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This isn't your grandfather's science fiction
December 27, 2010 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Ted Chiang is perhaps the finest author in contemporary science fiction -- and the most rarefied. A technical writer by trade and a graduate of the distinguished Clarion Writers Workshop, Chiang has published only twelve short stories in the last twenty years, one dozen masterpieces of the genre whose insightful, precise, often poetic language confronts fundamental ideas -- intelligence, consciousness, the nature of God -- and thrusts them into a dazzling new light. Click inside for a complete listing of Chiang's work, with links to online reprints or audio recordings where available, as well as a collection of one-on-one interviews, links to his nonfiction essays, and a few other related sites and articles.

Short Stories

"Tower of Babylon" (1990) - A Bronze Age laborer joins the construction of an impossibly high structure on a mission to breach the vaults of Heaven. Nebula Award (Best Novelette).

"Division by Zero" (1991) - A brilliant mathematician wrestles with the consequences of her earthshattering proof.

"Understand" (1991) [.mp3 1 2 3 4] - An experimental treatment bestows a regular person with superintelligence, propelling him into a dangerous series of mindgames.

"Story of Your Life" (1998) - A talented linguist reflects on her life as she struggles to grasp the meaning of an alien language. Nebula Award (Best Novella).

"The Evolution of Human Science" (2000) - Scientists despond as their mentally-augmented descendants leave them in the dust.

"Seventy-Two Letters" (2000) - In a world where mystical scrolls impart animating power, a shocking discovery threatens to upend society.

"Hell is the Absence of God" (2001) [full .mp3] - An unbeliever struggles with the question of faith when God is scientific fact and angels routinely visit the earth. Hugo, Locus, Nebula Awards (Best Novelette).

"Liking What You See: A Documentary" (2002) - A documentary examines people's reactions to a technology that allows one to see others without bias or judgment. Chiang declined a Hugo nomination.

"What's Expected of Us" (2006) [full .mp3] - A simple time machine undermines the concept of free will, with disastrous consequences.

"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" (2007) [full .mp3] - An ancient alchemist introduces a traveling merchant to a mysterious time-traveling gateway. Hugo, Nebula Awards (Best Novelette).

"Exhalation" (2009) [full .mp3] - A non-human scholar relates the dissection of his own brain, and the implications his discoveries hold for his curious clockwork universe. Locus, Hugo Awards (Best Short Story).

"The Lifecycle of Software Objects" (2010) - The relationship between people and their creations are explored in a near-future world of sentient AI.

Essays

Story Notes - discussing the background and inspiration for selected stories from the original print run of his book collection (contains some spoilers).

"The Problem of the Traveling Salesman" (2008) and "The Big Idea" (2010), via Mefi's Own jscalzi

Interviews:

SF Site (2002) - Locus (2002) - Infinityplus (2002) - Fantastic Metropolis (2003) - Nebula Awards (2008) - IndieBound (2008) - StarShipSofa podcast (2009) - BoingBoing (2010), discussed previously

Other

"Future Imperfect" - A feature piece on Chiang's latest work by City Arts magazine.

"Ted Chiang vs. Tor Publishing" - A companion piece on Chiang's creative struggle with Tor and his move to boutique publishing.

Ted Chiang (ology) - A fan blog dedicated to documenting characters, defining terms, and cataloging statistical information from Chiang's stories.
posted by Rhaomi (116 comments total) 701 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hell yes! Ted Chiang is one of the most inventive and original SF writers I have ever read. His work is so inventive and original that bearing witness to it, it has drained all of my inventiveness and originality and leaving my compliment sounding like a blurb on a goddamn Michael Crichton novel.

Seriously, though, I can't suggest reading Understand any harder. It's like "Flower for Algernon" except awesome.
posted by griphus at 11:17 AM on December 27, 2010 [28 favorites]


Thanks so much for this, I was just looking for some awesome reading material (asked about it in the Ask section) and I think I've found plenty here :)
posted by fantodstic at 11:18 AM on December 27, 2010


I will be enjoying these in the future.
posted by The Whelk at 11:20 AM on December 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


Thank you for this. Crazy timing, too, I picked up Stories of Your Life and Others for holiday reading.
posted by safetyfork at 11:25 AM on December 27, 2010


This isn't your grandfather's science fiction

Hmm, I dunno. Though his stuff seems very modern there's also something very classic about it. Even when it's at it's most fantastical it's very definately science fiction as science fiction. Perhaps that's what's so refreshing about it.
posted by Artw at 11:28 AM on December 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Ted Chiang is great! I had no idea about his struggles with Tor publishing. It makes me pretty angry how poorly his editor treated him... but I also admire Chiang's artistic integrity a lot.
posted by overglow at 11:30 AM on December 27, 2010


I just went through all his material about a week ago, and while it's all quite good, "The lifecycle of software objects" was my absolute favorite. Totally, totally heartbreaking. It's about people who keep raising AI pets even after they go out of fashion, and speaks really eloquently about the human mind. It sounds totally cliche, I know, but Chiang's superpower is the ability to make an old cliche like that completely riveting and relevant.
posted by Rinku at 11:38 AM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is it egotistical to use Ted Chiang as a shibboleth to detemine who actually reads sci-fi and who just sort of claims to? I don't know too many people that have read him and don't think he's one of the best writers in terms of thoughtful, mind-expanding narrative.
posted by Han Tzu at 11:39 AM on December 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Nth-ing the praise for The Lifecycle of Software Objects. I think it will be considered one of the great SF novellas ever, a la A Canticle for Leibowitz.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:42 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


He's not a popular author by far, Han Tzu; Tor screwed him over bad (see link in FPP) at one point w/r/t publicity and so on. Most of his popularity does stem from people who find his stuff on the Internet.
posted by griphus at 11:43 AM on December 27, 2010


I had no idea about his struggles with Tor publishing.

