I said at the start of this blog that I might try the odd book review-type thing, so this is me trying one. It’s really about what I took away from this book as a writer, rather than a reader, but hopefully it will be helpful (or at least interesting) to readers and writers both.
Edited: Looking at this just post publication, I’ve realised what a wall of text it turned into. So I’m going to take a load off you (and *cough* off future me) and split it into two posts. Tune in next week for part two.
Stories of Your Life and Others
My first review subject is a short story collection from Ted Chiang. His ‘Story of your Life’ was adapted into the excellent 2016 film Arrival – a film that reminded jaded viewers like me that science-fiction is the fiction of ideas, not just action sequences – and that inspired me to find and read his work.
This review contains very minor and non-specific spoilers – unless you’re literally about to open the book, you should be fine.
Fiction of ideas
The thing that blows me away about Ted Chiang’s writing is the sheer range of fields he explores. It’s clear that he has a voracious mind – his stories riff on concepts relating to everything from mathematics to linguistics and psychology to religion, and he writes with equal confidence about every subject he explores.
Chiang’s stories are often set in speculative futures or alternate histories that are compellingly unique. Within those settings, though, they often explore aspects of society and human nature that are compellingly familiar: the march of progress and its precarious balance between bettering people’s lives and rendering their livelihoods obsolete; the nature of faith in a demonstrably unjust world.
Taking inspiration and running with it
This particular collection comes with a set of author’s notes at the end. Reading them not only confirms Chiang’s interest in many different fields, but demonstrates his ability to take inspiration from them and run with it.
Chiang clearly loves the subjects he writes about, and loves finding ways to play with them. Many of his stories come from a single concept – an off-hand remark, an interesting equation – upon which he has vastly extrapolated to create both a unique setting and an in-depth exploration of some fundamental aspect of humanity.
Don’t just stop at a good idea
As a writer who struggles with mental overload myself, I have to acknowledge that Chiang’s sheer breadth and depth of knowledge isn’t available to every writer. But I think the important takeaway is that it’s possible to create amazing fiction by not just stopping at a concept that interests you, but taking that concept as a starting point and then brainstorming on and around it.
Don’t just take your inspiration on face value. Look for new and uncommon ways to approach your idea, and at the same time look for what there is in your idea that is universal and human.
And that’s advice as much for myself as anyone else.
That’s it for the elements I loved. Next week: Chiang’s characters and why I think they are his weak point.