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Ted Chiang interview
October 6, 2012 11:42 AM   Subscribe

Ted Chiang interview. Metafilter's own Ken Chen recently arranged an interview with author Ted Chiang, who's decorated like a Christmas tree with Nebula, Hugo, Locus, and other coveted sci-fi awards. (Previously on Metafilter: Chiang was the subject of what is so far the most popular Metafilter post of all time.) [via mefi projects]
posted by Sleeper (26 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
Cool!
posted by limeonaire at 1:25 PM on October 6, 2012


It's really gratifying to know that writing is not easy for Chiang, and to hear his testimony to the amount of work he puts into each of his stories.

And since it's not mentioned in this post, it should be clarified that theoretical physicist and sci-fi author Vandana Singh is the interviewer here.
posted by carsonb at 1:30 PM on October 6, 2012


After the previous Big Chiang Post, I read “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”. It was… tedious, wooden, unremarkable, etc., reminded me of Greg Pak’s Robot Stories. What stories of Chiang’s will change my mind, if my usual science fiction favorites are Banks and Miéville and I like characters and humor?
posted by migurski at 1:49 PM on October 6, 2012


I'm not sure humor is one of his strong points; he's much more of a thoughtful situation-analyst writer, in my opinion. I like Understand and Story of Your Life the best of his former work, and also enjoyed The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate very much.
posted by Han Tzu at 1:59 PM on October 6, 2012


It's not like there's a huge range of styles to choose from. If you read the stories listed in the older post, that was pretty much the entirety of his output up to that point, and there hasn't been much more added since.

The one that seems to grab the most people, maybe has the most universal appeal, is The Tower of Babylon.
posted by carsonb at 2:02 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I’ll try Tower, thanks!
posted by migurski at 2:08 PM on October 6, 2012


I read The Tower of Babylon and Understand for the first time this week. They're remarkably good.
posted by painquale at 2:51 PM on October 6, 2012


It's not like there's a huge range of styles to choose from.

That's an interesting take. One of the things I loved about stories of your life and others was the variety of voices and styles... As a very infrequent reader of SF, it really widened my perception of the range that the genre could encompass.
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 2:58 PM on October 6, 2012


When people care for their children or pets, they are—ideally—engaged in something fundamentally different from what’s happening when people care for their cars

I'm glad he caught himself there because not only do I know too many people who treat pets as sycophantic accoutrements, but it also has become quite fashionable in the past decade to do so in part thanks to our favorite hotel heiress.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:23 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


A day with a Lem post AND a Ted Chiang post is a good day.
posted by Artw at 3:37 PM on October 6, 2012


After the previous Big Chiang Post, I read “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”. It was… tedious, wooden, unremarkable, etc., reminded me of Greg Pak’s Robot Stories. What stories of Chiang’s will change my mind, if my usual science fiction favorites are Banks and Miéville and I like characters and humor?


If I had to rank Chiang's work, I'd recommend them in this order:

Story of Your Life - A vibrant science-fiction mystery brimming with ideas about alien language and the philosophy of physics, brilliantly intertwined with a deeply affecting monologue from a mother to her only daughter.

Hell is the Absence of God - A harrowing story about grief and love, faith and doubt, mercy and justice in a world where the Old Testament God is scientific fact. Includes one of the most gut-wrenching sentences I've ever read.

Tower of Babylon - Biblical cosmology made real and brought to earth. Fascinating just to watch pious explorers bumping up against the boundaries of their own reality, in more ways than one.

Understand - A genuinely exciting psychothriller, like Aranofsky's Pi crossed with "Flowers for Algernon". Could actually make for a decent blockbuster movie if not for the highly abstract ending.

Exhalation - The tone is a bit dry, but the investigations of the scholar into his own mind are gripping, and the metaphor it builds into illuminating.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate - A series of increasingly intricate time travel puzzles written in the style of Arabian Nights fables. Plays with time and consequences with as much ingenuity as Presto does with space and momentum.

Division by Zero - Intersperses an unsettling hypothesis about the "realness" of mathematics with a number of interesting math anecdotes which tie into the story in unexpected ways.

What's Expected of Us - Short, but packs a punch. What's free will if we can send information back in time, even by just a second?

The Lifecycle of Software Objects - Wasn't as tightly focused as most of the above, but raises some interesting questions about the ethics of increasingly intelligent AI.

Seventy-Two Letters - I wasn't a big fan of the quasi-Victorian setting (or the central conceit), but YMMV.

Liking What You See: A Documentary - The main idea here (artificial beauty-blindness) isn't quite as compelling as the others, but that's blessing with faint criticism.