Hmm. To be honest I don't think he comes over too well there - it's normal back and forth with an editor and he gets into a total huff about it. But I like Chiang so mostly I try to just pretend I never heard about that.
posted by Artw at 11:44 AM on December 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Also, I'm a big SF fan but "thoughtful, mind-expanding narrative"? You're barking up the wrong genre.
posted by griphus at 11:44 AM on December 27, 2010


Also, Chiang's own take on the Tor cover-art debacle here.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:45 AM on December 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I'm not really sure who the bad guy is in the case of Chiang v. Tor, but I am glad that Stories of Your Life And Others is coming back into print with some better cover art.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:53 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Great post, thanks.
posted by chainlinkspiral at 11:55 AM on December 27, 2010


I'd read "Exhalation" on someone's recommendation from here and it pretty much blew my mind. I'm looking forward to reading these in the future, but I'm going to have to ration them. Thanks Rhaomi for rounding all this up.
posted by marxchivist at 11:56 AM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, who was Ted's evil editor then?

(A close reader of Charlie Stross' blog will know that one of the things that an author has very little control over at all if they sign a contract with a major publisher is the cover art, which appears to be the the cause of Ted's falling out with Tor.)
posted by pharm at 12:02 PM on December 27, 2010


This isn't your grandfather's science fiction

One of the recurring techniques in his work is to drop the reader into a fantastic universe and spend the rest of the story working out the consequences, but never explain why this universe differs from ours. You can see it in Tower of Babylon, Exhalation, Hell is the Absence of God, Seventy-Two Letters and maybe What's Expected of Us.

If you ignore the lack of an explanation for the universe as a whole, "work out the consequences" marks him as classic SF. Take, say, Fritz Leiber's A Pail of Air (1951), and remove the "dark star" explanation for the frozen atmosphere, and you've got a perfect Ted Chiang story.
posted by Leon at 12:07 PM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Better than a metaphysics class.
posted by john wilkins at 12:12 PM on December 27, 2010


In fairness to Ted, it was pretty terrible cover art. His proposed alternative was much better.

(The "grandfather's science fiction" thing was a quote from the CityArt piece, btw.)
posted by Rhaomi at 12:14 PM on December 27, 2010


Here's what I like about how Ted Chiang handled things: he hated how the cover art debate worked with the folks at Tor, so he decided to cut his losses and work with people who were more open to his feedback in that regard. He didn't just whine about how terrible the big publishers' way of handling cover art is, he stuck to his guns and registered his disapproval by moving on. I think that's awesome.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:17 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sidhedevil: Also, Chiang's own take on the Tor cover-art debacle here.

[On preview: thanks for the verification, Rhaomi]

Shame he doesn't include images, or more on his feeling of why the cover was such a terrible thing (maybe he was trying to not offend the artist further, but saying you couldn't come to accept it sounds a lot more harsh to my ears than saying some element was a mis-match). Without other prompts or insight, I believe this was the original cover, looking like a collection of my grandfather's fluff sci-fi, so I can see the disappointment there. Here is a new cover for an as-of-yet unpublished version (and that linked page notes that Chiang sent "a longish story" to Subterranean Press recently). There is a similar cover on an older version of the collection, this tacky paperback cover from Tor imprint Orb Books, and yet another dull Tor cover. I wonder if the face of text is his $3,500 cover art.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:17 PM on December 27, 2010


Well, to me that "naked muscley guy erupting from a dooooomed city" cover is Good Show, Sir-worthy in and of itself; it's also really disjunctive in mood from the tone of the stories. I can see why it made Chiang so uneasy.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:20 PM on December 27, 2010


Ted Chiang is awesome, but the overselling in this post and thread is going to cause a lot of disappointment.

Also: Greg Egan.
posted by DU at 12:22 PM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Chiang's own take on the Tor cover-art debacle here.

Wow, if that's even half-accurate his Tor editor was a complete dick:

...I asked my editor if I could buy the paperback rights to the collection. This would have been expensive, turning the collection into an enormous financial loss for me, but I was willing. As usual, my editor did not reply to my e-mails, but told my agent he would look into changing the art for the paperback....I continued to ask my editor for the chance to buy back paperback rights; all he would say, to my agent, was that he was working on changing the art, but it was a delicate process. Finally, after four months, he told my agent that they would use the art I had commissioned "as a springboard" for the new cover. He said they'd "send a few different sketches" for me to look at.

So then I repeatedly asked about the status of the new cover, and the message conveyed back to me was not to worry, there was plenty of time. Then, after three months, my editor sent the new cover for the paperback. It had NO ART WHATSOEVER on it, just the title and author name in a generic font. It was a done deal, no room for discussion. When I asked about buying back the rights, my editor replied (again, through my agent) that it was too late for that.

