Book Review: Ted Chiang’s STORY OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS

This is a reprint of my review, which I posted to Amazon.com, of Ted Chiang’s STORY OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS. It was written a few years ago, back when I was an atheist:

(WARNING! I am a science-fiction writer in economic competition with Mr. Chiang. All my gripes must be taken with a grain of salt.)

Eight well-crafted stories with engaging and interesting ideas are marred by weak endings. Each story ends with tepid pessimism.

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD.
First, the “Tower of Babylon” tale engages the reader with solid characterization and a thought-provoking description of what the mighty engineering feat of “building a tower to heaven” would have been like, had the world been flat. It is filled with amusing and authentic touches, like the Egyptian stone-masons brought in to chip through the hard surface of the sky-dome, or the description of how mid-levels of the tower rendered inhospitable by the too-near approach of the fiery sun. But the ending is weak, and the immense tower turns out to have been built in vain.

In “Understand” the super intelligent man is obsessed with finding a perfect expression of linguistic philosophy that will express the universe. The depiction of a mind smarter than any mind of man is wonderfully well-done, and the story is worth reading just for this alone. The super-mind discovers a second super intelligent man. One man wants nothing but to be left alone while he pursues his research, while the other wishes to use his powers to benefit mankind peacefully. Neither one is threatening or interfering with the goals of the other. For no apparent reason, and without any plot-purpose, these two “superior intelligences” both mutually agree that there is no possible way they both can exist, they duel, and one murders the other. What a waste. Maybe they were not so bright after all.

In “Story of your Life” a mother, through the study of an alien language, learns how to see the universe from a timeless point of view. She knows her daughter is going to die in a pointless accident even before the night the daughter is conceived. The mother does nothing, and can do nothing, to prevent the accident, since only those things that are fated to be will be. Precognition is vain.

In “Divide by Zero” all mathematics turns out to be vain.

“Liking What You See: A Documentary” once again, starts with a very interesting science fiction premise: what would the world be like if we could turn off our perception of human beauty? And, once again, the story soon disappoints. A college is debating whether to impose beauty-blindness on all its students. Both sides of the issue are debated. A girl who tries to make herself look nice to win the affection of a boy she loves is rebuffed when the boy turns off his beauty-seeing abilities. The girl realizes it is “unfair” to look better than other people. So her attempts are futile. In the end, an evil conspiracy of (I am not making this up) Big Lipstick Companies successfully prevents widespread implementation of the beauty-blindness plan by (you guessed it) having a particularly attractive spokeswoman sway the debate. So the entire debate was futile. This same egalitarian theme appears in a famous short story by Kurt Vonnegut, one where pretty folk were burned with acid, and smart individuals were lobotomized, so that everyone was “equal” and nothing would rouse the spite and envy of the herd. There, Vonnegut’s tale cheers for the individual; here, Chiang’s tale cheers for the herd.

“The Evolution of Human Science” has all scientific inquiry prove futile once super artificial intelligences take over the field.

The satire “Hell is the Absence of God” reads like it was written by someone who never met a Christian, or read anything written by a Christian. In this tale, those who see the light of heaven are grotesquely disfigured (their eyes and eye sockets are removed) and loose free will, and become perfect in faith, so that they are automatically assured of entrance into paradise. The main character, mourning after the death of his wife, seeks to find a spot where an angel is leaving or entering the world, so that he can, if only for a moment, glimpse the light of heaven, so that he can loose his eyes and his free will, but be assured of meeting his wife again in heaven. All goes as planned, but God capriciously sends the man to Hell in any case. Hell is not a place of torment, but a bland area much like earth, merely separate from God, peopled by Fallen Angels who sin was not rebellion, but free-thinking. Hence, out of all created beings, only the main character is actually suffering in Hell, since he is the only one who longs not to be there, and, thanks to his free will being destroyed, is the only one who loves God wholeheartedly. Again, all efforts of the main character to rejoin his wife are futile. There are secondary characters whose lives are also ruined and for no particular reason.

I myself am an unrepentant atheist, but I would never pen such trite antichristian propaganda. If an author is going to set a story in an alternate universe where the Christian myths happen to be true, the author should become familiar with (or, at least, hide his contempt for) the source material. Read Thomas Aquinas or John Milton. Christians may be wrong, but they are not stupid.

