Stories of Your Life and Others is a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories and novellas by American author Ted Chiang, The book includes Chiang’s first eight stories, seven of which were previously published before the collection was released. Chiang, a highly acclaimed author, has received four Nebula Awards, four Hugos, four Locus Awards, and multiple James Tiptree Jr. Awards.
The first story in the collection, “Tower of Babylon” is a reinterpretation of the Biblical story about the Tower of Babel, which was constructed for ordinary people to reach Heaven. In the story, main character Hillalum is part of a crew that has been hired to dig through the Vault of Heaven, a structure meant to separate Heaven from Earth, in order to find the creations of Yahweh. Only Hillalum makes it through, and he continues climbing toward Heaven only to eventually find himself back on the ground, far away from the Tower.
In the second story, “Understand,” the main character suffers from brain damage caused by lack of oxygen to his brain when he nearly drowns. To heal the damage, he is given an experimental drug to regenerate his brain tissue. The drug works better than anticipated, and the man finds that his neurons keep regenerating, making him significantly more intelligent and capable than he ever had been before. As he becomes smarter and smarter, his life becomes chaotic as he is pursued by government agencies, finding himself in conflict with another super-smart and similarly altered human test subject.
“Division by Zero,” follows Renee, a mathematician and professor who proves that basic arithmetic is consistent, and, thus, null and void. As someone for whom math has been the greatest truth, Renee, deeply disturbed by her discovery, begins to find life meaningless. Her husband, Carl, is initially sympathetic, becomes increasingly impatient with Renee and she dives deeper into her existential crisis. Renee eventually tries to commit suicide, which Carl stops, and the story ends with the couple in the psych ward, as Renee tries to explain her struggle to Carl, and he realizes that he does not love her anymore.
The title story of the collection falls in the middle – it is a novella narrated by linguist Louise Banks, who is telling a story to her unborn daughter on the day that she is conceived about both the strange past and the unpredictable future that will lead to her daughter’s untimely death. The book’s premise is that an alien invasion has caused Dr. Banks to understand language in a way that allows her to know the future – a gift that she received from the aliens who had come to earth to warn humans about their untimely demise. This ability to know the future disturbs and troubles Banks, becoming the basis for the rest of the story.
Other stories follow, including “Seventy-Two Letters” and the “Evolution of Human Science” which deal with themes similar to the stories above about the limits of human knowledge and the often troubling aftermath of scientific, philosophical, and linguistic discovery. The second to last story, “Hell is the Absence of God,” follows another source of knowledge, this one heavenly, in a world in which Heaven and Hell are indisputable and angels often visit the earth with mixed results. One man, devastated when his wife is killed in the aftermath of an angelic visitation, struggles to love God in order to join her in Heaven. Another woman, born without legs, becomes mobile after a visit from an angel, and finally, the young boy Ethan struggles to find meaning in his bizarre interaction with an angel.