It was at that point that I asked my editor to make a textual change to the paperback edition and remove his name from the book's acknowledgements (which I had written a year and a half earlier, back when I thought he was on my side). He told my agent he would. He did not.


Seriously, if that's close to what actually went down, fuck Tor.

Han Tzu: Is it egotistical to use Ted Chiang as a shibboleth to detemine who actually reads sci-fi and who just sort of claims to?

Ouch. I've been meaning to get to him for years, honest. Thanks, Rhaomi, for the reminder; it's great his collection of stories just got a new release.
posted by mediareport at 12:26 PM on December 27, 2010


Wow. Rhaomi + Winter break = lots of awesome posts.
posted by Think_Long at 12:29 PM on December 27, 2010


DU, post-Singularity, you'll be able to instantiate multiple simulations of Chiang and Egan, then breed them to produce even better science fiction over multiple generations. The fitness function is you, of course, so either be prepared to spin up a few gamma-level backups of you or tap your Korsakoff Gland (TM) like you were a telegraph operator.

I'm writing from the future and suggest throwing in, to keep things from getting stale, some Baxts, Reynolds, Strossi, and Banks every few generations.
posted by adipocere at 12:30 PM on December 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


I just got Stories of Your Life and Others as a Christmas gift, so this is happily coincidental for me, too. Now I appreciate it even more, because it doesn't have the godawful cover.

"Flowers for Algernon" but awesome is a great description of Understand. I just finished it last night, so I'm still geeking out over it.
posted by Drastic at 12:32 PM on December 27, 2010


Chiang declined a Hugo nomination.

What? Why?
posted by ShawnStruck at 12:33 PM on December 27, 2010


I can see why it made Chiang so uneasy.

Gee, I don't know why the image that looks like a guy sexing the city would be at all disturbing.
posted by yeloson at 12:35 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


adipocere, have you read Zookrollers Winkelden Ook? It's a short story that features simulacra of a dead author, illegally downloaded and file shared by people all over the world who run the simulacra in attempts to produce the unfinished sequel the author died before he could write. Great story.
posted by overglow at 12:37 PM on December 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Chiang strikes me as someone who is probably very meticulous and who polishes his work very carefully. I mean, he's written twelve stories in twenty years! And how many of those have won awards? So I think it's understandable that he would have a strong reaction to the cover--each story must be like a child to him, that he spent long days laboring to bring into the world. And who wouldn't be upset about their children being forced to wear ugly, ill-fitting clothing as they step out into the public eye?
posted by overglow at 12:40 PM on December 27, 2010


>>Chiang declined a Hugo nomination.

>What? Why?

Apparently he didn't think his work deserved it

(My wife told me the story, this was the link I could find to match it)
posted by Gorgik at 12:40 PM on December 27, 2010


Understand is one of my favorite short stories. Does anyone have any recs for stories that are like that? I'm going to pick it up The Dark Fields from the library today.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:42 PM on December 27, 2010


Apparently he didn't think his work deserved it

Just to clarify, he didn't think that the nominated work was representative of his best work.
posted by griphus at 12:43 PM on December 27, 2010


I've been pushing to have Chiang as GoH at my main local con for a couple years, but so far not enough people have heard of him. Maybe this post will help. Thanks, Rhaomi!
posted by jiawen at 12:46 PM on December 27, 2010


Is it egotistical to use Ted Chiang as a shibboleth to detemine who actually reads sci-fi and who just sort of claims to?

Well... not to be unkind, but, yes.

12 stories in 2 decades means he has other income and able to take his time in crafting very fine stories. It also means he has a very slim profile for many people who do read Sci-Fi to be aware of, it kind of like saying "if you haven't heard of this very fine musician who has one album out in the past 20 years you're just pretending to like music". But, I guess snobbery is present in all areas.
posted by edgeways at 12:54 PM on December 27, 2010 [10 favorites]


Just to clarify, he didn't think that the nominated work was representative of his best work.

Yep, and in specific he thought that he had rushed that particular story and that it wasn't as good a story as it could be.

If we could somehow genetically engineer a writer with Ted Chiang's talent also to have the productivity of, say, a Joyce Carol Oates...
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:56 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Having taken a very short look at the stories above (just "Tower of Babylon" and "Exhalation",) I find it interesting that Chiang is predominantly considered to be a science fiction author. The major point of reference I find is Borges, who isn't really considered a genre author despite the clear fantastic content of his stories.

An interesting potential contemporary would be Terrence Holt, who draws on similar Borgesian ground. Holt is clearly not ghettoized: when he's published it's been in literary journals, and his mostly excellent collection was published by Norton and quite positively covered in the NYT Book Review. While the regular publishing world is no picnic in itself, I wonder if Chiang may have done himself a disservice by marketing his work within what to all accounts is a truly brutal niche, despite the numerous recognitions he's earned in that space.

Of course, there are also differences between Chiang and Holt; it's a stock critique of science fiction writers that they don't do people well, and the tiny sample I've looked at suggests that this may be a problem for Chiang.

