Voices June 18, 2019
Close encounters of the divine kind in short story form
With the release this year of Exhalation: Stories, all of Ted Chiang’s brilliant, mind-bending short stories are now conveniently in book form.
Most of them had been previously published, either online or as part of other print ventures. In 2002, about half of them were published in his first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others.
That title refers to Story of Your Life, the short story that was adapted by screenwriter Eric Heisserer for the 2016 movie *Arrival with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Heisserer’s adaptation provided a solid basis for an unusually intelligent and emotionally affecting film. But it added the contrivance of a race against time to save the world.
No doubt that familiar Hollywood plot device was imposed in order to assure the attention of a large enough audience. After all, the investors in a multi-million dollar science-fiction film play it safe to get a sizeable return.
Not only was the film a financial success (with a fourfold return on the production costs), it also achieved widespread critical recognition, including eight nominations for the 2016 Academy Awards (and one win).
But the source material is even better than its cinematic incarnation. The experience of reading that single short story provides proof of the superior power of literature even in the digital age.
So much video content is available for viewing via streaming platforms. Unlike the early days of television, it is now impossible to watch everything that artists have to offer. And the vast volume eclipses our print options.
The beauty of the short story form is that it still allows literature to demonstrate, to those with digitally truncated attention spans, the irreplaceable power of the printed word.
Chiang’s stories typically involve an unusually clever science-fiction premise. And with Chiang’s signature twist endings, they regularly deliver an immediate reward.
But they also provide their readers with material structured to repay deeper contemplation. What is found on the page is certainly entertaining, but what is suggested between the lines is even more profound.
That literary experience, in which the reader has to draw inferences about what remains literally unspoken in the story, is usually prompted by the title Chiang chooses for his story.
Thus the robot protagonist of Exhalation, the title story in Chiang’s new collection, ironically teaches the reader about the meaning of human life, as he contemplates his own mortality and the finitude of his world. It’s one of Chiang’s very best.
The release of breath signified in the title becomes a metaphor for the universe itself, as the Big Bang is likened to an act of exhalation. Readers are free to make the connection with God’s breath (“spirit”) moving over the waters in Genesis,= if they wish.
So too in the brand-new stories included at the end of Exhalation, Omphalos and Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom.
Omphalos takes a religious idea as its premise, much like Tower of Babylon or Hell Is the Absence of God from Chiang’s previous collection.
Chiang deftly explores the religious idea’s implications in the laboratory of a short story, making use of the mind of an engaging protagonist for his uncanny thought experiments.
In Omphalos, the premise involves the deep religious faith of a female scientist. She manifests her sincere piety in a narrative framed (similar to Saint Augustine’s Confessions) as a prayer offered up to God.
The science-fiction premise of the story is that she lives in world that is only a few thousand years old. Because it was created directly by God, there is abundant physical evidence of this act of special creation. For example, the rings inside trees stop at the point where the world was created.
Also found preserved are some bodies of the first humans created directly by God. They do not have belly buttons, which is obviously a sure sign of their divine creation.
Omphalos is the Greek word that means “navel.” The ancient Greeks also used it to name the centre of the world, which they thought was found at Delphi.
In his twist ending, Chiang invites us to contemplate the naive certainty of the creationists that God’s special action designates Earth as the centre of the universe.
The literal-minded form of faith that insists on demanding a crude physical certainty from the direct hand of God is a very weak faith, as Chiang shows with his thought experiment.
What if short stories found between book covers, instead of direct acts of God, would profoundly change our thinking about the meaning of life?
They would then be literary miracles of the best kind, but overlooked by anyone not open to quiet contemplation.
(*Arrival can be viewed on digital platforms - Editor)
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