Ted Chiang: sci-fi or something else?

July 12, 2015



As previously noted, this blog does not have its finger on the literary pulse of our times.  And so it is with Ted Chiang, a multiple award-winning author who I stumbled across only recently from The Economist blog.  In fact, he has been publishing stories since 1990, when I gather his first one appeared in the now sadly defunct Omni magazine.  This biographical detail made me feel a little nostalgic, because as a teenager during the eighties I was an avid consumer of Omni (pocket money permitting), attracted mainly by its glossy futuristic-looking design and plethora of articles about new technology (you might describe it as an upmarket purveyor of “future porn” – used here in the same sense as “food porn”).  Anyway, through the wonders of the internet, the entire Omni archive is available here.   


But back to Ted Chiang and his book, Stories of Your Life and Others (2002), a collection of short stories / novellas written between 1990 and 2002  - including the one that appeared that in Omni (“Tower of Babel”).  All the stories deal with big ideas, ranging from genetics (“Seventy Two Letters”) to neuroscience and aesthetics (“Liking What You See”) – and yes, most of them have a significant scientific/speculative element, hence (presumably) the “sci-fi” label.  

That said, a number of the stories are unusual for sci-fi in that they look to the past or legends/myths rather than the future – examples include “Tower of Babel” with its depiction of the construction of the tower, “Seventy Two Letters” which combines the Golem myth with a Victorian setting or “Hell is the Absence of God”, with its depiction of angels as a force of nature, rather like tornados or lightning strikes (with human beings in hot pursuit, like an ecclesiastical equivalent of storm chasers).  These stories had a fabulistic quality which reminded me of some of Italo Calvino’s work (e.g. Cosmicomics, The Baron in the Trees, The Non-Existent Knight or The Cloven Viscount) – and few would pigeon-hole Calvino as “sci-fi”.

I particularly enjoyed the pieces which managed to fuse those big ideas with the emotional life of characters that you can empathise with – such as “Story of Your Life,” about our perception of time, told through the eyes of a linguist attempting to decipher an alien language, or “Liking What You See,” about a neurological treatment which allows us to perceive faces without noticing who’s attractive and who’s not (thereby allowing us – according to its supporters – to focus on what other people are actually like, rather than how they look).  Again, that focus on the emotional side is not always a quality that sci-fi is known for.  

And whilst the ideas explored in “Story of Your Life” are not new (for example, the approach to time is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s "Slaughterhouse 5" and the difficulty of communicating with aliens is a recurring theme in Stanislaw Lem’s work), viewing them through the prism of linguistics struck me as a particularly elegant way of fusing them together.  It made me have one of those “I really wish I had thought of that” moments of writer’s envy – whereas generally when reading sci-fi, I tend to find myself reacting that way more to the ideas themselves rather than to the way they have been expressed.

So in all these ways, the collection struck me as offering something beyond “sci-fi” – and it certainly deserves to reach a wider audience than just sci-fi buffs.  But equally, I don’t think I can really argue with the categorisation of it as sci-fi – because the scientific/speculative element of it is so strong.  

On that score, I was particularly impressed with “Understand”, which aims to depict the thought processes of a character who develops a form of super-intelligence, able to see connections which the rest of us mere mortals cannot.  This is an idea I have “sort of” explored in my own novel, particularly the notion of the Technological Singularity – but I say “sort of” because I shied away from actually depicting it, feeling that it would simply be an impossible task for a non-super-intelligent person.  Ted Chiang, on the other hand, tackles it head on and to my mind, does a very creditable job of what should – logically - be an impossible task (thus triggering yet more writer’s envy on my part....).

Anyway, “Stories of Your Life and Others” is available from Amazon here.  Puzzlingly, Ted Chiang’s other books/stories - “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” – do not appear to be available in ebook format at all or in hard copy (at least not a sensible price - hard copies are listed for upwards of £80 on Amazon!).  However, it does appear that you can read some of his other stuff online here (or at least, you could at the time of writing):

 

Day Gazing by Carla Herrera

May 27, 2015



I first read this collection of short stories a while ago and had been meaning to do a review of it for some time.  But in a way, I’m glad I waited because it’s meant that I ended up re-reading the collection in full – and there were a number of stories that I got more out of on the second (or even third) reading.

