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This is great. I love how he turns the interviewer's hippy-dippy what-the-bleep-do-we-know questions into opportunities for serious reflection.
posted by nasreddin at 6:29 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can't remember where I read this, but some anonymous wag wrote that they were planning to rename the Hugo Award for Best Short Story to The Ted Chiang Award for Best Short Story by Ted Chiang. (And that's, y'know, a fair thing to do. I mean, shit, it's Ted Chiang.)
posted by suckerpunch at 6:31 AM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


I can recall thinking, back in the mid-to-late-90s, that the age of really wonderful, mind-blowing short SF stories was dead. And then I bought Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others and I knew we were back in safe hands.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:47 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can't remember where I read this, but some anonymous wag wrote that they were planning to rename the Hugo Award for Best Short Story to The Ted Chiang Award for Best Short Story by Ted Chiang.

Hmm, no, you can't do that: Some years Ted Chiang doesn't write a story.
posted by Artw at 6:49 AM on July 26, 2010


Love Ted Chiang.

That interviewer is terrible.

I think the Ted Chiang Award for Best Short Story by Ted Chiang would be less prestigious than the Hugo Award for Best Short Story Which is Automatically Awarded to Ted Chiang Even if he Doesn't Write a Story. The first is overly specific, the second is an acknowledgement of univeral awesomeness.

(Also, in honor of the fact I spent about 10 minutes thinking about and writing that, I win the MetaFilter Overthought Bean Award for today.)
posted by DU at 7:12 AM on July 26, 2010


@nasreddin: "This is great. I love how he turns the interviewer's hippy-dippy what-the-bleep-do-we-know questions into opportunities for serious reflection."

You know, in a lot of ways I think that this is the core of what Ted Chiang does. He takes premises which could easily be fodder for pulp - a man dissecting his own brain, a man who becomes a mad genius, angels are real and mess with us routinely, etc - and instills deep thought into them. Beauty ensues.

And I think we could solve the problem of Ted Chiang not writing a story every year by simply creating "The Hugo Award for Being Ted Chiang" - absent a name-change, it could be awarded annually without difficulty. And it's a certainly the man will have done *something* over the year that is awesome.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 7:24 AM on July 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think it would actually be pretty easy to print "Exhalation" on copper sheets. You'd do it photographically.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:50 AM on July 26, 2010


After reading Chiang's "Story of Your Life" shortly after reading The Dispossessed I tried very hard to construct a Metafilter post about eternalism and science fiction, tying together those two and Slaughterhouse-Five, but it never really came together. Obviously others have had similar ideas. Anyway, this is just to say that Ted Chiang is awesome and if you have never read "Understand" go do it right now.
posted by ND¢ at 8:02 AM on July 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


I just read Chiang's description of his writing process, and it is no surprise he has explored eternalism:

Typically the first part of the story that I write is the very ending, either the last paragraph of the story or a paragraph near the end. Once I have the destination in mind then I can build the rest of the story around that or build the rest of the story in such a way as to lead up to that. Usually the second thing I write is the opening of the story and then I write the rest of the story in almost random order. I just keep writing scenes until I've connected the beginning and the end. I write the key scenes or what I think of as the landmark scenes first, and then I just fill in backwards and forwards.


Also, one of the best working science fiction authors doesn't make his living as a science fiction author? WTF?
posted by ND¢ at 8:19 AM on July 26, 2010


It isn't that surprising is it? He's only published ten stories and two novellas in an industry where even novelists don't make much money.
posted by ninebelow at 8:33 AM on July 26, 2010


I wonder if he somehow applies Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction when he talks about the distinction between science and magic, where in this case magic is a substitute for art.

Also, one of the best working science fiction authors doesn't make his living as a science fiction author? WTF?

well, he is a short story writer, and unfortunately there is no money in the short form. Even popular SciFi authors who write feature length novels struggle to make a living.
Makes one wish for some sort of modern patronage. If I were a billionaire, Ted Chiang would be one of the artists I would offer a life-long scholarship so he could concentrate on writing.

Now if his stories were adapted for the big screen it would be another matter, but I somehow doubt that they are very translatable.
posted by ts;dr at 8:38 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Anyway, this is just to say that Ted Chiang is awesome and if you have never read "Understand" go do it right now.

