Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Arrival: Mostly Disappointing

Book Review: Arrival by Ted Chiang
Version: Library Paperback

I wasn't able to get to the theater to see the movie, Arrival, so when I saw that our local library had on order a new copy of the book on which the movie was based, I immediately requested it. Boy, was I surprised.

First of all, there were only two requests for the book, so I got it as soon as it arrived. I even got to safely stretch the binding for reading, to give longevity to the book.

Second, only a small sliver of the book is what the movie is about. The book was originally published as Stories of Your Life and Others, a compilation of short stories previously published by author Ted Chiang. The story on which the movie is based is "Story of Your Life." It's buried between the many others. The book was re-titled and relaunched for the launch of the movie, Arrival.

Chiang is supposed to be this imaginative science fiction author. He is imaginative. But much of his writing reminds me of the material from the 1950's. Mostly because of the language. Robots he calls automatons, for instance.

Other parts of his writing are quite interesting. He has a computer science degree and is a technical writer, and a couple of his stories reflect his breadth of knowledge and vision in technology. None more than in "Story of Your Life," where he details humans trying to interact with aliens and learn their very complex language. It was an interesting tale, although it ends abruptly when the aliens up and leave and the author does the same with the story. Very disappointing. I haven't seen the movie yet and I hope the movie has a more satisfying ending.

Others of his short stories have similar endings. The first story involves the Tower of Babel and the Babylonians hiring miners from other nations to climb their tower and break through the vault of heaven. It has a very dissatisfying ending, which extends from a very non-scientific view of the world. I might rather call it fantasy or mythology fiction rather than science fiction.

Part of my problem with this book is that I didn't understand that it was an unconnected collection of short stories. Titled Arrival, I thought it was a novel. As I read what I thought were chapters to a single story, I became confused when the stories didn't connect. I looked again at the book cover - at the back - and then realized it was an anthology.

What I found once I had read "Story of Your Life" was that Chiang isn't really my kind of science fiction writer. Perhaps you will like his stories and find him perfectly wonderful as a writer. I'll leave that up to you. All I can say is, I was disappointed in the way the book was marketed on the cover and in the works between the covers. It's his only work that I've read.

It is worth noting that Chiang has won multiple prestigious speculative fiction awards. Considering the limited number of works he has published (15 short stories, novelettes, and novellas as of 2015, according to his Wikipedia page), it may be worth delving into more of his works before making a final judgment. Let me know if you have had a different experience reading Chiang.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Silk Tree: A Story You Have to Read

Book Review: The Silk Tree by Julian Stockwin
Version: purchased ebook

For a long time, the origins of silk fabric was a deeply held secret by the Chinese. Many myths and legends were held to be true, deepening the mystery. Julian Stockwin's The Silk Tree tells the fictionalized tale of two intrepid souls who sought out the truth in the hope of returning to their homeland with seeds from a silk tree to make themselves rich beyond their wildest dreams.

It it set in a time of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, after the fall of Rome and the rise of Constantinople as the center of the western world, before the West had contact with China. Christianity had been established as a dominant religion, and our two heroes left the West as two intrepid monks in search of truth, seeking to learn of the lands to the east. At the time, little was known about how silk or spices got from the East to the West, or where they even originated. So our heroes were traveling purely in ignorance, not even sure they would find a route let alone complete their quest.

The Silk Tree takes you on a far reaching, wide ranging journey through mysterious lands and among strange people through the eyes of an educated Greek businessman and a forlorn Roman soldier escaping the invading hordes who have reached Constantinople but eventually find themselves down on their luck but come up with a brilliant scheme to tap the considerable resources of Emperor Justinian to fund their travel. In the process they find themselves where they never expect to reach, a land that considers anyone from the west a spy looking to steal their secret and deserving of death. And while there, they discover the real source of silk and a way to sneak some back. Their journey home is long and perilous and full of surprises. In their century, under such circumstances, it's not certain they will ever even reach home. And thus, your journey beside them is as much an uncertain adventure as it is for our two very likable heroes.

When I first learned of the book, I had one impression of what the story would entail. And so when I began reading the story I expected it to unwind quickly and solve the mystery, letting out the secret early and then resolving the conflict over time. Not so. Stockwin builds the mystery through a good portion of the story, letting you find the truth with the our two heroes and uncover the wonder of the world in their eyes as they journey. It's a wonderful telling of their discoveries. We all know where silk comes from (or it's easy to find out by googling it), so that's not the issue in this story. The question is, how did growing silk get from China to the West? Who brought it out of hiding into the light of the world? This is a telling of that tale.

Julian Stockwin always does meticulous research for all of his stories. While many of the characters in The Silk Tree are fictional, including the two main characters (our heroes), others are real. "In the West accounts generally agree that it was two monks who returned from China in AD 551 with the secret of silk," Stockwin told me in a quick chat as I prepared to write this review. "I have this from three sources. However these documents vary in their details, each providing tantalizing references and with no one version standing out as definitive. My tale is based on these." So this tale is authentic, although specific details may wander from fact as all historical fiction does. "Where we do have verifiable historical information I have taken some pains to ensure veracity. Many of the characters in The Silk Tree did exist and it was fascinating researching their lives."

Stockwin lived in the Far East and visited many of the places in the story. His details as in all the books he writes are vivid and lend authenticity and immediacy to the tale. You will find The Silk Tree an enjoyable read, a wonderful place to immerse yourself, whether it's on a cold winter night by the fire or on a hot summer day on the beach.

The Silk Tree has been available in the UK, Australia, and other markets for a while but just became available in the U.S. late this summer. Wherever you live or travel, it's worth picking up.

"The genesis of the story came from a visit to a bazaar in Istanbul," added Stockwin, "when Kathy (his wife) was haggling with a merchant over a silk scarf, and I idly reflected on just how silk came to the West. Then I did some research and realized I had a story I just had to tell." I think you'll find it a story you just have to read.