I had never heard of this book, or rather collection of short stories, until about a month ago when it was chosen as the September book for one of my book clubs. On top of that, I honestly had no idea that the new “alien” movie, Arrival, had been based on any novel/story, much less one from this collection. So that was really cool. I love little gems like that. And now, after reading these stories (in particular, “Story of Your Life,” the story Arrival is based on) I definitely plan to Redbox the movie soon.
“As a bit of a caveat to this review, I am not usually into short stories. I have a few reasons for that, but the primary one is that after I spend time getting invested in the plot and characters…it’s all suddenly gone. I feel like the time spent getting into the feel of a novel, the world it creates, is both the best and most exhausting part of reading. So when I expend all that effort getting into things, only to have to say goodbye and restart that part all over so quickly…it’s just not my favorite type of reading experience. However, I truly respect the skill that creating such intricate plots and characters that say so much so quickly and I do enjoy a collection like this every once in a while, to mix things up. And this served that role beautifully. Not only as a style change, but also as a huge genre shift. This was heavy sci-fi (of the theoretical math-sci variety), very different than my normal choice, and it was refreshing (if a bit of effort) to jump this far out of my normal zone all at once.
I decided to give a little blurb about each of the stories, since I liked some much more than others and I feel like that’s the fairest and clearest way to give feedback. I added some overall thoughts at the end. So here goes:
Tower of Babylon: This was not bad, but not one of my favorites in the collection. It was a super philosophical and theological way to start, neither of which necessarily appeal to me. The exploration of the idea for reaching for God both physically and theoretically, simultaneously, with a mix of magic and realism (the idea of building a tower being realistic but the extent to which it happens as mythical) is intriguing but also weird. It was perhaps a bit too abstract to follow, or, for me, not worth trying to follow since I am not inherently faithful. It was a solid, mysterious start though. Quote I liked: “Now the light of day shone upward, which seemed unnatural to the utmost.”
Understand: To be honest, about half of what was talked about here was over my head to the point that I didn’t even try to understand it, I just went with it. And the story was fine with that kind of reading, but again, not one of my favorites. It was an interesting philosophical exploration of intelligence as a means versus as an end (and how far it’s ok to take your influence to achieve said means or said end). And even with the super technical and metaphysical aspects of the story, I think some interesting insights on the limiting nature of being self-absorbed and introspective versus the benefits of studying those around you and the world in general were raised. This was like a super strange version of X-men, or any other story of people with special abilities, but there are others (Vicious, in particular) that I liked more. Also, he used the word gestalt a lot…too much. Quote I liked: “I am a lover of beauty, he of humanity. Each feels that the other has ignored great opportunities.”
Division by Zero: I really enjoyed this one. The 1/1a/1b style of chapters, each with their own view or point, paralleling mathematical history, theory lessons, and real life, was creative and well executed. The juxtaposition of a relationship with math theory, where both everything and nothing can be proven/shared, is something we can all, on some level, identify with. And the loss of your perceived understanding of either, depending on what matters in your life, could be equally destabilizing. This was a wonderful short, creative, to the point, and compelling glimpse of life and math and what happens when the equations you think should add up no longer do.
Story of Your Life: This is the story that Arrival is based on. And it was one of my favorites. I can see how it got chosen. Stylistically, it mirrors the last story, where different sections are more technically focused and those are interspersed with sections that focus on life (both in present time and, in this case, the remembered future). The theory that is presented and explored here, a new way of understanding and experiencing all of life, past/present/future, simultaneously, is so interesting. The idea that everything has already happened in circular fashion, but is just unfolding for us in a linear way is fascinating. Essentially the story is nothing but a new awareness gained, though learning to communicate with an alien life form, that allows the narrator to remember what will happen in the same way the aliens view things. This allows her to take actions to make what she remembers will happen to actually happen, but the story itself has almost no “action” other than knowledge gain. Super original “alien encounter” story and interaction. Quote I like: “…the notion of a ‘fastest path’ is meaningless unless there is a destination specified.”