I keep getting excited about the idea of Ted Chiang and then I go to read one of his stories and... I don't get it. Following the link, I see this is one I've read before. The second paragraph is

"I wake up, screaming. My heart's going like a jackhammer. Christ. I pull off my blankets and sit on the edge of the bed."

Here's a paragraph from the middle:

"Penetrating computer security is really quite dull; I can see how it might attract those who can't resist a challenge to their cleverness, but it's not intellectually aesthetic at all. It's no different than tugging on the doors of a locked house until you find an improperly installed lock. A useful activity, but hardly interesting."

Can these be defended? In particular: 1) Is there any reason to accept "My heart's going like a jackhammer?" 2) What work is the last sentence of the second quoted paragraph doing?

"Probably the most formative experience was reading the Foundation Trilogy when I was about twelve years old."

Oh, that explains a lot.

Sorry to crap in the thread. From the linked interview, TC sounds like a really interesting guy who is very smart about science fiction and how it works. Which makes it all the more strange that the stories themselves don't seem to have been thought about very hard.
posted by escabeche at 8:49 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, english is not my mother tounge, so your criticism of Chiang's prose seems like petty nitpicking about minor details to me.
Maybe this is one of the major advantages of reading in a second language, to not get some maybe awkwardly chosen words in the way of enjoying a good story. I'd never detect such percieved shortcomings that would make me drop a story written in german in a hartbeat.
posted by ts;dr at 9:02 AM on July 26, 2010


The deal to getting Ted Chiang is that he's a weird throwback.

Take thoughts about some current topics that are either between information theory and philosophy, or some of the weirder bits physics and philosophy. What questions arise?

Now, go back to, say, Asimov-style SF — let's be honest, the characterization wasn't exactly exciting — exploration of idea-impact upon a society or, more in Chiang's case, an individual. Chiang does all of this with a modern sensibility, so you will have some meaninglessness and sex and/or sexual orientation and the ability to take things from a different vantage point, but he ee does it with the seriousness of the hard-SF types.

You don't read Chiang for the prose or the fascinating characters or the deathless prose, you do it for the occasional mindfuck.
posted by adipocere at 9:11 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I guess this goes back to the humanities vs sciences thing and why SF is in a permanent ghetto. SF isn't read because of the tightness of the prose or whatever. It's the content.

The natural rejoinder is "why can't we have both" at which point I invite you to ask (many) lit-ra-chure types to add fresh ideas before asking SF types to fix the prose.
posted by DU at 9:31 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ted Chiang's stories are fantastic. If all you've read of his stories is what's online, you're missing one of the very best (collected in his anthology Stories of Your Life and Others) "Liking What You See: A Documentary" a story that imagines a world in which people could voluntarily have their brains adjusted so they no longer are able to tell whether a person is attractive or ugly -- they just don't have those categories anymore -- and what that might do to society.

Another fantastic way to enjoy Chiang is to listen to this excellent reading of his story, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate (direct mp3 link).

(escbeche is apparently looking for something different from what Chiang has to offer. He's not Gene Wolfe, he's aiming for a different sort of excellence, and succeeding spectacularly.)
posted by straight at 9:39 AM on July 26, 2010


I'm sorry, guys, I kind of knew when I wrote that comment that there was no reason to post it. I also didn't find "Understanding" to have any interesting ideas in it, for what it's worth, but I recognize that's a matter of taste. And more generally it is annoying when people drop into threads about things I like to say that they're bad. The people who like Ted Chiang should continue saying interesting things about Ted Chiang.
posted by escabeche at 9:47 AM on July 26, 2010


Also, this interview is hilariously awesome, I almost suspect Chiang wrote the whole thing, questions and all.

His distinction between Magic and Science is really insightful, and says a lot about the different implied worldviews behind a lot of fantasy and science fiction. It's actually quite similar to David Brin's infamous essay contrasting Star Wars and Star Trek (which would represent Magic and Science in Chiang's system).
posted by straight at 9:51 AM on July 26, 2010


"Liking What You See: A Documentary" is available online. I enjoyed it, but it was not one of my favorites of his.
posted by ND¢ at 9:51 AM on July 26, 2010


<spoiler>Taking snippets of music, odors and colors, turning them into an algorithm and running them which then crashes your brain isn't interesting?</spoiler>
posted by DU at 9:57 AM on July 26, 2010


ND¢, that preview omits sizable chunks of the story.
posted by straight at 9:59 AM on July 26, 2010


