Tor, 2004, 333p.
Chiang has won a slew of awards in the SF field but his output is small and restricted to stories short of novel length. His short story Exhalation won the BSFA Award in 2010. This is his only collection so far published.
Tower of Babylon is set in ancient Babylon where a group of miners is called in to ascend the eponymous tower and mine into the vault surrounding the world. The tower is so high it takes them four months to reach the top before they can begin the task. The cosmology of this Earth seems at first to be Ptolemaic – they pass the moon and the sun on the way up (not to mention stars) but in the end is even weirder.
In Understand a brain-damaged man has been given a drug called Hormone K to take him out of a coma. Tests reveal his memory and brain-processing power to be enhanced. This is reminiscent of Flowers For Algernon but Chiang takes the story arc in a different direction.
Division by Zero has a mathematician discover a proof that threatens to undermine the reality of maths. The story is structured in numbered sections 1, 1a, 1b, 2, 2a, 2b, etc in which the first in each subsection is always a description of a theorem from the history of maths.
Story of Your Life. A linguist is employed to understand the language(s) of heptapodal aliens newly arrived to Earth. Their written and spoken languages differ radically as their worldview turns out to be non-sequential. The turning point in her discovery comes through the use of diagrams (reproduced in the text) showing the refraction of light. The story’s narration – as if to the linguist’s daughter – reflects non-sequentiality, employing usages such as “you will say” and “your father is about to.” This story is an example of the type of speculative narrative which can only be achieved through the medium of Science Fiction.
Seventy Two Letters is a kind of steampunk story (but not quite) set in a Victorian type society where sexual reproduction is different from in our world (both sperm and eggs contain homunculi which have to merge before a fœtus can form) and automata can be activated by sliding names into slots. It turns out that naming – or at least its encoding – is very important in this universe. The story draws on a wide variety of fields for its inspiration and is admirably worked out. But the characters are wooden.
The Evolution of Human Science. In a world featuring metahumans utilising digital neurotransfer the story is couched as a scientific report commenting on the differences and similarities between ordinary and meta-humans. Diverting but no more.
Hell is the Absence of God. Angels manifest themselves on Earth, each visitation accompanied by devastation of some sort. Hell is visible through brief transparent openings and there is visible evidence of souls ascending to Heaven when people die. Neil Fisk’s wife dies as a result of a visitation. He spends the rest of the story trying to love God.
Liking What You See: A Documentary. The narrative is couched as transcripts of interviews and video clips from a documentary about the use of calliagnosia, a procedure whereby its recipients no longer react to the beauty (or ugliness) of people’s appearance.
Chiang’s stories are always well delineated, thoughtful, thought provoking and frequently impressive. Intellectual even. They do however have a tendency to be told rather than unfolded. There is a dryness to the delivery, a distancing. Readers looking for engagement may be disappointed.