In "Babylon" I was surprised at the numerous times in which the main character expresses apprehension at both the task he is set to perform and at the alien, constricted nature of life higher up on the tower; but it's not explored, and typically in the next sentence he's more or less reported to have gotten over it. I was similarly surprised at the ending, where with only a brief comment about the process being its own reward he is allowed to happily run back to Babylon to explain to people for whom construction of the tower is both a sacramental duty and an incarnate promise of paradise of the essential futility of their labors. (If I were assigned to write what would happen next, it probably would involve the tower toppled, Yahweh's temples burned, and the people of Babylon turning on each other, but there are many ways out of this. What concerns me is that Chiang doesn't seem to address it or any other outcome at all.)

In "Exhalation" the reactions of the pneumatic creatures to their discovery of their inherent mortality is similarly quickly resolved: some initial panic, then everyone sits down to reasonably talk about it and look for Engineering Solutions, limited as they may be. Compare Holt's "Apocylapse", where imminent and unavoidable death inspires a far wider and more affecting range of reactions in its characters.

Of course, it could be that I've just missed the stories where this is handled with more care; and Chiang is clearly a master of creating engaging alternate structures for the universe. This is great, but I wish more science fiction writers would go beyond simply inspiring a sense of awe in the reader towards the intricacy of their world's creation and give some focus to what it means to have essentially human characters possessed of essentially human minds and emotions in these very different, very consequential places.
posted by monocyte at 1:31 PM on December 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


...give some focus to what it means to have essentially human characters possessed of essentially human minds and emotions in these very different, very consequential places.

I've always been apprehensive when someone criticizes/critiques openly-SF (rather than literary-fiction-with-spaceships) in this manner. It's a bit like saying "this portrait is great, but I wish the person in it was doing something so we could get to know his character." If he is, and if the fiction provides what you want, that's great, but if it is doing it to the detriment of the sense of awe, then it has suffered as SF and just become Fiction.
posted by griphus at 1:37 PM on December 27, 2010


Sigh. This whole day has been one enormous grammarfail. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that SF bears certain aesthetic criteria -- which, of course, evolve over time -- and judging it outside of them is unfair.
posted by griphus at 1:42 PM on December 27, 2010


Great post. Thanks!
posted by cross_impact at 1:43 PM on December 27, 2010


This is great, but I wish more science fiction writers would go beyond simply inspiring a sense of awe in the reader towards the intricacy of their world's creation and give some focus to what it means to have essentially human characters possessed of essentially human minds and emotions in these very different, very consequential places.

But that's clearly not what he's going for. I mean, these days I prefer more character-driven stuff myself (and I don't think there is really a shortage of SF in that vein anymore), which is one reason I don't go as nuts for Chiang as some people, but it's hardly fair of me to judge him simply for not writing my favorite kind of story. He's not a failed writer of character-driven fiction; he's doing something else entirely.
posted by enn at 1:45 PM on December 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


I don't think Chiang does a poor job with people, monocyte -- you just happened to read the stories where the focus is more on the exploration of an idea or metaphor (topology/ancient cosmology in "Tower if Babylon," entropy and consciousness in "Exhalation").

For more character-driven work, I'd recommend "Story of Your Life" (mother-daughter vignettes) and "Hell is the Absence of God" (grief and religious doubt). And "Lifecycle of Software Objects" is, by all accounts, excellent.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:50 PM on December 27, 2010


I find it interesting that Chiang is predominantly considered to be a science fiction author.

That is his self-identification.

And your sample underrepresents his skill with character-driven fiction, monocyte, as Rhaomi and enn suggest.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:53 PM on December 27, 2010


Thanks very much, Rhaomi! Never heard of him but this looks great. This really hits the spot for something to do amid the post holidays torpor and cold weather ...
posted by carter at 2:07 PM on December 27, 2010


So he's like a cross between Greg Egan and Borges, with good taste in cover art? I must read some of these stories.

(that "watch me reclining in ecstacy on a huge Japanese flag while vultures and white horses come out of this big metal penis I made, which is also fulls of monkeys" monstrosity would have justified any reaction including violence)
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:21 PM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm writing from the future and suggest throwing in, to keep things from getting stale, some Baxts, Reynolds, Strossi, and Banks every few generations.

I keep hearing how awesome Banks is so I finally got something by him to try. It was the only audiobook I could easily find and it is the. most. boring. (and. sexist.) thing. i. have. ever. read. I keep listening because it seems like it's going somewhere but so far (~3/4 of the way through) the only thing that's happened is the main character turned down a proposal of marriage.

12 stories in 2 decades means he has other income and able to take his time in crafting very fine stories.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. And even if it implies his average story would be worse if he wrote full time, it also implies he's wise enough to not do that. I never understand why people complain about micropayment artist models because "it won't support them full time". Ted Chiang is the perfect rebuttal to that: People who produce art less than full time make better art.
posted by DU at 2:40 PM on December 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


((most boring) and sexist) not (most (boring and sexist))
posted by DU at 2:41 PM on December 27, 2010


That cover is pretty awful - why Tatlin's Constructivist tower? With monkeys?

The stories, though, will keep me busy for the rest of the night. Very good stuff.
posted by bashos_frog at 2:48 PM on December 27, 2010


Which book did you read, DU? The Culture novels run a wide gamut between "AWESOME!" and "Sigh..."
posted by griphus at 2:50 PM on December 27, 2010


"Lifecycle of Software Objects" is, by all accounts, excellent.

