“Arrival” by Ted Chiang | Book Review

Book Review | Rating – 3/5 | Genre – Sci-fi / Short Stories

I was inspired to read this book through my love of the movie Arrival. As usual, I bought the book years ago, for some reason I just didn’t ever pick it up to actually read it. Instead, it just sat within the pile of other books I’d bought, slowly collecting dust, waiting for the day I would actually read it. A month ago that day finally came, having just got myself a job in London, with a pretty lengthy commute on the train, I thought it was about time I gave this book the chance it deserved. So, here is what I thought…

What if men built a tower from Earth to Heaven-and broke through to Heaven’s other side? What if we discovered that the fundamentals of mathematics were arbitrary and inconsistent? What if there were a science of naming things that calls life into being from inanimate matter? What if exposure to an alien language forever changed our perception of time? What if all the beliefs of fundamentalist Christianity were literally true, and the sight of sinners being swallowed into fiery pits were a routine event on city streets? These are the kinds of outrageous questions posed by the stories of Ted Chiang. Stories of your life . . . and others. (check it out here)

What did I think?

When I first opened the book I will admit that I was slightly taken aback by the actually content of the book. Having only heard about the collection through my love of the film, I wasn’t expecting the book to be a collection of short stories. However, once I got over that initial shock, I got myself invested in each story as they came about.

So, with the book featuring a number of short stories, its better to simply go through them one at a time, then i’ll deal with the overall collection…

  • Tower of Babylon: I’d say this was a pretty strong contender for my favourite story of them all. Yes, as the first story in the collection, and the one that made me realise these were short stories rather than a whole book, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of this story.
  • Understand: Looking back on it, I do remember enjoying this story when I read it. However, trying to write about this now, admittedly a mistake of my own doing, I’m not able to really recall what even happened in this story.
  • Division by Zero: Yeah, this was one of those stories where I thinkk it was far too smart for my own good. It was about half way through that I realised I still had no idea what was going on, so much so, that I decided to just pack it in altogether.
  • Story of Your Life: Finally, I found the story that inspired the film that brought me here. Upsettingly, it wasn’t my favourite story of the collection. Yet, I still found myself enjoying this story. I struggled somewhat trying to keep track of what was happening.
  • Seventy-Two Letters: Another story where I wasn’t entirely taken with the overall story. Unlike some of the others, I managed to understand what was happening in this story. However, much like Understand, I’m not really able to recall what happened in this story, I remember finishing it – just nothing that actually happened.
  • The Evolution of Human Science: Now, this one I do remember really enjoying. My one disappointment came in the fact that it was extremely short. I got to the end just when I was really on a roll with what was happening and the rhythm of the writing.
  • Hell is the Absence of God: This was definitely my favourite story in the whole collection. It was such an interesting read and really epitimised the reason that I was drawn to this book in the first place. Yes, it was the movie inspired by Story of Your Life that brought me here, but it was this final story that really made me enjoy the collection.

At the end of the day…

I was very back and forth on the collection as I read this. As I mentioned, I wasn’t quite aware that the book was going to make up short stories, which was a bit of a surprise, but once I got the hang of it I was more than happy to keep reading.

There were some stories that I didn’t quite enjoy, as I mentioned with Understand and Division by Zero. However, this didn’t put me off entirely, with Hell is the Absence of God and The Evolution of Human Science being the best stories from my reading of the collection.

When it came to the overall experience, I don’t think I can really say that I enjoyed the whole collection. I was able to get to grips with the fact it was a collection of short-stories, but I was still disappointed that this wasn’t the movie in a book instead, I was rather looking forward to seeing the book written out. The balance of books I didn’t enjoy also didn’t out-weight the books I did.


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