Over all, Mr. Chiang is an excellent writer, who writes wonderfully about big ideas, but weds them to a theme of dispirited nihilism. He is capable of subtle and penetrating characterization, except when he trots out a tired leftwing cliché, whereupon suddenly everything becomes flat and predictable (see, for example, his treatment of the CIA, Big Business, the Military, and the Victorian Age).

I can only recommend the first half of each story.

AND HERE is the reprint of an article from 2006 discussing the well written but fundamentally dishonest story ‘Hell is the Absence of God.’ I do not know if Mr Chiang can still be described as ‘up-and-coming’ but I am confident all who read him will continue to describe him as brilliant forever. This was from a series of articles I did called ‘Separation of Church and Spaceship.’

The worst attempt at Christian SF it has ever been my misfortune to run across is by a brilliant up-and-coming author named Ted Chiang. If you haven’t read his short stories, you are doing yourself a bit of a disservice. You might want to rush right out and buy a copy of STORY OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS. http://www.amazon.com/Stories-Your-Life-Others-Chiang/dp/0765304198/

But don’t tell him I sent you, dear reader, because I must now criticize his most famous story from that collection in the harshest terms. Since he is a better writer than I am, this exercise cannot be taken too seriously: a slow man is telling a fast man how to run a race.

Of course, even a slow runner can tell when a faster one has gone seriously off the track.

The satire “Hell is the Absence of God” reads like it was written by someone who never met a Christian, or read anything written by a Christian.

In this tale, those who see the light of heaven are grotesquely disfigured (their eyes and eye sockets are removed) and lose free will, and become perfect in faith, so that they are automatically assured of entrance into paradise. The main character, mourning after the death of his wife, seeks to find a spot where an angel is leaving or entering the world, so that he can, if only for a moment, glimpse the light of heaven, so that he can loose his eyes and his free will, but be assured of meeting his wife again in heaven. All goes as planned, but God capriciously sends the man to Hell in any case. Hell is not a place of torment, but a bland area much like earth, merely separate from God, peopled by Fallen Angels who sin was not rebellion, but free-thinking. Hence, out of all created beings, only the main character is actually suffering in Hell, since he is the only one who longs not to be there, and, thanks to his free will being destroyed, is the only one who loves God wholeheartedly. All efforts of the main character to rejoin his wife are futile. There are secondary characters whose lives are also ruined and for no particular reason.

This story is seriously off track for what a story should be. It is, however, note-perfect as a piece of cheap agitprop.

I do not mean the tale lacks characterization or craftsmanship. As a story goes, it is taut and well-constructed; not a wasted word. But a well-done picture of St. Peter kissing the hairy black buttocks of Satan would be seen for what it is: a slander against religion, and a fairly childish one, even if the perspective and composition, colors and figures of the drawing were executed with meticulous craftsmanship.

When I say the work is dishonest, I do not mean to imply Mr. Chiang himself is anything but upright. I have no doubt that he writes as his muses move him. I am no sibyl of other author’s intentions, by any means. And poets are an elfin and tricky breed at best, and sometimes do not know themselves what the story that comes to life in their hands must mean.

But in this case, I humbly suggest that the point of Mr. Chiang’s story is not just clear, it is repeated and exaggerated. He is criticizing Christian theodicy.

And the criticism can be dishonest, no matter how well-meaning the artist who pens it, merely by being false-to-facts. If a painter draws a wart on a portrait, where the original face was smooth and fair, that is not merely an exercise of artistic license: that is a false picture.

He is not criticizing religion in general: his ire is confined to Christianity. The universe described in the tale does not depict the sorrow of the endless incarnations; there is no hint of Mount Meru or Mount Olympos, nor does the great wolf Fenrir rear its all-devouring jaws; Isanagi and Isanami are not present, nor the Nine Immortals. The main characters do not recite the Koran or study the Torah: they go to prayer-meetings. If Mr. Chiang meant to make a point unrelated to Christianity, then he selected Christian props and tropes to clothe his meaning.

Perhaps he means to confine his ire to Protestantism, because priesthood is nowhere in evidence. The characters are revivalist lay-preachers, not sinister robed figures from Gothic churches.