Anyway, the first thing to say about this collection is that, although it’s subtitled “Weird Shorts”, all the stories are written in a very accessible way – so don’t ...

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The Fifth Lectern

March 31, 2015



With the UK general election campaign underway, now seemed a good time to review "The Fifth Lectern", a self-published novel by Andy Cooke about what might have happened if the 2010 UK general election had turned out slightly differently.  The key change that the author has made is to have the surge in support for the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) occurring not in 2014-15 (as it has in real life) but back in 2010.   The background to this is recounted in a novella-length prequel to "Th...
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The Inelegant Universe

January 31, 2015



This collection of short stories by Charles Hibbard is thought-provoking, varied and beautifully written.  And if short stories aren’t really your thing – although in this case I would urge you to make an exception - the author has a number of other longer-form fictions available on Smashwords (discussed briefly below). 

But getting back to “The Inelegant Universe,” what can you expect from this collection?  Well, here are some examples to give you a flavour:

  •  “Fare ...

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Confessions of a sexist reader

November 9, 2014

They say you should never judge a book by its cover.  But when, in my last review on this site, I said that I hadn’t really expected “Pedalling Backwards” to be my kind of thing, that was exactly what I was doing.  Here’s that cover again – it doesn’t really scream “Men! Buy this book!”  does it?



And just to reinforce my prejudices, it was also categorised as “women’s fiction” on Smashwords.  But of course, when I actually read it, I enjoyed it.  Which means that my preco...

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Pedalling Backwards

September 28, 2014



“Pedalling Backwards” by Julia Russell is a very well written literary novel which has attracted an impressive haul of positive reviews on Amazon, and two five star reviews (including mine) on Smashwords. 

Lizzie, her husband and her parents have rented a holiday cottage on a bleak, muddy island in the Blackwater Estuary.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, for starters, Lizzie has recently lost a baby.  Her husband thought it would be a good idea for them both to get away from things fo...

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Read by robots

August 22, 2014

In common, I suspect, with many authors, I write at least partly in the hope that at least a few other people will read my stuff.  So I was a little dismayed to discover that the overwhelming majority of my “readers” on Scribd appear not to have been people at all, but robots.

Until recently, Scribd was showing my total “reads” as being about 1.4K.  I was somewhat sceptical of this (see this post) and thought the true figure was probably in the low three figures – but felt that even ...

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HHhH by Laurent Binet

July 31, 2014



This book by the French author Laurent Binet is described in its blurb as a “novel” but I think it would be more accurate to categorise it as “faction.”  What I mean by that is that the book is based quite closely around actual historical events but it also has certain features in common with other genres, like memoir or, at times, fiction.  I have blogged about faction before – in particular a book called “Red Plenty” by Francis Spufford, who started off writing a factual accou...

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Abraham the Anchor Baby Terrorist

March 8, 2014



This is a very interesting and well written novel by Sean Boling, whose collection of short stories (“Pigs and Other Living Things”) I have already reviewed on this blog.  It’s about an attempt by Islamic terrorists to insert a long term “sleeper” agent into the US.  This is to be done by smuggling a pregnant Algerian woman into the country and passing her off as a South American immigrant;  her son, the Abraham of the title, is to be raised to carry out as yet unspecified tasks on ...


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The Hole in the Wall

February 5, 2014


"The Hole in the Wall" by Clare Fisher is another mid-length piece (longer than a short story, shorter than a novel) of the type which I have been trying to promote on this blog because it is so under-represented in modern fiction (but I recognise that I may now be in severe danger of boring people to death with this point).  Luckily, we live in the age of the e-reader, which seems to be (slowly) helping to create more of a market for mid-length fiction - so maybe, eventually...


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About Me


Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books.
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