It is, I can testify.

One thing about the whole Tor debacle that should be known is that I've met Mr. Chiang a few times at parties. And he is very, almost absurdly, humble.

I think the cover was reflective of the fact that he had spent years crafting these quiet stories and built up a fan base around them, and Tor treated him like he was grinding out space operas for 14 year olds who love space ships shooting other space ships.

That's just my opinion, however, I have no insight into it. I know it caused him a lot of agita, so I've never brought it up.
posted by lumpenprole at 2:56 PM on December 27, 2010


DU:

"People who produce art less than full time make better art."

Yeah, no. People who produce art on a schedule that is congenial to their own creative process may make better art than people who feel rushed or forced. But even that's not a given, since a) artists aren't necessarily the best judge of their own best work (Twain believed his book on Joan of Arc was the best thing he ever wrote, for example) and related, b) history has a way of deciding which works are "good art" and which are not, and quite a lot that of "good art" has been produced by people who were basically hacking away for the cash (and lots of bad art produced by people on their own schedule).

I love Ted's writing and I'm glad he's got a life that allows him to write what he wants to write on his own schedule. But Ted's process is about Ted, not about some larger hypothesis about creativity, various classes of creators, and which classes of creators are "better" at art.
posted by jscalzi at 2:59 PM on December 27, 2010 [22 favorites]


I never understand why people complain about micropayment artist models because "it won't support them full time".

Our society has gotten to the point of conflating primary source of income with legitimacy. Tied into it is also the idea that "real artists" only go through major publishing & distribution companies.

Aside from the companies that have a major interest in fostering that belief, there's also a sad number of artists of various respective fields who will also jump in, happy to side up for the sake of status of being a real writer/musician/designer/whatever, even proudly beaming about how much money they made the company in the process regardless of how much they made/didn't make or the creative costs along the way.

It's always interesting to see people argue against artists and micropayments then go buy things off of iTunes or Amazon ebooks in the same breath.
posted by yeloson at 3:08 PM on December 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Ah. Good! I was looking for iPod food!
posted by By The Grace of God at 3:48 PM on December 27, 2010


People who produce art less than full time make better art.

That's a bit of a stretch.

But on to the kurfuffle du jur. Realize that Tor and Ted Chiang had very different goals and very different abilities. If Tor could write short stories like that, they would and they wouldn't give money to people like Ted Chiang to publish his stories. Tor is publisher. They exist to sell books.

They are *different* skill sets, and they are not congruent. The reason that publishers don't give authors control of the covers is that, historically, they've proven to be incredibly good at choosing cover designs that actively hinder the sale of the book. Most authors, once explained that the point of the cover is to sell books, whereupon the author gets royalties, quickly understand.

Ted Chiang, not driven by commercial success, isn't interested in that. But Tor, driving by the fact that they're paying to print and distribute the books, wants to make sure that, at the very least, the cost of production and the royalties they've already given Ted Chiang are recouped.

So, I can see why Tor would take a look at a authored suggested cover, and go "Yeah, that's not helping sales" and reject it. That's what they're good at -- turning manuscripts into books that sell. I can see why he'd be frustrated at that, because he doesn't particularly care about sales, and he wants to craft the cover in the same way that he crafted the stories within.

In this case, it was a bad fit -- normally, the author/publisher relationship works, because both want more sales. In this case, the two interests wern't aligned.

Do note that two of his award winning stories -- including the trifecta winning Hell Is The Absence Of God were originally published in the Starlight series of collected original short fiction, ed. by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and published by, well, Tor.

Indeed, the publication of Story Of Your Life in Starlight 2 was what brought him back to the genre -- he'd published three stories in 1990 and 1991, and *nothing* since until PNH brought his story for Starlight 2 in 1998.

So, when we get a full hate-on for Tor, remember that the odds are extremely good that Tor brought him back to our awareness -- and that Tor is really quite good at selling books, a skill that Ted Chiang has yet to demonstrate.

He can write, though. Gods above, can he write. I hope that his decision to go vanity serves him well.

posted by eriko at 3:49 PM on December 27, 2010 [8 favorites]


Is it egotistical to use Ted Chiang as a shibboleth to detemine who actually reads sci-fi and who just sort of claims to?

Well, that's not going to work anymore, is it? Damn you Rhaomi!
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:50 PM on December 27, 2010


Small press is not vanity press. Vanity usually means the author pays up front, versus a small press which is a regular publisher that is... small. (Subterranean is awesome, incidentally.)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:54 PM on December 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Tor is really quite good at selling books,

You know, I would agree with you if the cover in question was halfway decent. I don't think anybody who looks that cover thinks: "yeah, that's cool" or even "it's about the stories so I give it a pass." It's shitty cover art. Plain and simple.
posted by P.o.B. at 3:58 PM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes wretched cover, seems familiar must have seen it on a shelf and what lumpenprole wrote makes sense and I totally support writers/artists that want the full experience for the reader/viewer but really who looks at the cover of SF novels? No but really? Cover? Matter?

Jeepers dude, write on your blog how embarrassed you are. Get fans to send letters to the editor. Do a bad cover event at one of the conventions... But alienate your publisher?

