Damn, this guy is good. I picked up this collection because I liked both of his short stories I'd read before, and the rest of the volume is just as good. Chiang has written all of eight short stories in his career, and he's already won a busload of awards. He deserves them, too.
I was thinking, a few nights ago, about what makes an author take that essential step from skilled to virtuosic. I'd just watched the last few episodes of Cowboy Bebop a few nights earlier, and there's a scene in the 24th session -- don't worry, no spoilers -- in which the writer interleaves three threads of scenes in such a way that all of the characters' seemingly unrelated behaviors are inextricably linked. Activities which, alone, would seem pointless are comprehensible, and, without a word, you feel like you know what they're thinking.
When this method works, it's incredible. The characters come alive, three-dimensional. You truly feel for them.
That's what Ted Chiang does. He takes concepts which seem absurd, and makes them work with such attention to detail that you truly feel for the characters.
So, what conclusion did I come to, a few nights ago? I think that the best authors, screenwriters and artists of any sort are able to take a few more steps back from the small picture than the rest of us. They see clearly the linkages between concepts and characters that the rest of us note subconciously. When they demonstrate these ties in subtle (but concrete) terms, it rings so true that we are amazed by the simplicity while being enamoured by the honesty.
Hope that makes sense.
In any case, Chiang does this, time after time. Check him out -- the book is short stories, so if you don't like one, perhaps you'll like another.
The Thief of Always, Clive Barker
I recently read Neil Gaiman's Coraline, and if you can read these two works without drawing parallels, then you're denser than a cinder block. Or Dubya.
Without revealing major plot points, I can't go into very much detail, but I think they complement each other quite nicely. Both claim to be written for all ages; both are nightmare fodder. So be wary.
The book I read by Gaiman before Coraline was American Gods, and that one reminded me stridently of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently.