science fiction, new weird, old weird, very weird - and everything else. often, though not always, discussed in relation to gender identity and (a)sexuality.
While technically well written and exhibiting a certain elegance in structure, Chiang's stories suffer from a lack of passion. With the sole exception of Understand, which serves at least a bit of juicy pulp towards the end, Chiang's offering are as dry as a decade old elephant's bone found in the Kalahari. Why should I care about a story, about characters, about relationships, if the author apparently doesn't give a fuck?
The other obstacle was the frequent blend of science and religious concepts. That's something I simply don't want to read. (Exceptions always proof the rule.)
Chiang might be what all the geek kids are raving about. I didn't find anything thought-proving or poignant or deep in his stories. For the most part I was just mildly bored. Oh well, I'll just go back into my New Wave corner – ludicrous science, but with passion! (and sex, and drugs, and acid jazz)
Ratings for the individual stories:
The Tower of Babylon: ***
Well executed, but not very exciting. Nor very original.
By far my most favourite story in this collection. Reminiscent of Flowers for Algernon, but with a different ending and much more pulpy. I especially liked the confrontation in the end.
Division by Zero: **
Too much math. The relationship is underdeveloped. Did Chiang have one single human emotion in his whole life? Because he sure doesn't know how to write about them.
Story of Your Life: ***
Blasphemy! Blasphemy! I liked the film better. The linguistics are more sound here, but this story suffers the most from Chiang's inability to present believable emotions.
Seventy-Two Letters: **
The weakest offering in the collection. Interesting premise, but too long, too wordy, and boring.
The Evolution of Human Science: ?
A blink and you'll miss it-piece on what human scientist will do when science as surpassed human understanding, too short to rate meaningfully. I have read better examples of exploring this particular problem.
Hell is the Absence of God: ****
[at first] I read about three pages before I decided to skip this, for reasons mentioned above: Please keep faith and gods out of my science fiction (except they're Greek gods and have a lot of queer sex. Then you can keep them.)
A few weeks later I got stuck in waiting-room limbo, read the story out of boredom - and yeah, I'm eating crow. It's one of the strongest offerings in this collection, unflinchingly following its premise.
Liking What You See: A Documentary: ***
Very timely, and it will probably stay timely for quite some, erm, time. But ultimately too simplistic and too superficial (kinda ironic, really); that's starts with reducing beauty to commercial beauty, ignoring the difference between beauty and sexual attractiveness (or desirability), and ends with mostly ignoring biological arguments for the sake of social justice. Oh well... The presentation of arguments made me suspect that Chiang's in favour of calligniosa, which – spoilers! - he admits to in his afterword. A bit more balance would have been nice.