Since escabeche did not find any interesting ideas in "Understand" I would like to explain why I am impressed by that story. The SF genre has often written about people of enormous intelligence, since that is a topic that arises when you are speculating about future scientific advances. Writers can easily depict a character as being brilliant or super-intelligent by describing all the wonderful things that they invent or discover. The scientist who invents a working warp drive of the Star Trek variety would obviously be a brilliant person. But intelligence does not apply only to a person's inventions, it is seen in all aspects of life, such as everyday decisions they make, how they talk to other people, what kind of choices they make in dealing with whatever problems or crises arise in the course of the plot, and so forth, and it turns out to be extremely hard to convincingly portray genius; to be fully able to describe the life of a fictitious genius one would have to also be a genius. Most of the fictional characters I have read about who are supposed to be geniuses are remarkably foolish and obviously are not geniuses. The we have Ted Chiang. He is writing about people who have a vastly greater than normal intelligence and he is completely convincing. He sees all the ramifications and implications of super-intelligence. It's not just about inventing things. That's what is so impressive.
posted by grizzled at 10:04 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can these be defended? In particular: 1) Is there any reason to accept "My heart's going like a jackhammer?" 2) What work is the last sentence of the second quoted paragraph doing?

Sure.

You should accept that sentence because it establishes a conversational style using standard colloquial English; this will offset the OMG GENIUS GUY stuff later and also allow Chiang to fudge things by phrasing what would otherwise be complex stuff in simple language.

What that last sentence is doing is establishing the narrator's sneering tone towards a task that people might otherwise find an invigorating intellectual challenge, using the conversational style established earlier. He's telling you that cracking encryption is, from his perspective, boring mechanical work; artisanry perhaps but not art.

Writing a story from the perspective of a super-genius is tricky. Myself, I don't know that Chiang really succeeds or that anyone can fully succeed, but I for sure can't think of anyone who's done it better. I think he probably does it more convincingly than, say, Herbert's treatment of Muad'Dib, though of course Muad'Dib is a far more fleshed-out character in other respects (and his prescience isn't the same as Understand-guy's mental power).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:14 AM on July 26, 2010


grizzled, yes. It's a little like Stanislaw Lem in The Cyberiad writing a story about a computer that can compose the best poetry ever, on any subject, and then having the chutzpah to give us a few samples.

“Have it compose a poem — a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism and in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter s!!”


Take that, translators! Except Michael Kandel proceeds to knock it out of the park with this:

Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed.
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.

posted by straight at 10:18 AM on July 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


I wouldn't read Chiang for his prose, his characters, or the story endings. It's the ideas, and the more than occasional mindfuck. I was stunned on first reading "Tower of Babel","Hell is the Absence of God" and "Liking What You See: A Documentary". I found some of his other stuff, like "Understand", weaker, but still worthwhile in context.
posted by DarkForest at 10:26 AM on July 26, 2010


The natural rejoinder is "why can't we have both" at which point I invite you to ask (many) lit-ra-chure types to add fresh ideas before asking SF types to fix the prose.

Don't you think that a lot of literary novels do have fresh ideas - just not the kind of ideas you're after? I hasten to add this isn't a smart arse comment. What I mean is that saying something new about relationships or someone's inner world or society or whatever is every bit as much of a "fresh idea" as fabulating future worlds and technologies that have yet to exist.

I really would like to enjoy more sci-fi (and have a hard science background). But the prose and characterisation usually really do put me off - I often feel like I'm reading something aimed at teens - and the "fresh ideas" are are rarely enough to offset that. The stuff I do enjoy tends to be crossover - Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, etc.
posted by rhymer at 10:28 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


To be fair, escabeche, "Understand" is not a particularly representative Chiang story or a particularly good Chiang story ... as compared to other Chiang stories. What we need is some kind of Chiang-scale. This makes sense, because, like notable earthquakes, we don't really have a lot of Chiang incidents and, when they are interesting, they tend to shake you up a bit.

Also, the interviewer ought to be, I don't know if I can find a nice way to phrase it ... ought to be interviewing someone else. There. That's pleasant enough. There's an interviewer-Chiang impedance.
posted by adipocere at 10:39 AM on July 26, 2010


Regardless of anything else said about Atwood, she's never really stuck me as one for prose-wankery, in her science fiction or other works.