Am I reading too much into it? I think I am not. There is no point to the story if it is not a criticism of Christianity, a topic fascinating to the dominant section of the SF audience, who are skeptics from the West, i.e. from Christendom. Criticism of other religions would be of marginal interest to the expected audience. When is the last time you heard someone blaspheming Thor?

I will say again, the story is well written. I will say again that Mr. Chiang is a gifted writer, touched with divine fire. The sorrow of a widower, or the wild rides of the angel-chasing truckers, make for memorable scenes. But the story itself is a misrepresentation, nay, a defamation.

Christians say virtue is its own reward; they also say to love God is good; they also say heaven rewards virtues not rewarded on earth, and martyrs are glorified. They propose the paradox of an omnipotent God who grants man free will. So all Ted Chiang does is propose a omnipotent God who removes a character’s free will, and martyrs him, cheating him of any glory, but without rewarding him either on Earth or in heaven. Oh, the irony! The girl born crippled was able to stir men’s souls back before she was touched with bliss, because, once blissful, the heavenly creature knows no suffering or empathy for suffering. More irony! (And we all know the Christians believe God never became flesh and never suffered, right? Of course right!) Virtue is its own reward, so the one virtuous man is stuck in Hell forever, and he is the only one to whom it is a torment! Irony upon irony! Yuck, yuck, yuck, and ain’t the Godbotherers stoopid?

Well, as a matter of fact, no. They may be wrong or right, but the theology is not simple, and what Chiang proposes is not what the Christians say. Or the Mohammedans, or the Jews, or the Pagans, or anyone else, for that matter. Chiang a trouncing a straw man.

That was what offended me when I first read it, by the bye. Back then I was a hard-core Xtian-bashing atheist and was therefore on his side, so to speak, but the blatant propaganda of the story nonetheless offended me. (I am less offended now that I believe in God: I figure He can take care of His own reputation.) My reaction back then was: Does he even know any Christians? Doesn’t he know what they say? The story reads like it was written for an audience of utter ignoramuses, who have never read a word of Christian theology, and never cracked a history book.

The major objection honest atheists must level (and I was an honest atheist, back then, not merely a character assassin) is that religion is false; that even if true, it has no claim on our loyalty; that the reason of man, being reason, cannot be bound by dogma; and that the claims, true or false, are repellant to the dignity of free and rational beings. In all this, atheists are like Benedict in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, saying marriage has no claim on our loyalty, that passions cannot be bound by oaths, that infatuation is repellant to the dignity, and marital bonds to the freedom, of man. Benedict says much that is true and much that is utterly beside the point. We all laugh when he falls in love himself, and it is not cruel laughter.

The major charge of honest atheists is that the claims of the Christian religion are false. The way to combat this is to uphold a standard, a rational standard, which divides true from false, and shows the difference between them: true is what can be proven by concrete observation or abstract reasoning. Wishes, hopes, poems, daydreams, are not true or false: they are moonbeams, pretty and unsubstantial.

What Mr. Chiang does here is undercut the atheist argument by abandoning the standard of true and false. Christians tell a ridiculous story about their Big Invisible Friend, who invisibly saved the world from an utterly imaginary danger caused by an entirely fictional Adam, granting to all and sundry an eternal life, which conveniently cannot be seen or sensed, but only exists in Elfland, beyond the borders of the world, in Oz, where no one dies and no one is unhappy. If you don’t believe in the Wizard, the Flying Monkeys of the Wicked Witch of the West will get you. When asked politely if they can see the Wizard, the atheists are told that no one can see the Wizard, not nobody not no how. Small wonder the atheists are skeptical.

You do not undercut this fairytale by saying that The Wizard is an evil bunny-killing tyrant and that the Wicked Witch of the West is merely a soulful and misunderstood victim of circumstance. You do not uphold a standard of truth by telling a lie. That is not what L. Frank Baum says, and not what any believer in the fairytale believes.

