First collection for multiple award-winner Chiang. Of the eight pieces here, seven (1990–2001) are more or less famous; the other is original to this volume. Assuming that “The Tower of Babylon” rose high enough to touch the vault of heaven—what if the builders then attempted to break through, to see what was on the other side? Humans develop godlike intelligence in “Understand,” but, Chiang demonstrates, it isn't just intelligence that makes us human. In “Division by Zero,” life loses all meaning for a mathematician who discovers a proof that mathematics itself is meaningless. The narrator of “Story of Your Life” deciphers an alien orthography, thereby acquiring the aliens' nonlinear view of time: she remembers the future as well as the past. “Seventy-Two Letters,” a sort of compressed novel, combines kabbalistic magic and certain 19th-century scientific doctrines into an entire alternative biology. The short-short “The Evolution of Human Science” first appeared in the prestigious science journal Nature, and ponders what science might become following the advent of incomprehensibly intelligent metahumans. And “Hell Is the Absence of God,” the crown jewel of a spectacular assemblage, terrifyingly probes the nature of belief and faith in a world where God, angels, heaven, and hell are all verifiably real and actual. Lastly, the original piece, “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” considers, from numerous viewpoints, the freedom to act and react, to like or dislike, other people based on judgments more complex than those deriving solely from appearance.
Chiang writes seldom, but his almost unfathomably wonderful stories tick away with the precision of a Swiss watch—and explode in your awareness with shocking, devastating force.