In fact I'd go as far as saying that the writing in Oryx and Crake is clunky as fuck.
posted by Artw at 10:47 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


He wins my heart for making the science fiction/fantasy distinction in a way that doesn't ignore the massive quantities of handwavium that are inherent to science fiction.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:20 AM on July 26, 2010




Chiang's explanation of the difference between science fiction and fantasy is reasonable, but there is a more basic distinction. We do not know exactly what is or is not possible, but we have opinions about it, and when a writer writes about something that he or she considers to be impossible, that is fantasy; when he or she speculates about something that may be possible that is science fiction, and when he or she writes about something that has already been known to happen (e.g., a husband murders his wife, etc.) that is what is officially called mimetic fiction (sometimes known as "mainstream"). Those are the key distinctions.
posted by grizzled at 12:15 PM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]


The bad news: Ted hasn't written a short story this year.

The good news: he's written a novella instead.

And it's going to win the Hugo for best novella in 2011, or I'll eat my ha — ahem, my lunch. (I really don't gamble. Besides, my hat is made of wool and nylon and would give me horrible indigestion.)

Let's just say I'm glad I'm not in the running for a novella in 2011 (due to not having written one) and move swifting on.
posted by cstross at 12:16 PM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


grizzled: There's nothing realistically possible about Billy Pilgrim becoming unstuck in time, intelligent planets, intelligent microbes, a person who dreams reality, a "false" universe in which the Axis powers won, the resurrection of all humans on a created planet, or galactic civilizations based on relativistic or FTL travel.

However all of these are fucking awesome, and are not improved or justified by bad science beanplating.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:07 PM on July 26, 2010


The key distinctions between sf and fantasy are that fantasy has dragons and/or shirtless people with swords. Science fiction only has those things a) in other dimensions b) on other planets c) in the holodeck.
posted by ND¢ at 1:32 PM on July 26, 2010 [3 favorites]


Ted Chiang made me realize, after a couple dozen years of reading and not liking short stories, that it wasn't the form that left me cold; it was what writers were doing (or not doing) with it.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:51 PM on July 26, 2010


In reply to KirkJobSluder, a lot of what is often labelled as science fiction is actually fantasy. This is one of the reasons why Robert A. Heinlein preferred to combine science fiction and fantasy into a genre called speculative fiction (which conveniently retains the acronym SF). So, Vonnegut wrote speculative fiction. Certainly it was usually closer to fantasy than to science fiction.
posted by grizzled at 1:58 PM on July 26, 2010


Nope. If it's got a space ship in it then it is science fiction. Exception: unless the space ship is being pulled through space by dragons. Double exception: if the dragons are space dragons.
posted by ND¢ at 2:15 PM on July 26, 2010


What if they are enchanted magic space dragons, with lasers? THEN you have, how you say? Documentary.
posted by Mister_A at 2:54 PM on July 26, 2010


grizzled: Well, on this list of top science fiction novels has only two non-fantasy (by your standard) novels in the top-10, and they're both dystopian near-future works (1984, and Fahrenheit 451). The top 20 adds three more if we're counting The Moon is A Harsh Mistress. The Amazon list has three, again with The Moon as a Harsh Mistress and two cyberpunk novels. In fact, if you want to be realistic you're pretty much limited to singularitycyberpunk, near-future dystopia (it's made of people!), and bumping around our solar system.

At this point I'd place the odds that my neighbor is a vampire a fraction of a percentage point higher than something like the casual violations of general relativity necessary for Dune, Foundation, Ringworld., or the Rama cycle to work.

I don't care that much if you give your BEMs a magic box that allows them to break the laws of physics in ways that are interesting and create narrative conflict. Just don't pretend that you're not invoking the same kind of exceptionalism that's used to justify fantasy.

As NDC says, sometimes it's about the strapping hero with the sword, or the blaster, and that's a good thing.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:55 PM on July 26, 2010


Man, people love having the genre discussion again and again...
posted by Artw at 3:08 PM on July 26, 2010


I've read Exhalation and just now "Understand" (thanks, ndcent). Both of these stories seem to have an emotionally cool or cold tone. Not a lot of characterization or psychological insight in either story. Still, I like Understand because the prose and word choice works so well in service of his ideas. I'll have to check out his anthology.
posted by storybored at 7:25 PM on July 26, 2010


I guess this goes back to the humanities vs sciences thing and why SF is in a permanent ghetto. SF isn't read because of the tightness of the prose or whatever. It's the content.

