Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Arrival (Stories of Your Life and Others)My husband and I went to see Arrival a few months back, and it was so much more awesome than we had anticipated it would be that we started telling all our friends to go see it so we could talk about how awesome it is. Have you seen it? GO SEE IT.

So when, shortly thereafter, it was my turn to pick a book for my online book club, a little lightbulb went off over my head and I picked the short story collection that contains the story that inspired Arrival, “Story of Your Life”. Now I could have some guaranteed people to talk about the story with!

What I didn’t expect was how fascinating the whole collection would be, and how full of science! So much science. And math. And more science. And a little bit of philosophy. And then more science.

So let’s take these stories one at a time. Warning: Ridiculously long post ahead! It’s so long, in fact that I’m going to put my usual end-of-post recommendation up here: READ THIS BOOK. Do it.

Now, the stories!

“Tower of Babylon”
I wasn’t super sure about this story, or the whole book, when I started it. People climbing a tower to get to heaven? Pretty sure I’ve heard that one before. (Note this sentence, as it is a refrain throughout the collection.) But the description of the tower, the journey upward, the idea of people living miles up in the air their entire lives and never knowing the ground… wow. And then when our party reaches the top, and we find out just what is waiting for them at the edge of heaven… totally not what I was expecting. I was way more excited for the rest of the collection after finishing this first story.

“Understand”
Remember that sentence I told you to note? Yep, here it is again. As I started this story, of a man who takes some pills as part of a medical experiment and becomes very very smart very very quickly, I was like, all right, Flowers for Algernon. Let me go get some tissues for the inevitable… wait. Where is this going? Is this a thriller now? How the hell smart can one dude get? IS THERE ANOTHER DUDE OMG. Again, not what I was expecting, and again, super interesting.

“Division By Zero”
This story was a bit harder to read, as it is a little more experimental and abstract in its narrative, but the core concept is still brain-breaking. In this one, a mathematician discovers the terrifying fact that mathematics might not actually work, while meanwhile her husband discovers the terrifying fact that their marriage might not actually work. Sad on multiple levels, this one, if you like yourself some math.

“Story of Your Life”
The big story! The reason for reading this book! And it is just as good as the movie, if you’re of a scientific bent. The movie is definitely more exciting and fast-paced and has higher stakes, but the story, as quiet as it is, explores the same themes of SPOILER FOR THE MOVIE OH NO. I found the story more interesting in that what the movie turns into a twist is made obvious from the beginning of the story, which, when you read the story and see some fancy diagrams, is a weirdly totally meta way of doing the movie, brain explosion! Aah! I don’t want to spoil the story or the movie for you, whichever you happen to consume first, but know that I’m here for you to discuss all the feels you might have about either.

“Seventy-Two Letters”
This was a friend’s favorite story of the collection, due to its lesser focus on math and physics and greater emphasis on the philosophical. Here we have a world where people build golems to take on menial tasks, and a bright young man with aspirations for the lower classes seeks to find just the right word to make golems that will automate enough slightly-less-menial tasks to improve the lives of everyone. Of course, some see his ideas as Taking Our Jobs (TM) and others see them as a way to improve the lives of only the rich, and our fellow gets caught up in politics instead of science, which is never fun.

“The Evolution of Human Science”
A story so short that my book club mates forgot its existence! This three-page story is very short but it still posits a fascinating future world where humans don’t really do science anymore, which, sad face. And, read in the context of this collection, it harkens back, intentionally or not, to “Understand”, which fills in some blanks quite nicely.

