Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Spurred on by 3BP hype, I looked around for more sci-fi and found this oddly named book. Eventually, I realized it’s meant to be interpreted as “Stories of Your Life” and other (short stories). I also learned that the movie Arrival is based on Stories of Your Life. I don’t know why the name is different, and – no –  Arrival is not Passengers.

1) “And then it came to him: a seal cylinder. When rolled upon a tablet of soft clay, the carved cylinder left an imprint that formed a picture. Two figures might appear as opposite ends of the tablet, though they stood side by side on the surface of the cylinder.”

I’m always drawn to anything about the Tower of Babylon. It’s my #1 Biblical reference for no particular reason.

2) “Pattern recognition again, but this time it’s of a mundane variety. Thousands of pages of reports, memos, correspondence; each one is a dot of color in a pointillist painting. I step back from this panorama, watching for lines and edges to emerge and create a pattern.” 

So if I were superhuman, I wouldn’t have to query 10 tables and cut the data by 20 dimensions?

3) “The thing is, while the common formulation of physical law is causal, a variational principle like Fermat’s is purposive, almost teleological.”

I learned about Fermat’s principle of least time. Beyond that, the broader concept of “goal-oriented” physics reminds me of biology. The answer to every biology question is some form of “what would this organism do to survive?”

4) “‘Men are no different from your automata; slip a bloke a piece of paper with the proper figures on it, and he’ll do your bidding.'” – the assassin

This automata-naming story was not my favorite, but this line was a zinger.

5) “We should always remember that the technologies that made metahumans possible were originally invented by humans, and they were no smarter than we.”

Is this a valid argument? I think the problem is that “smart” is ill-defined.

6) “Good skin is the single best indicator of youth and health, and it’s valued in every culture.”

Damn it.

7) “When you watch Olympic athletes in competition, does your self-esteem plummet? Of course not. On the contrary, you feel wonder and admiration; you’re inspired that such exceptional individuals exist. So why can’t we feel the same way about beauty? Feminism would have us to apologize for having that reaction. It wants to replace aesthetics with politics, and to the extent it’s succeeded, it’s impoverished us.”

The short story on lookism was too real. Debates about personal choice, inequality, last-minute pre-election bombshell, and fake news.

8) “‘Suppose you learn that you are alive twenty years from now. Then nothing could kill you in the next twenty years. You could then fight in battles without a care, because your survival is assured.'”

The concept of predetermination was common across many of the short stories. I especially liked the one with the clicker that could always predict when someone clicks it.

9) “But in truth the source of life is a difference in air pressure, the flow of air from spaces where it is thick to those where it is thin.”

I wonder if the author was making an analogy to how humans would eventually die once we’ve depleted our natural resources.

10) “You won’t believe what my Natasha did today! We were at the playground, and another digient hurt himself when he fell and was crying. Natasha gave him a hug to make him feel better, and I praised her to high heaven. Next thing I know, she pushes over another digient to make him cry, hugs him, and looks to me for praise!”

Is this AI or raising a child?

I was impressed by the variety of sci-fi stories in this book. They were all about science and tech, but each one had a very different feel. Some were more psychological, some were heavier with social commentary, and some had strong religious overtones. I also liked how the author included explanations at end about how he came up with each story.

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