I am not objecting that Mr. Chiang is telling a story. Telling stories is like painting pictures: in this case he is representing not something from his imagination merely, but painting a picture about real people in whose midst we live, the Christian majority. Had he been honest, he would have explored what the world would be like if the Christian God were visible and obvious, and what the reactions might be. Had he been both honest and brave, he would have explored what the world would be like if the God of Islam were both visible and obvious, and what the reactions might be: some of his barbs might have struck closer to the mark. But even Allah is said to be compassionate, merciful, and it is not the faithful He sends to Jahannam.

Now, I suppose it might be objected that the God of the Old Testament at times seems capricious and cruel, never more so than when he inflicts, or allows to be inflicted, pain and suffering on Job. The argument could be made that the God of Job is the one here depicted, and that the faith of the faithful, which insists that they continue to believe in God despite all evidence, would be absurd in a world where God Himself was cruel and capricious. (Of course, this argument is undercut by Chiang’s hypothesis. If God were visible and obvious arguments about His nature would be matters of evidence, not matters of faith.)

And cruelty is not the point of the Book of Job; patience is. One major point of the Book of Job is that the suffering is redeemed in the end. Christians (and most other religions) believe in two worlds, this one and the next. Whatever injustices and suffering occur in this world are recompensed and healed in the next: God himself wipes all tears away. That promised redemption is sometimes (albeit rarely) glimpsed in this world, as when good fortune comes to the righteous and long-suffering man, like Job, who persevered during his time of agony. His joy on earth is a foreshadowing of the world to come, a representation of something greater. But good men are not rewarded for their goodness on Earth, as Job’s friends so cruelly say. Why does God restore Job’s fortunes at all? Job’s happy ending is an act of mercy, not something springing from Job’s merit as a good man. It is as strange and wonderful as the mercy with which God deals with Cain, who, instead of instantly being flung into a fiery pit or bed of snakes, is marked with a Sign to show that no man can take vengeance on him.

Job’s sufferings are an extreme, of course. Were they not, the tale would contain no power, no fascination. Whenever anyone in real life suffers even one of the pangs of Job, a loss of wealth or position, a lingering disease, the death of a child, his real pain is as deep as Job’s. If patience could not endure, or if faith could not comfort such pangs, it would be of no use, and religion would be a fair-weather affair, a belief to be held only when days are sunny, otherwise abandoned. Job is not a stoic; his lamentations are deep and heartfelt, and he wishes for the opportunity to put his case before God, that life has treated him unfairly. When God Himself arrives in a whirlwind, and displays the majesty of all visible and invisible creation, Job is silent.

There is something mystical here, something more than a concern for justice for one man. Like the Beast in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, like anything worth loving in life, God must be loved before He can seem worthy of being loved. The faithful do not adore Him as a trade in return for worldly pleasure and success, no more than a wife loves her man because he buys her jewels to adorn her: that would be low indeed. But what man in love does not delight to adorn his bride?

Taken to an extreme, to remain faithful even when all worldly pleasure and success is gone, means … what? Does it mean that this world is vain, and that no philosopher would make his happiness depend on the transitory things of this world, wealth, health, kith and kin? Does it mean that this world is cruel, in the hands of malign fate, that nature is the accuser and enemy of man, and that our true home lies elsewhere, perhaps, yes, with the Author whose hand created all the glories of this world?

Or does it mean only that Job is a big sucker, a rube, a chump, someone deceived by priestcraft? Chiang sends his version of Job to eternal Hell, to suffer alone, an endless chump, a battered wife with an infinite and infinitely cruel husband, a victim of the Stockholm syndrome. It rewrites the story by leaving out the only thing that makes the original make sense: the redemption. That is not a new take on the material: it is cheap shot.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with writing falsehoods for a particular audience already ideologically committed to enjoying them, knowing them to be lies, and taking pleasure from that very insolence. I suppose, for that matter, one could rewrite the Oz books so that Dorothy, rather than being befriended by the Tin Man, was raped by him, or that the Wicked Witch was the good guy. But such a depth of depravity is one to which only the sickest imaginable culture could fall, when audiences were titillated merely by the cruelty and foolishness of authors who have lost all sense of … Hm? I’m sorry, what was that you said? Something about Alan Moore and Gregory Maguire? In any case, such sick imaginings pretend to be challenges or revisions or updatings or answers to L. Frank Baum, but they are basically the artistic equivalent of lies. Well-told, well executed lies, of course, but lies nonetheless, and rotten to the very core.

