Ted Chiang: sci-fi or something else?

Posted by Paul Samael on Sunday, July 12, 2015 Under: Book reviews

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.  [UPDATE 9.2016 - or rather, it was when I wrote this but now it's disappeared, for some reason].

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.  [UPDATE 12.2016:  "Story of Your Life" was used as the basis for the film "Arrival" - which I have now seen and thought it was a pretty good adaptation / expansion of Chiang's tale.  Not surprisingly, there is quite a difference in approach between the film and the book, because the story isn't one that lends itself easily to film - so if you are planning on reading it after seeing the film, be prepared for a slightly lower key piece.  Maybe they'll adapt some of Lem's work next - "Fiasco" or "His Master's Voice" would get my vote (but I'm not holding my breath....).]

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):
UPDATE 2022:  All the above stories are now collected in the book Exhalation, reviewed at the end of this post.  As a result, I'm afraid quite a few of the online versions listed above have been taken down (sorry about that).

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In : Book reviews 

Tags: ted chiang  "stories of your life and others" 
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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 and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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