Virtually the only reason I've looked more than a glance at any SF cover is a minor intellectual game whether the artist knew anything at all about the book. The blog mentioned above finds the best(worst) examples, I'm going to have to read this one,, I bet the editor 'helped' with the title.

I've read SF for rather a while (before the term 'Sci-Fi' was an issue) but missed the fandom scene and all, just read and enjoyed. Never realized what a tough biz it was. Covers were always stupid. (Well except for the Grey Lensmen series, those covers we great, just like the books!)

I'd heard of Mr Chaing and had scanned the library shelves for a novel, had not realized he was a short story author exclusively, nice that the stories are available, one more reason to get an e-ink reader.
posted by sammyo at 4:15 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think covers always suck. One of my favorite books has an awesome cover. I wasn't in on the conversations between him and the publisher about it. So I couldn't even begin to speculate about the argument but it probably has more to do with dick-waving authority than anything else.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:25 PM on December 27, 2010


I can easily see why Chiang didn't like the original cover: it's one of the most stunningly unoriginal pieces of hackwork I've ever seen on the cover of a book. It's as if the artist grew up seeing any number of these sort of collage-y covers on SF novels and decided that all SF artwork had to be like that, and he was told that one of the stories in the book was titled "Tower of Babylon", and so he did this cover where the Tower of Babylon is covering, and substituting for, this man's penis, and... ick. The editor sounds like a burn-out case with serious control issues.

And, DU, nthing wanting to know which Banks book you're talking about. (About half of his work is non-SF, and not all of his SF novels are Culture books.) He does some interesting things with structure that may not be conducive to an audiobook format.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:35 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


DU isn't the only one who has found Banks disappointing, and I've tried quite a number of his books -- mainly because I read "The Wasp Factory" first and really liked it, so figured I'd give the rest of his stuff a try. Every other thing I've read by him has bored me silly. Not that I think people who like his stuff are idiots or anything; taste varies from person to person.

For those of you who think the cover art was a weird hill for Chiang to die on, the full account sounds like his editor made promise after promise after promise about a number of things, and never came through, the cover art just being the most visible effect. I'd want to stop working with an editor like that, too.
posted by kyrademon at 5:06 PM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Nthing Ted Chiang. Getting to him late is so much better than never getting to him at all. When I first read Hell is the Absence of God a few years ago I was hell of embarrassed that it took me that long.
posted by monster truck weekend at 5:15 PM on December 27, 2010


proudly beaming about how much money they made the company in the process

more money = better than

I'll tell you which Banks one I'm talking about on the condition that it isn't followed by a bunch of comments saying that's the WORST one and THIS one will be better. I'll try a Culture novel, although I'm pretty sure I got like 5 paragraphs into one once before giving up. Anyway, it is The Business
posted by DU at 5:59 PM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


but really who looks at the cover of SF novels? No but really? Cover? Matter?
posted by sammyo at 6:15 PM on December 27


I look at covers. They (roughly) tell me what kind of book the publisher believes the book is. The cover for this book would have said to me something like: Randite formulaic stuff, might be fun for a lark maybe but nothing to waste good money on.
posted by joannemerriam at 6:46 PM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Geez, I can't believe I'm going to defend a publishing company here, but some of y'all need to go back and read eriko's comment again. People are taking Ted Chiang's slant on the story as the only slant. I've heard the story from the other side, and Chiang comes across as the literary equivalent of a diva prima donna, nitpicking all kinds of bullshit having to do with the cover and so forth to a degree that is far beyond what a publisher will put up with from a bestselling author, much less one who loses money for them.

I love me some Ted Chiang (although I disagree strongly that Lifecycle was his strongest work; I think it among his weaker efforts) but the guy knows absolutely nothing about selling books, and is completely out in left field to think he should have any say in the cover art. Nobody gets a say in the cover art! He's lucky they even showed it to him beforehand.

I can easily see why Chiang didn't like the original cover: it's one of the most stunningly unoriginal pieces of hackwork I've ever seen on the cover of a book.

True. On the other hand, stunningly unoriginal artwork sells books. Have you ever seen Darrell K. Sweet's work? Jesus, it is actively repulsive. But those books sure sell.

The job of a cover is not to accurately reflect the contents. It isn't even to be original or attractive. It is to sell books. And Chiang, excellent author though he is, is naive to the point of idiocy to think he should have veto power over the artwork on his books... if he expects to work with a major publisher.
posted by Justinian at 6:59 PM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


For those of you who think the cover art was a weird hill for Chiang to die on, the full account sounds like his editor made promise after promise after promise about a number of things, and never came through, the cover art just being the most visible effect.

I want to reiterate that this is Chiang's slant on things, that I know I've heard the other side (in broad strokes), and that I would suggest not taking the above as gospel. It's been long enough that I don't recall the details very well so I am not comfortable with specifics, but I am positive that Chiang did not come across well.

I'm not saying that Tor's side is without question the unvarnished truth, but I am saying that it is kind of naive to think that Chiang's telling is such.
posted by Justinian at 7:02 PM on December 27, 2010


I read "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" today during work. Thank you metafilter, you're making me smarter while simultaneously contributing to my future unemployment.

