes a prisoner to break.

“The Drowned Giant” – Ballard does his best work when he’s dealing with external factors – government, science, mutated creatures …. It’s also an fascinating look at a story written entirely in exposition, as there’s no dialogue in it anywhere.

“The Terminal Beach” is one of only two stories in the book to be written as a set of notes, broken up into tiny sections, complete with headers in bold type. I enjoyed the change in style.

“The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” Ballard takes his characters off the ground and into the sky and the result is beautiful. One of my favorite stories, and one of the few that actually ends on a basically happy note.

“The Assassination of John Fitzegeral Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” tell you, right there in the title, exactly how irreverant and darkly humorous this flash fiction piece is going to be. Also, the story’s not much longer than the title.

“The Atrocity Exhibition” is the other index-card style story, and I think it’s more successful than “Beach” because the subject matter is more interesting. There’s a small mystery unfolding in this tale, in segmented pieces and without all the facts. “Atrocity” is an excellent choice to end the collection.

While I didn’t absolutely adore every single piece of every single story, the overall collection is amazing and shouldn’t be missed. I know so much more about writing than I did before I started the book. Taken as a group of stories, it’s easy to see why Ballard is as oft-recommended as he is. If you haven’t read him, you should.

ISBN 0-312-278446, PICADOR

 

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