A culture that cannot even take Oz honestly has very little chance of taking Heaven honestly.

On a personal note, Mr. Chiang’s short story, as far as I was concerned, not merely failed of its object, but was counter-productive. One of the things that made me suffer no regret when I was called away from the cramped intellectual jail of atheism into a wider and more wonderful world, was my growing conviction that my fellow atheists were shallow, men without insight into real human nature. I read Chiang’s story and I thought: is this the best my side can do? Is this cheap slander the best argument we can muster against our hated enemies, the Christians? In those days I kept wondering why, since my side had the Sixteen-Inch Guns of Truth and Logic, our gunners kept shooting blanks. Why were we sneering all the time, instead of setting out the evidence?

To get a notion of the depth of the contrast I saw, find a comfy chair by the fire, read ‘Hell is the Absence of God’ by Ted Chiang, and then, without rising from the chair except perhaps to toss another log on the fire, pick up and read SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR by J.R.R. Tolkien, or perhaps ‘Leaf by Niggle’.

It does not matter whether you are an Atheist or a Christian or are another faith or uncommitted: anyone reading those two author’s work in contrast will see that one has an insight into human joys and human woes, a compassion toward even human folly or pride or sloth. And the other one shows nothing, no humanity, no understanding. The heart of Chiang’s work is not in the right place. Even though I thought Chiang’ world view was true and Tolkien’s was false, I concluded Tolkien’s insight into real life was keen-eyed, and Chiang’s was superficial.

Now, you might say that Tolkien was an older man, like well-seasoned wood, who had been through war and tumult, joy and sorrow, and that Chiang is a young man, with a young man’s superficial idealism. To compare the two is unfair! To which I might reply: Tolkien’s world view is old, two thousand years old, or, if you accept the conceit that the Christians are the heirs of the Jewish legacy, as old as any written history. Well-seasoned indeed!

The Church and the Prophets before the Church have seen more wars and tumults, joys and sorrows, and kept an ongoing, unified, living tradition of written accounts, an accumulation of wisdom unmatched in the world.

In contrast, Mr. Chiang’s stories in this volume express nothing surprising to the fashionable modern consensus view (no CIA agent comes on stage without being sinister, no religious figure without being a fundie, no Victorian without being narrow and absurd, no Big Business without being malign). I should call it postmodern: it is too young to be modern. These stories represent a trendy view not as old as I am: I remember when they became the trend. These are green and flimsy sticks from which to build a house.

Let us turn to a question more of interest to SF readers: is Mr. Chiang’s story a fantasy? My own humble opinion is that it is science fiction. Science Fiction is distinct from fantasy by its speculative character. If there were such a thing as telepathy, how would a criminal elude a detective? Alfred Bester answered that in DEMOLISHED MAN. If there were such a thing as teleportation, how would society lock up crooks? Likewise in STARS MY DESTINATION. Science fiction takes some fantastic notion, and asks how the nuts and bolts of it would work. In ‘Hell’, Mr. Chiang asks if there was a God unhidden from human perception, how would the system actually work? What happens when one man who wants to love God but cannot tries to outsmart the system? Chiang is asking the paramount science fiction question: “What if?”

Well, to be honest, Mr. Chiang’s tyrant God is no more or less scientific than Mr. Bester’s telepathy or teleportation. Compare it to the Star Trek episode (Who Mourns for Adonis?) where the crew of the Enterprise meets Apollo. In that, the ‘god’ merely turns out to be a powerful and malevolent entity who attempts to beguile the innocent. So here. The story is solidly SF, despite its subject matter.

If we define any book with a supernatural figure in it as Fantasy, we are left in the awkward position of saying BEN HUR is fantasy, because lepers are cured by a miracle in one scene. The writer, General Wallace, and the expected readership, both believed such miracles can and do take place. A work does not become a fantasy merely because the reader happens not share the world-view of the writer.

Were that the case, CHARIOTS OF THE GODS by von Daniken, the HISTORIES of Herodotus, and Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE (which solemnly reports that the downfall of princes are foretold by Signs and Omens sent by Airy Spirits)  would be shelved in the Science Fiction section.

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