“Hell is the Absence of God”
I think this was my favorite story of the collection — it might be tied with “Story of Your Life” but it’s hard to say, since I sort of already knew the latter story. But as a brand-new story, this one was sooooo good. In the world of this story, everyone knows that God is real because His angels show up every once in a while to… I don’t know what their actual purpose is, but the result is that they wreak havoc and kill some people and the remaining living can see whether those souls go up to Heaven or down to Hell. It is also known that Hell is simply, as the title says, the absence of God, as sometimes portals open up and people can see into Hell and it’s just basically like living on Earth except you’re dead. This story covers the lives of a few different people, but the main character is a fellow who loses his wife to Heaven during one of these visitations and is faced with a serious quandary. He wants to be with his wife, but he’s not devout, and only the devout go to heaven. He has the rest of his life to become devout, but are you really devout if you only become so to fulfill a selfish need? Bonus: Try reading this story while also watching The Good Place. You’re welcome.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary”
This is another story with an offbeat narrative, this time in the form of the narrative of a documentary film. Said film follows the story of a college campus that wants to make required the process of calliagnosia, a sort of induced beauty-blindness in the brain. People with “calli” see faces just fine but couldn’t tell you if they’re beautiful or ugly or anywhere in between. The documentary crew talks primarily to a woman who has had calli all her life and who is against its requirement so much that she has it turned off and starts to experience the world in an interesting new way. Between this woman and the other characters, the story explores the implications of beauty and a lack of beauty and how people are perceived, and also the concept of what happens when we let people define other people’s behavior, even when it seems to be in everyone’s best interest. The story was written a little earlier than the trigger warning zeitgeist, but it could easily have been written during it. This piece is interesting in itself, but what I find most intriguing is that Chiang turned down a Hugo nomination for it, saying that it hadn’t turned out the way he wanted it to. I want to know how it might have turned out had he had more time!

Ghostly, ed. by Audrey Niffenegger

GhostlyUm, ghost stories? Audrey Niffenegger? I was so obviously sold on this collection, even after I realized that Niffenegger didn’t actually write all the stories in it. There’s one of her stories tucked in there, and she wrote the introduction, and some shorter introductions before each ghost story, so there’s a lot of her in the book, but it’s possibly more awesome that my attachment to Niffenegger has now led me to some other amazing authors.

Now, Niffenegger makes a point at the beginning of the book that it is not diverse or representative but just full of stories that she thinks are cool, which, I mean, okay, I guess, but it’s kind of weird you brought it up, you know? I have not checked the diversity credentials of the authors in this collection, but when it turns out it’s all white dudes and chicks I will not be surprised. If you’ve got a more diverse collection of ghost stories for me, let me know!

But I can see why Niffenegger thinks these stories are cool. The first story in the book is “The Black Cat”, by one Mr. Poe, which I have read several times for fun and school, but every other story in the book was completely new to me. There are some classics, including the Poe and “They”, by Kipling, and then some newer works by Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman. They all have ghosts in common, or sort-of-ghosts, though the best ones, in my opinion, make you sort of doubt whether there are ghosts at all. Uncertainty is weirdly terrifying.

My favorites of the collection: “The Beckoning Fair One”, by Oliver Onions, in which a writer decides to move into part of a strange old house and finds that his writing is completely stymied and his friendships falling apart, and also there are some strange things happening inside the house but surely that’s just a coincidence. Also “Playmates”, by A.M. Burrage, in which some weird dude adopts an orphan as, like, a social experiment, and is kind of disappointed when she makes friends with ghosts, and “The Specialist’s Hat”, by Kelly Link, in which some kids learn the difference between playing Dead and, well, you can probably guess.

I was actually not that excited about Niffenegger’s own story, “Secret Life, with Cats”, but it was one of the ones that lacked any sort of questions or ambivalence, so if you like your ghost stories wrapped up nice and neat you will probably like it very much.

Overall, this is a solid collection, and I will definitely be on the lookout for more from these authors, like that young upstart Poe but also like Link and Onions. I wish my reading experience hadn’t been tainted by that note on diversity, but on the plus side it will make me seek out the collections that have it. There’s still time for more ghost stories this year, right?

Recommendation: For fans of ghosts and stories.

Rating: 7/10

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, by Shirley Jackson

Let Me Tell YouI often tell people how much I love Shirley Jackson, what with having read and enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House and having read and LOVED We Have Always Lived in the Castle and, of course, The Lottery. Shirley Jackson! She’s so great! She writes the creepiest things!

If you had told me before I started this new collection of her work that the pieces I would enjoy most would be the ones about her everyday life as a parent and housewife, I would have thought you’d had the wrong Shirley Jackson, is what I’m saying.