I read a lot of SF and I really don't have time for this sort of special. Firstly, in terms of humanities vs sciences, how much SF is actually written by scientists these days? Not that much, I would hazard; people like Hannu Rajaniemi are pretty rare. And there is no way to dodge the fact that SF - as a field of literature - is a branch of the humanities. As a field of literature, its ability to interogate ideas is certainly unusually well developed and this is one of its strengths but it is not the be all and end all. There is no reason why good ideas can't be accompanied by good prose and characterisation. Why can't we have both?

The natural rejoinder is "why can't we have both" at which point I invite you to ask (many) lit-ra-chure types to add fresh ideas before asking SF types to fix the prose.

The only problem with this (apart from the fact it simply reflects your own personal prejudices) is that prose is utterly fundamental to literature. You need good prose and characterisation merely to make a work of fiction competent. You can't be a writer and ignore words. Ideas, originality and imagination all come after that. You have to have the ability to tell a story before you can tell a story.
posted by ninebelow at 3:14 AM on July 27, 2010


KirkJobSluder: You may think that my definition of science fiction is too restrictive, given all the famous works of SF which contain fantasy elements, but that problem is solved by the term speculative fiction. Lots of people blur the distinction between science fiction and fantasy, and the distinction is easily blurred due to the fact that people often disagree about what is really possible anyway. Is it actually possible to travel to the past? I personally don't believe that it is possible, but some do. Faster than light travel? It's not actually impossible (consider the inflationary theory of cosmology) although it is probably too difficult to ever be done. John W. Campbell thought that psychic powers, which he renamed psi, were a legitimate field of science fictional speculation, whereas I would consider them to be fantasy. But all of these things fit comfortably within the field of speculative fiction. We are free to speculate, plausibly or implausibly, as our various artistic objectives may require.
posted by grizzled at 5:12 AM on July 27, 2010


Firstly, in terms of humanities vs sciences, how much SF is actually written by scientists these days?

Insisting on "by scientists" is about the most narrow and restrictive way you could put that.

SF authors, more or less currently writing, who have a reasonably meaningful STEM background:

Alastair Reynolds (ESA researcher)
Charles Stross (trained pharmacist, former programmer)
Vernor Vinge (computer scientist)
Rudy Rucker (mathematician / CS)
Gene Wolfe (professional engineer)

Others that I recall having some STEM background but could be mistaken:
Stephen Baxter
Greg Egan
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:18 AM on July 27, 2010


grizzled: You may think that my definition of science fiction is too restrictive, given all the famous works of SF which contain fantasy elements, but that problem is solved by the term speculative fiction.

The problem is also easily solved by noting that science fiction has absolutely nothing to do with scientific realism in most cases, but rather an approach to developing plot, character, and setting in ways that are distinct from other genres (as Chiang does). It's easy to recognize I, Robot and War of the Worlds as science fiction without needing to argue away the problems with Asimov's computer science or Wells's xenobiology.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:54 AM on July 27, 2010


Some people use science fiction to seriously discuss scientific issues and the implications of scientific advances for society, and others just use it as a kind of motif with which to create colorful plots and characters. Both approaches are perfectly legitimate. This does not prevent me from distinguishing between science fiction and fantasy, or from combining the genres under the heading of speculative fiction.
posted by grizzled at 10:41 AM on July 27, 2010




I'm interested in the idea, expressed earlier, that SF-prose is inferior to 'Literature-prose.' M. John Harrison, William Gibson, and China Mieville (the latter despite length and occasionally attendant sloppiness) are three of the best stylists writing today. J. G. Ballard, though repetitive and obsessional, drastically changed the way fiction in English is written. If Ballard was massively in thrall to Borges, as Gibson is to Burroughs, it's not to reduce their achievements, but to place them in a tradition, hopefully one that will continue.

Chiang, from what little I've read, has/wants nothing to do with this at all (as pointed out earlier, his mention of Asimov is telling.) This, of course, is what makes SF interesting, that two, basically antithetical, traditions can exist within its framework (and there are multiplicity more), and yet both remain so marginalized. One of these days, I'm going to make a project of reading Chiang simply because he's not what I would normally read.
posted by Football Bat at 9:37 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]




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