Ted Chiang’s stories are Borgesian in form as well as in theme. Each considers the consequences of a concept or two with sufficient logical rigor to feel like a hypertrophied philosophical thought experiment. But Chiang’s characters are also actual humans (mostly), with human desires that build alternative kinds of conceptual scaffolding. In “Understand,” a drug that causes super-intelligence spawns moral clashes between the patients who receive it. In “Division by Zero,” a foundational crisis in mathematics threatens an otherwise happy marriage. In “Story of Your Life” (recently adapted into the movie Arrival), the experience of deciphering an alien language produces unusual perspectives on love and loss.
Then there’s “Hell Is the Absence of God,” which situates various Biblical miracles in the mundane modern world and charts their impact on everyman Neil Fisk. In Chiang’s notes on the story, he remarks that he finds the Book of Job unsatisfying due to its conclusion being inconsistent with its message. His solution is to rewrite Job’s story in a way that, by making it consistent, makes it grotesque.
What helps sell the grotesqueness, and the less visceral epiphanies of some of the book’s other stories, is Chiang’s poker-faced tone. Sometimes it recalls previous generations of science fiction prose, while other times it channels Victorian restraint (“Seventy-Two Letters”) or scholarly deadpan (“The Evolution of Human Science”), or emulates the camera eye (“Liking What You See: A Documentary”). The flatness of his language is a ruse, designed to present rational and emotional problems as directly as possible, and also to collapse distinctions between them.