Seventy-Two Letters: An incredibly unique take on the idea of a golem – an animated clay figure/servant from Jewish legend. The golem creation theory created for this story is impressive in depth and scope for such a short piece – how the 72 letters are used and manipulated to imbue the golem with different skills and uses is very fully developed. Scientifically, I was less interested in the effort to create a “human” golem to “save” the human race. Morally, I enjoyed the inevitable discussion of nature vs nurture for the poor/lower classes (especially in light of common thought during the period that this seemed to be set) and the conversation about eugenics that followed was not unexpected, but was a serious and sadly universal ending twist on any story where this kind of power, in this case reproductive nomenclature, is developed. That conclusion was crazy – convoluted and metaphysical and so complex, but adroitly reached and deftly done as far as avoiding the possible eugenics and reproduction bottleneck of immorality.
Human Science: Yikes. This was my least favorite. I mean it was creative that it was presented like a journal article opinion piece. But it was just way too short, and dry, for discussion of a completely foreign and super complex argument. This took a lot of (read: too much) concentration to get through and I’m really glad it was short.
Hell is the Absence of God: The tone of this story is wildly different from the rest, straightforward and factual instead of philosophical or divine. Which I found a bit ironic and pretty cool, since it dealt directly with interactions with religion, faith, and actual angels and miracles. Some widely recognizable human failings appear here, like the main characters self-shame when he acknowledges he’d rather his wife be in Hell, knowing he could then be with her forever, rather than having a better “afterlife” in Heaven, but to have to be separated from her forever. I really identify with that. Also, the paradox of having to learn to truly love a vengeful God that has taken something from you, in order to get the outcome you want (to be reunited with a dead wife, in this case) was interesting, and abhorrent, to read about as a non-faithful person like myself. Altogether, after the less than satisfying, and in fact super creepy, ending the main character gets regarding true devotion and unconditional love (it just seemed really unhealthy and disturbing), this story left me really unsettled. I definitely didn’t hate the story, but I did hate the taste it left in my mouth. And it made me happy to be non-faithful. Quote I like: “Sometimes even bad advice can point a man in the right direction.”
Liking What You See: A Documentary: This was my other favorite. I loved the style, “documentary-style” in writing form. And I love the content that was explored, the idea of judgements based on how a person looks, which is currently an unnamed and impossible-to-protect-against “-ism.” Just a fascinating study. And this is the way we get arguments nowadays, in little spurts and blurbs, through all the technologies we have access to. Seeing it reflected here is eye-opening and captivating. And the way looks are discussed, in the same way we are talking about issues like gender and race now…it’s a feature we haven’t talked much about, in this way, in real life. The way author is able to apply to looks the same theories and sides and arguments that already exist for other issues, but for the first time (the first time at least this fully) on this topic, makes this feel very original. A very thought-provoking perspective on the ever popular look at the impossibility of utopia. Also, that twist at the end – jumping from simply controlling how we see others to an extreme like that, a supernormal stimuli to that extent, is powerful and terrifying. What a phenomenal ending to the collection. Quotes I like: “You can’t liberate people by narrowing the scope of their experiences.” “If you want to fight discrimination, keep your eyes open.”
I’d like to take this moment to say damn, the dimension that this man thinks in is so far beyond mine. And to that point, I enjoyed his little notes at the end about his inspirations and goals for each of the stories. That insight was really helpful for me, as a reader. I think I have never used the words theoretical, philosophical, technical, fascinating, or original more in a review…ever. My overall thoughts on these stories were generally positive. They are super cerebral and super intensive and technical in the math/science/language used and described. I think my brain was more turned on during these stories than they have been while I’ve been reading anything in a long while. Like I said, a little exhausting, and not the escapism feel that I usually prefer when reading. Plus, as with all story collections, some were markedly better than others. But in the end, I’d say definitely worth the effort.”