Not that there aren’t creepy stories. The book opens with a story called “Paranoia”, in which one Mr. Halloran Beresford is just trying to get home, but he keeps running into and being followed by some weird guy in a hat. Another story, called “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons”, involves a woman who receives a weird letter, ignores it, and then reaps the consequences. Even some of Jackson’s biographical essays have a spooky sort of slant to them.

But primarily the short stories in this collection are teeny vignettes (a page or two at most) of mundane life, brief peeks into a household or a relationship that require the reader to fill in some of the meaning and importance. Many of these I just did not understand, others I could kind of figure out but wasn’t thrilled with.

The humorous essays are where Jackson shines, especially, as I said before, talking about family and home life. “In Praise of Dinner Table Silence”, “Questions I Wish I’d Never Asked”, “How to Enjoy a Family Quarrel”, “The Pleasures and Perils of Dining Out With Children”… these are all stories I could see being written today, except that they’d be gif-filled BuzzFeed lists and not nearly as hilarious.

Second place in the awesome category, behind those essays, is the title story of the collection, which is only in second place because it’s not actually finished. When I saw the editor’s note that it was only a partial story, I was like, uh, okay, but after reading it I completely understand why it was included. It is the start of a longer story, and is much longer than possibly everything else in the book, and it is kind of beautiful. It’s almost unfair to include it in this book because a) it stands out like a sore thumb as a well-developed longer story amongst a sea of super-short stories and b) all that development comes to naught when the story ends abruptly in the middle of some nice exposition. But I still managed to enjoy it immensely, so I guess it works out?

I highly recommend this collection for fans like me, who have read just a couple wonderful things and haven’t gotten the full spectrum of Jackson’s writings, and for Jackson completists. If you’re a Jackson newbie you should probably stick with her previous story collections or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is the best ever.

Rating: 8/10

The End of All Things, Parts 2, 3, and 4

I had intended to read Scalzi’s latest book in novella form, one at a time, and report back here after each one. And I did try, with part one hanging out over here. But then I read part two and got distracted by other things, and then I sat down with part three and ended up reading part four immediately thereafter, and so I’m going to go ahead and lump them all here together. And if you haven’t already obtained these stories, I’m gonna say just wait for the full book release in August, because seriously, you’ll just read them all in one sitting anyway!

Part 2: This Hollow Union

This Hollow UnionYou’d think, after the wham-bam opening of The Life of the Mind, Scalzi might relax a bit, have a quieter interlude, but no, of course not, let’s blow some more stuff up! In this second novella, we go back to the Conclave with our good friend Hafte Sorvalh, who is trying her darndest to steer the Conclave’s leader, General Gau, through like six miles of metaphorical potholed road as the Conclave tries to deal with the problem of having two sets of humans to deal with. For every great plan Sorvalh comes up with, though, a giant wrench is thrown into it in the form of an exploding spaceship or an uncovered conspiracy or a political assassination. Goody.

I like Sorvalh and I like Scalzi’s political machinations, so this was a great story to read. There’s plenty of planning and counter-planning, and even though everything doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to, things do work out in their own special way by the end. Scalzi also throws some extra world-building into this story, with some background on Sorvalh’s people that is unexpected and fascinating, and with some gender-identity stuff that comes off a little forced but is still pretty neat. Also, bonus cameo by our favorite brain in a box!

Part 3: Can Long Endure

Can Long EndureHere’s the story where Scalzi gets a bit more contemplative, although there’s still plenty of action to go around. This story has a neat structure, with each mini chapter taking place on a different day of the week, though not all the same week because nobody would survive that much excitement. On each of these days, our other good friend Heather Lee is leading a special ops team to fix some problems in the best Colonial-Union style — sneaky and then absurdly showy. Things mostly go well for them until they really really don’t, at which point punching people in the face is definitely the order of the day.

The contemplative part comes from the conversations the team has while they’re not sneaking around or shooting people or threatening to shoot people or whatever, which are comprised mainly of team members being so over all the Colonial Union posturing and wondering why they’re having to do so much of it. The team is ready to carry out their jobs, no problem, but they’re all kind of wishing it wasn’t necessary. It’s a perspective that Scalzi gives most of his characters, to some extent, but it’s different seeing it in the everyday bureaucrats as opposed to this particular strike force.

