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Claude Lalumiere's Fantastic Fiction
Stories of Your Life and Others

by Ted Chiang

(Tor Books, US$24.95/$34.95 Canadian, 288 pages, hardback, published July 2002.)

Ted Chiang's debut story, "Tower of Babylon", appeared cover scanin 1990. It earned him four award nominations and the Nebula Award for best novella. Between them, his next six stories garnered nearly twenty nominations, including four wins. And in 1992 he received the John W. Campbell Award as Best New Writer.

His entire oeuvre so far -- including one previously unpublished story -- is collected in Stories of Your Life and Others. With a total of eight stories in thirteen years, Chiang may not be prolific, but he is an uncommonly -- and justifiably -- lauded writer.

All but one of his stories are novella or novelette length. The shorter one, a somewhat gimmicky piece commissioned by science journal Nature, is by far the collection's weakest item.

Most of Chiang's stories unfold in unusual, vividly imagined settings. "Tower of Babylon" retells the Biblical tower story in a world with a physically different cosmology. In "Seventy-Two Letters", science and engineering derive from the legend of the golem. "Hell Is the Absence of God" -- my pick for Chiang's best story -- imagines a world in which angelic visitations and their violent consequences are quotidian occurrences.

His stories are peopled with complex characters and imbued with a wealth of resonant ideas that linger long after the last word is read. There are no pat conclusions to Chiang's stories, but rather intriguing questions and ambiguous emotions.

Only in the collection's single new story does Chiang come dangerously close to preaching. "Liking What You See: A Documentary" describes a near future that has developed a neurological fix to combat "lookism": the tendency to privilege physically attractive people. But even here there is some room for dissent and reflection.

Like the best science fiction, Chiang's stories make you think.

Originally published, in slightly different form,
in The Montreal Gazette, Saturday, 24 August 2002.

Claude Lalumière's Fantastic Fiction is a series of
capsule reviews first published in the Saturday Books
section of The Montreal Gazette.

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