Book Love: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Other by Ted Chiang

The 2016 movie Arrival  — in which aliens come to Earth and a linguist works with a team of scientists in order to communicate with them — is one of my all-time favorite science fiction flicks of all time. The skillful way in which writer and director were able to weave together events from multiple times in the Louise’s life in order to build a beautiful emotional arch is stunning to watch.

Since seeing the movie, I’ve listened to a couple of podcast interviews with screenwriter Eric Heisserer, in which is describes falling in love with Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” and his long journey of adapting the complex story into a screenplay and then spending years seeking someone to make it into a film. Hearing his passion for this story and his descriptions of what had to change and what did not in order to make the film possible, I knew I needed to read the original novella.

Just as with the movie, “Story of Your Life” involves first contact with aliens and humanities attempts to work together in order to be able to communicate with and understand them. It’s also centered around Louise, who is relating the story of her daughter’s life. It’s also about linguistics and science and love and the functioning of time. It’s a beautiful story — one that is both intimately similar and vastly different from the movie adaptation of it, both story and movie being beautiful in their own right, allowing me to love them independently of each other.

Reading the rest of Stories of Your Life and Others, I continued to be impressed by Chiang’s skill as a writer. Science is at the core of his work — not in the flash bang of laser guns or space ships or explosions, but in the contemplation and study of our world through linguistics, mathematics, architecture, and beauty.

Many of these stories are driven by humanities pursuit of knowledge. In “Tower of Babylon,” a builder is brought to work on an enormous tower, which is being constructed in an attempt to reach heaven. It’s massive undertaking of generations. To reach the top takes months, some people are born, live, and die on the tower without knowing any other life. As it grows ever taller, the tower reveals the secret of the world in a beautifully surprising way.

While in “Understand” this pursuit of knowledge is driven in a different direction. Rather than building an external tower, a man who wakes from coma begins to developed dramatically increased intelligence, reaching a point of even understanding his own mind and being able to manipulate its function to improve his mental operations. It’s fascinating to see him reach a point beyond human understanding and then to see how our perspective of him shifts toward the end.

“Seventy-Two Letters” dives deep into exploring the power of language by imagining a world in which many of the scientific principles of the world are determined by nomenclature. This is not only the writing of names upon machinery in order to create automatons, but also the biological principles of life. I was surprised to realize that this was a story I had read before (in an anthology, I think). I was fascinated by it was the time because it was such an odd concept and it has stuck with me over the years. Rereading it, I was struck all over again by the strength of this story.

The power of personal perception and how it influences prejudice is explored in “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” a story in which a university group presents that idea of requiring all students to implement Calli, a non-invasive brain modification that prevents the user from “seeing” or understanding beauty (or lack thereof) in another person. By presenting a series of personal accounts of people from variety of backgrounds, the story is able to provide a nuanced examination of the power of beauty and associated issues surrounding media manipulation.

This collection of stories is beautiful — one I would highly recommend for anyone interested in science fiction of a more contemplative nature.

Book Love: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

DESCRIPTION: “Follow a motley crew on an exciting journey through space—and one adventurous young explorer who discovers the meaning of family in the far reaches of the universe—in this light-hearted debut space opera from a rising sci-fi star.”

I did not read the description or any reviews before picking up this book. Enough people told me this was a necessary read and so I read it. As a result, I was expecting quite a different book than the one I got. What I expected was a gritty space thriller (not sure why I came to that assumption). What I actually got was the aforementioned light-hearted space romp — and I’m thrilled, because this is a delightful book.

The story begins with Rosemary Harper who joins the crew of the Wayfarer in order to flee the misfortunes of her past. On the ship, she’s presented with a (mostly) lovable bunch of goofballs and odd characters — Ashby, the pacifist captain, Sissix, the reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks, Lovey, the ship’s AI system, among several others — who go around tearing holes in the universe (creating wormholes for ships to pass through). It’s dangerous work, but their new assignment is even more dangerous still, as they are tasked with traveling to a war torn galaxy in order to make their jump.

The way these crew find friendship and family through each other is just, oh, so wonderful. It’s funny and charming and so heartwarming. Conflicts naturally arise within any group working in a confined space, especially when that crew contains a diversity of not only cultural but species differences. It’s the ways these characters address these conflicts, always with compassion and a desire to understand another person’s perspective at their heart.

Each chapter feels like a semi-contained story within the overarching storyline of the novel, revealing some piece of personal history or new connection between the characters, with everything coming together in the end.

I love each of these characters so much, and love seeing the way they care for each other. One scene in particular moved me so much that after finishing the book, I read it all over again — something like three or four times. And I’m sure that I’ll return to moments in this book in the future, whenever I want a little comfort in my life, a moment of believing that people can be good to each other after all.


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Book Love: Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Beware of the woods and the dark, dank deep.
He’ll follow you home, and he won’t let you sleep.

The island of Sawkill Rock is a idyllic place, where the the ocean crashes against rocky shores, prize horses graze in green pastures, and where the people are lithe and prosperous and unconcerned. Yet the Rock carries a dark secret — girls have been disappearing there for decades and urban legends abound about a monster in the woods. No on has braved out the truth about the missing girls, not until three girls come together to peer into the secrets hidden on the island.