The Evolution of Human Science - Short, but doesn't pack as much of a punch. Basically a one-off goof for a magazine.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:56 PM on October 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


Just finished reading Story of Your Life. Wow. This guy is really well versed in philosophy, and he can write!
posted by painquale at 4:11 PM on October 6, 2012


"Exhalation" is the best story in the world. You should be ashamed, Rhaomi.
posted by gerryblog at 4:16 PM on October 6, 2012


I do like Story of Your Life a lot though. I'd probably put it third after Exhalation and Understand...
posted by gerryblog at 4:17 PM on October 6, 2012


I was struck recently by a diametrically opposite approach between, say, Chiang and Greg Egan that nevertheless attains the same end. Chiang often takes a fantastic, science-fictional premise and runs with it, avoiding explanatory exposition and generating the whole sensawunda via character psychology. Then I just finished reading Greg Egan's Clockwork Rocket, and was struck by how well he described the altered rules of that universe, using some other kind of spacetime metric which feels like a quaternion, and which is worked out in astonishing detail using the conceit of a late-Enlightenment level theoretical physicist protagonist, complete with lots of diagrams. And yet at the end of it, I get the same sensawunda. Which is pretty wonderful whichever way it comes.
posted by meehawl at 5:43 PM on October 6, 2012


I haven't read a ton of Chiang, but "Story of Your Life blew" me right the fuck away. The other handful I've read have been good, interesting, and competent, but nowhere near as emotionally affecting.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:43 PM on October 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


meehawl, you might like the "Crossing the Gulf" podcast at SF signal. They're talking about both Chiang and Egan.
posted by gerryblog at 6:06 PM on October 6, 2012


"Liking What You See" and "Seventy-Two Letters" are two of my favorites. "Exhalation" is a great story. I think "Lifecycle" is his weakest story.

"Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is probably his most accessible story for people who aren't necessarily into his brand of idea-heavy fiction. And this reading of it (mp3 file) from the StarShipSofa podcast is excellent.
posted by straight at 7:31 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


gerryblog "Exhalation" is the best story in the world.

Seconded. It, unfolds, in a stately and inexorable manner much like the protagonist. It also serves as an elegant metaphor to describe the concept of entropy to a layperson.
posted by porpoise at 7:55 PM on October 6, 2012


Understand - A genuinely exciting psychothriller, like Aranofsky's Pi crossed with "Flowers for Algernon". Could actually make for a decent blockbuster movie if not for the highly abstract ending

Limitless came out a little over a year ago and at first I was jazzed for it because at I thought they were adapting one of my favorite stories ever and then realized it wasn't Understand. It was based on The Dark Fields which I went and picked up to see if it was close to Chiang's story. It wasn't, and It is basically an allegory about drug use, which the movie mostly missed and ended up not being that great anyway. So I don't think Hollywood is going to churn out something that is so close plotwise again anytime soon, although that would obviously not be the case at all.
posted by P.o.B. at 9:43 PM on October 6, 2012


Sometimes I think my favourite Ted Chiang story is Hell is the Absence of God, because of how clearly it illuminates the idea that faith is never really about ontology. But I think overall Seventy-Two Letters is the most perfect of his stories. I love the way that, like so many of Chiang's stories, it encourages you at first to focus on the strangeness of the setting and all of its particulars, before returning to something very familiar by an unfamiliar route. Seventy-Two Letters shows you something terribly beautiful which it can be too easy to take for granted, and it does it in such an elegant unsettling way.
posted by Acheman at 2:40 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I was thinking of a story in the shower today. Got out of shower, looked at new Ted Chiang post, realized I was thinking of Liking What You See: A Documentary. Weird coincidence, that.
posted by mikurski at 10:45 AM on October 7, 2012


After following the last link, I hope Rhaomi has gotten some kind of award.
posted by kyrademon at 1:45 PM on October 7, 2012


Rhaomi has a house made of iPads.
posted by Artw at 1:46 PM on October 7, 2012


gerryblog: ""Crossing the Gulf" podcast at SF signal"

Thanks! This is the specific podcast, and this is true: it's excellent:
Karen Burnham and Karen Lord discuss the Ted Chiang story “Hell is the Absence of God” as well as the Greg Egan stories “Crystal Nights,” “Yeyuka,” and “Closer.”
posted by meehawl at 3:04 PM on October 7, 2012


Chiang's been on my radar for awhile now, thanks to previous MeFi recommendations, but I've only just gotten around to checking him out. I recently finished reading Hell is the Absence of Good and I have to say, I think that story quite neatly sums up my current feelings and thoughts about the religious experience. There are a lot of layers to it.

how clearly it illuminates the idea that faith is never really about ontology

Absolutely, and I think it speaks volumes about the human condition. It's a brilliant piece of writing and all the wildly different interpretations and reactions to it seem to galvanize the core theme. Amazing.
posted by Doleful Creature at 4:26 PM on October 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


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