I really really liked it too.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 7:08 PM on December 27, 2010


And Chiang, excellent author though he is, is naive to the point of idiocy to think he should have veto power over the artwork on his books... if he expects to work with a major publisher.

Uh, this would be a good argument to make if Chiang didn't actually end up putting his money where his mouth was.
posted by nasreddin at 7:10 PM on December 27, 2010


I want to reiterate that this is Chiang's slant on things, that I know I've heard the other side (in broad strokes), and that I would suggest not taking the above as gospel. It's been long enough that I don't recall the details very well so I am not comfortable with specifics, but I am positive that Chiang did not come across well.

So...you don't actually have any specific points to make, you're just making a general claim about there being another side to the story? How is that supposed to help us?
posted by nasreddin at 7:12 PM on December 27, 2010


I'm not saying that Tor's side is without question the unvarnished truth, but I am saying that it is kind of naive to think that Chiang's telling is such.

The thing is that Chiang put his money where his mouth was. Everyone complains about their cover art; it is the "hot enough for ya?" of professional writers.

But Ted Chiang took the whole thing (and the other editing issues) seriously enough that he walked away and sought out a potentially less lucrative small press. So he gets points for integrity (points I myself gladly own I lack).

The list of authors who are dicks to their editors about their cover art is enormous. The list of authors who are so serious about their cover art reflecting the tone and philosophy of their work that they are willing to accept a cut in pay in order to work with people who are going to be on the same page with them is tiny.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:17 PM on December 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


Uh, this would be a good argument to make if Chiang didn't actually end up putting his money where his mouth was.

You miss the point. Chiang *doesn't care about money*. That's why walking away from a house that was trying to sell his books made sense.
posted by eriko at 7:21 PM on December 27, 2010


Hey, I'm not saying "there are two sides to every story", I'm saying that I've read the other side to this story and that it seemed to me that Chiang was being completely unreasonable. You're free to discount this, of course, but the available evidence supports my theory given that authors virtually never have any input about cover art. Ted Chiang expecting to have input about cover art is inherently unreasonable when working with Tor Books.

That has no bearing on Chiang's skill, integrity, or anything else. It only has to do with whether Tor Books was being a dick to him by refusing to give in to his demands with regard to the cover. They weren't; no major publishing house is going to allow an author to dictate cover art, much less an author who loses money for them.
posted by Justinian at 7:35 PM on December 27, 2010


I'll tell you which Banks one I'm talking about on the condition that it isn't followed by a bunch of comments saying that's the WORST one and THIS one will be better.

The Business is not the worst Banks book. That is almost universally acknowledged to be Canal Dreams.

I'll try a Culture novel, although I'm pretty sure I got like 5 paragraphs into one once before giving up.

Three ways to go here.

Best Culture book: Use of Weapons. Hands-down.

Best Introduction to Culture Books According to me: The Player of Games.

First Culture book and the only one where the Culture is sort-of portrayed as the enemy, but if you know that there are Culture books you probably already know they're more or less the good guys anyway: Consider Phlebas.

No idea if any of those are avail. as audiobooks.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:39 PM on December 27, 2010


Starting the Culture books with anything other than Consider Phlebas is a horrible mistake! Unfortunately for anyone reading this thread, just knowing that it is the first of the "Culture Books" is a spoiler and detracts in a major way from CP's impact.

<>Surface Details.

p.s. Rapid Offensive Units suck, LOU's Rule.
posted by Justinian at 7:43 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


whoops, I munged something. Tried to say that I am currently reading Surface Details which is Banks' latest.
posted by Justinian at 7:43 PM on December 27, 2010


eriko:

I don't think it's accurate that Chiang doesn't care about money. I think it's likely more accurate to say that money isn't as controlling a factor for him as it may be for other authors.

Also, addressing a point earlier in the thread, speaking as someone who works with both large and small presses, it's not necessarily accurate to suggest Ted is taking a pay cut to work with a smaller press, particularly when the smaller press in question is Subterranean, which does a fine job packaging novellas and other shorter works (something which larger publishers no longer have much interest in doing), and selling them to a specialty/collector audience. It's entirely possible that Ted made as much (if not more) from publishing a novella with SubPress as he got from Tor for his short story collection.

This isn't to paint Tor as a bad actor here (I publish with Tor, and with SubPress). It is to note that small presses and larger presses have different audiences and aims and that writers can do well with either, or both, depending on the circumstances and the particular work involved.
posted by jscalzi at 7:48 PM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Waitwaitwait ... who here honestly thinks that cover art actually helped sell the book? Every conversation has two sides, we all know that, but if your job is to put "cool" and "hip" art on a book than they failed.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:01 PM on December 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


You're free to discount this, of course, but the available evidence supports my theory given that authors virtually never have any input about cover art. Ted Chiang expecting to have input about cover art is inherently unreasonable when working with Tor Books.

Pretty much every author I know thinks that this is a way in which the system is fundamentally broken. Authors having zero input on cover art is, as far as authors are concerned, a bug rather than a feature.

So even if Chiang had a ridiculous hissy fit at the time and acted like a complete jerk to everyone at Tor, which I suppose could have happened, here's the thing: when you take the long view, he still has more integrity than most writers for making a change that is potentially (though not certainly, as Our Own John Scalzi so wisely points out) detrimental to his financial bottom line, rather than continuing to accept the status quo and just complaining about it.