The story is split between each of the three girls — Marion who is weighed down by loss and is the steady mountain her mother and sister lean upon, Zoey who bares her outcast status with pride and longs to gain justice for the friend she is sure is not just missing but gone, and Val who rules as Sawkill royalty, gorgeous, privileged, and ruthless.

I love novels that center female relationships at their core, and this is the thread that holds this story together. As narration shifts between their perspectives, we get to see and understand  each of them from different angles and insight — the weight each of them carries and their individual sense of isolation and loneliness. It’s as they begin to understand what links them together — friendship, love, or enmity — that they are able to find away to face the monsters of their world.

Structurally, the novel is tight, each scene feeling essential, with nothing wasted — not one felt like filler, just something put there to take up space. And yet, the story also felt multilayered and complex enough to keep me fascinated and surprised the whole way through. This is combined with beautiful, clear language that brings Sawkill Rock and its girls vividly to life.

I also appreciated how Legrand doesn’t pull punches. The novel walks the borderline between dark fantasy and horror, with the monsters being truly monstrous. There’s also enough suggestions of bloodshed and dark moments to make this book quite unsettling at points, which I loved.

It also made me cry, which I also loved. So much to love about this book.


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Book Love: FRESHWATER by Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

“The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.”

I learned about Freshwater after someone (I don’t remember who) quoted a short passage on twitter. Just a single sentence or two — too short to know what the story was about, but beautiful enough to make me long to read the book. It was not yet published at the time, so I watched and waited and clicked the preorder link as soon as it appeared, then I waited some more for this beautiful book to be printed and shipped to me.

It was every bit worth the wait, because this debut novel is gorgeous.

“There was a time before we had a body, when it was still building itself cell by cell inside the thin woman, meticulously producing organs, making systems.”

Born in Nigeria, Ada begins life with a fractured self, burdened with the weight of god creatures that have been bound into her flesh. Living “with one foot on the other side” she is a troubled and volatile child who grows into a troubled and volatile adult, with a tendency toward outbursts and self harm. As she grows and moves to America, where she experiences a traumatic event, new selves crystalize within her, each providing their own protections and hungers.

Much of the story is told from the point of view of these god creatures (or spirit beings), which have their own needs and desires beyond that of Ada herself. Their story and her story blends together, as they have been blended together in spirit and flesh. It’s a fantastic rendering of having a fractured self, the confusing mix of desires and emotions that make up a person, the ways we work to protect and harm ourselves.

“I had arrived, flesh from flesh, true blood from true blood. I was the wildness under the skin, the skin into a weapon, the weapon over the flesh.”

The writing style in this book is lush and vibrant, evoking the energy and power of spirit realms represented in the voices of the gods the speak this story. It’s gorgeous on every page, bringing into existence a story that is unsettling, surprising, and powerful. This is a novel I will return to again and again.

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories by Mariana Enríquez

The stories in Things We Lost in the Fire are dark, unsettling and powerful. Mariana Enríquez uses horror and the uncanny to explore women’s lives, from schoolgirls to grown women, some impoverished, some wealthy, most reaching for levels of independence or to carve out some space for themselves in the world.

One story tells of three friend drink and drug their way through their young years, a partying haze. Part of the beauty “The Intoxicated Years” is the breathless quality of the prose, moment rushing into moment as the girls rage through their days. At first, it seems a story of reckless freedom, but it becomes clear that all of their adventures are underpinned with a growing viscousness that’s beautifully powerful and raw.

In “Spiderweb,” a woman feels bored and trapped by the marriage she rushed into, and when she brings her husband to visit her family, she’s embarrassed and repelled by him with every passing moment. One a trip with her cousin Natalia and her husband to Asunción (an open market offering mostly knockoffs or illegal items), her frustration comes to the surface. I love the way this story builds on the feeling of being stuck by the choices you’ve made.

“No Flesh Over Our Bones” is the story of a woman finds a human skull, rings it home and names it Vera. The woman becomes more and more obsessed with the skull, desiring to make it whole again. The story approaches the realm of body horror as it explores women’s relationships to their bodies.

In “Under the Black Water,” Marina is an attorney who works with the people who live in impoverished in the slums of Buenos Aires. She learns that strange things, including a dead man coming up out of the water, are happening in the slums. When Marina investigates, events grow more and more disturbing in a way that feels Lovecraftian. This is one of my favorite stories in the collection. I love the main character and how the story is both grittily realistic and strange in the ways it explores poverty and environmentalism.

Among the most disturbing and powerful stories for me was “Things We Lost in the Fire.” Body horror is a key trope in this story, in which women claim their own lives and bodies by setting themselves on fire and living in the world with their scars proudly shown. The scars are presented by this movement of women as a new kind of beauty, with fearlessness and a fervor, and yet.

I’m looking forward to reading more work by Enríquez.

Things We Lost in the Fire  pairs well with The Houseguest and Other Stories by Amparo Dávila.

Note: This book was provided as an ARC by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.