Part 4: To Stand or Fall

To Stand or FallThinky bits out of the way, this story gets us back to negotiating and making wild, possibly impossible plans and also blowing stuff up, ’cause that’s how you fight a space war, people. This novella nicely wraps up the various threads of conspiracy and subterfuge from the first three and also from the last book, bringing together our favorite diplomats to solve the Earth/Conclave/Colonial Union problem (temporarily, anyway) in as showy a fashion as possible, because that’s how they all do. Why can’t they just be friends, again?

Overall, the four stories of this novel make a great addition to my beloved Old Man’s War universe and a lovely summer read, if you like your summer reads heavy on the sarcasm and the blowing things up. Which apparently I do. I can only hope that Scalzi’s insane book contract involves at least one more foray into this world!

Weekend Shorts: The Life of the Mind and Bitch Planet

Two slightly different offerings this week: the start of the latest adventure in the awesome Old Man’s War universe, which is aliens and military and explosions and stuff, and also the start of a comic universe called Bitch Planet, which is humans and pseudo-military and fighting and stuff. What do I think? Read on!

The End of All Things, Part 1: “The Life of the Mind”
The Life of the MindScalzi. The Old Man’s War series. Two of my favorite things! I put the four… short stories? Novellas? I don’t know the cutoff here, but anyway I put the four stories that make up this book on immediate Amazon preorder when I heard they existed so that I could have them on my Kindle before I even knew they were out. And so it happened! I got this nice email last Tuesday telling me my book was here, and as soon as I finished China Rich Girlfriend (there is seriously no interrupting China Rich Girlfriend) I read the heck out of it.

It was a bit different than I thought it would be, but it was just as amazing as I wanted it to be, so that’s just fine by me. See, this first story is narrated by a dude who’s a brain in a box. Not the guy who was a brain in the box in whatever other story that was where they found a brain in a box, but a new brain in a box who was asked to tell the story of how he managed to become a brain in a box. Brain in a box, people.

So, because said brain is specifically the brain of a pilot and programmer, the story is written to be not terribly well written, so that was kind of weird. And of course it’s written entirely from this very very limited perspective, with some convenient information thrown the brain’s way so we’re not completely lost, but I’m still looking forward to getting more information from a different perspective in the next story. It had better be a different perspective.

But anyway, the story itself is great and full of all the action, intrigue, and subterfuge that you have come to expect from John Scalzi. The fate of the Colonial Union after the events of The Human Division is revealed, as well as a myriad of other crazy conspiracies that break my brain (haaa) more than a little. It will be very interesting to follow along with this story over the next couple weeks, or if you’re the instant-gratification type you can wait until it’s all published in August.

Bitch Planet, #1, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine de Landro
Bitch Planet #1I picked this issue up the day it came out back in December, and I have no idea why it took me so long to read it. The art is amazing, with strong color palettes for each setting, tons of characters that manage to look different from each other, and, impressively, a bunch of naked women who look like actual naked women and not like porn naked women.

Why are there a bunch of naked women, you say? Well, that gets to the story part, which is pretty cool itself. It seems that there’s this planet, see, which is nicknamed “Bitch Planet” but is really the “Auxiliary Compliance Outpost”, which is really just jail for ladies who’ve done something wrong. The naked transportees are labelled “radicals” and “killers”, but we quickly learn that at least one of them is there because she made some threats after her husband cheated on her, so perhaps it’s a little easier than it should be to end up on this planet. There’s also a nice little twist at the end that makes me think that this series is not going to pull any punches. As it were.

I am super intrigued to see where this series goes, so it’s a good thing the first volume comes out next month!

Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You, by Cecilia Rodriguez Milanés

Oye What I'm Gonna Tell YouBefore we start, I have to admit that I read this book almost entirely because it fits in with my personal diverse books challenge. Usually short story collections “chronicling the lives” of anyone are well outside my wheelhouse, so it’s a double whammy of diversity when you add in the Cuban-American element. So I am probably about to say some stupid things about slice-of-life and immigrant fiction, is what I’m saying.

The collection started off poorly for me because of what I hope is some terrible formatting in my advance copy that led to me being absolutely baffled about whether or not I was continuing one story or starting a new one (verdict: a little of both). A few pages later I was back on track, but then the story turned out to be about a bunch of girls who die under terrible circumstances, and I was like, is the whole book going to be this depressing?

It is not. Thank goodness. The collection covers a lot of different stories across different age groups across different states and countries (mainly Florida, “Nueva Yersi”, and Cuba, with a jaunt to China once), and the stories vary in length from about half a page to tens of pages, so for the most part if a story isn’t great there’ll be a completely different one soon! That’s always a plus in any short story collection.

I really liked the second story in this book, which is about a girl who brings home her black Haitian boyfriend for the first time, at Thanksgiving, without specifying to her family that she is bringing home her black Haitian boyfriend. This interaction goes about as swimmingly as you are currently imagining. Around this, there’s bits about the ingrained racism of the girl’s family and how she feels mistreated by them but also loves them, because family. Also, there’s lots and lots of Spanish thrown around and I was happy to be reading on my Kindle with its translation feature, although I am pretty sure it does not know all the slang these characters do.

Other great stories include the one where a mother breaks her own rule about never visiting other people’s houses and an unexpectedly hilarious one in which a girl gets stuck with a dog she really doesn’t want, both of which could have been in any non-Cuban-American collection of slice-of-life stories in almost the same form. Turns out diversity isn’t that hard after all!

Some of the shorter stories I had trouble with because they’re that kind of story that picks up in the middle of nothing and ends in the middle of nothing, and kind of nothing happens in the middle, and some of them ended on these weird sentences that seemed like they should have great meaning because they ended the story but just… didn’t? I don’t know.

But overall it’s a solid collection of stories and has definitely piqued my interest in Cuba and its emigrants for future reading adventures. Any suggestions?

Recommendation: For people who actually like literary short stories and those interested in Cuban Americans.

Rating: 7/10

Weekend Shorts: FBP and Flavia!

It’s a science round of shorts! First there’s physics, then there’s chemistry, how can anyone go wrong? Well, I mean, there’s also death and a bit of destruction, so… I guess that’s how. What are you reading this week?

FBP, Vol. 2: “Wish You Were Here”, by Simon Oliver and Robbi Rodriguez
Wish You Were HereHey, remember how I read Hawkeye and that one issue nearly broke my brain due to strange chronology? That’s how this entire volume was for me. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when we’re talking crazy pseudo-science, but I am still very confused as to what exactly just happened.

What I can understand is that our freelance physics friends go to a remote outpost where they meet an old friend of Cicero’s who has a shiny thing she wants to show them. Hardy and Reyes go off to explore the nearby town, there’s fancy physics fighting, Hardy learns about Reyes’s crazy physics past, Hardy learns some things about his own present, and a magic physics canyon becomes a magic physics cannon (well, sort of, let me have my wordplay) and it’s amazing. The brain-breaking part is that some or all of these events are taking place in a reality created by Hardy and Reyes, or possibly by Cicero and Sen, or possibly some hyper-intelligent mice, I don’t know. I mean, I guess I’ll know in the next volume, but for now I’m going with the mice.

The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse, by Alan Bradley
The Curious Case of the Copper CorpseI’ve stated several times here that I love Flavia de Luce, but the books about her have been hit or miss with me almost solely on the basis of how much time is spent solving mysteries versus extolling the virtues of Bishop’s Lacey and environs. Mysteries, yay! Ruminating about the history and future of Buckshaw with regard to laws governing estates, yaaaawwn.

But it turns out that long-windedness is a foundational Flavia attribute that really cannot be replicated in a 27-page story. Here’s Flavia, sitting around, oh, a note!, bicycling bicycling bicycling, a jaunt up the stairs, copper-covered fellow in a bathtub, meeting the boys of Greyminster, evading capture, mystery solved! No long rants about horrible sisters or even daydreams of criminal mischief via chemistry, and I rather missed them! It’s fascinating to find out how much you don’t even know about yourself…

The mystery itself was perfectly satisfactory, and it stands completely alone from the rest of the series so if you’re not caught up you won’t feel like you’re missing anything. But it’s no substitute for full-flavor Flavia, so luckily it’s just a few weeks until the next book comes out!