(Now, my opinion is that there is no reason why authors' concerns about cover art shouldn't be at least considered as one element in the larger decision--authors generally know what their books are about, for instance, whereas cover artists rarely have the opportunity to read the book or even more than an iota of coverage. If I were ever a developmental editor {which I haven't been, so of course it's easy for me to say} I would at least pay some attention to an author who says "Hey, shit, that cover isn't anything like my book, and anyone who wants things like my book would be horribly turned off by it whereas people who want things like that cover would be horribly turned off by my book."

When you consider some of the ridiculously unfounded opinions that are routinely taken into consideration in choosing book cover art--like those of the head of sales who famously used to say "Nobody in the Midwest likes green" and other such pearls of wisdom--it does seem that the author should have some input, simply because they may be the only person at the publisher besides the editor who has actually read the book.)

It's entirely possible that Ted made as much (if not more) from publishing a novella with SubPress as he got from Tor for his short story collection.

Good point, John. Subterranean is not teeny-tiny, and Tor is not huge, and as you say, different houses target different audiences, so it might be a wash.

But I still give Chiang credit for actively doing something about his concerns instead of just whining like me and nearly everyone else I know.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:12 PM on December 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


Obviously, I meant "acquiring editor" above, not "developmental editor." (Momentary brainfreezes like that are not why I have never been an acquiring editor, though.)
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:14 PM on December 27, 2010


Thank you for this post, Rhaomi. Chiang's stories are probably the most pure expression of what I love most about science fiction.

This was my first chance to read "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" and it was the first time I'd been disappointed by Chiang. Pretty much everything in that story has already been done better by Greg Egan (Egan's short story collection Axioimatic is almost as good as Stories of Your Life).

For instance Egan has a story [SPOILER!] dealing with the idea of blackmailing you by threatening to torture virtual copies of someone you love, but has the added twist of making it clear that the virtual copy is a composite creation based on your memories and ideas about that person, and raises the idea that you might actually care more about your mental construct of a person than the person herself. That you might value the person as you know her more than you value the person as she actually and objectively exists.

On the other hand, "Liking What You See" may not be the greatest story, but it raises an utterly fascinating idea -- what if could stop seeing people as ugly or beautiful -- and then does a wonderful job of exploring the idea -- what would society be like? How would we react to having that option? Maybe it doesn't "deserve" a Hugo, but I think everyone should read it.

And I'm not only interested in new ideas. "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" adds nothing particularly original to the time travel genre, but the story is so perfectly constructed and so well told that it is a joy. And that reading of it in the .mp3 Rhaomi linked is fantastic -- head and shoulders above most of the SF audio recordings I've ever found online.
posted by straight at 8:52 PM on December 27, 2010


Although the general rule may be that publishers are better placed than authors to choose covers for the books they sell, and even if Chiang was a bit of a tool about it... c'mon. The Tor design is horrible. I wouldn't bother picking up a book that looked like that unless I was already absolutely certain that I was going to like it, because I'd assume that as little effort had gone into every other aspect of it as obviously went into the cover (given that I don't know much about the publishing industry, and that every bookshop has another 300 books all competing for my fickle attention). We can argue act vs rule systems of ethics all we like but it won't make the swooning metal-cocked giant any less like something that would have belonged on the front of a knock-off Choose Your Own Adventure Book published for adult readers in 1982.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 9:05 PM on December 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


This was my first chance to read "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" and it was the first time I'd been disappointed by Chiang. Pretty much everything in that story has already been done better by Greg Egan (Egan's short story collection Axioimatic is almost as good as Stories of Your Life).

I agree with pretty much all of this except that I'd say Stories of Your Life and Others is almost as good as Axiomatic, since I think the latter is possibly the best non-best-of single author collection ever. Axiomatic really is a brilliant collection and I agree that Chiang is obviously (consciously or not) recycling a bit of Egan here.
posted by Justinian at 11:08 PM on December 27, 2010


but really who looks at the cover of SF novels?

That depends, am I looking at a book by an author who I've read before an liked? Am I looking at a book I've picked up because of a specific recommendation? If the answer to both those questions is no, then I'm looking at the cover art as a quick filter to decide whether to spend time investigating this new author or instead look at the many thousands of other books in the store I haven't read. The only thing that might overcome the bad art is the presence of that magic sticker '3 for 2' on the cover alongside it.
posted by robertc at 4:23 AM on December 28, 2010


The 2004 edition from Tor looks to have made use of Ted's artwork, or is that just in the UK?
posted by robertc at 4:32 AM on December 28, 2010


The man himself says:
"Niall: the UK cover is actually based on the art I commissioned. It's a close-up view of the original, so the face is a bit harder to make out, and the color scheme is different, but that's essentially the image I wanted. I was very happy with Pan Macmillan's willingness to work with me."
posted by pharm at 6:11 AM on December 28, 2010


I buy books based (partly) on the covers all the time. I know, I know, I'm a bad person. But I make it a policy to frequently try out new authors so I don't get stuck in a rut. I have noticed my process tends to go something like this --

1) Hey, that's an interesting title! I'll pull that one out.

2) Hmm, the cover art is:
a) pretty nifty. I'm intrigued. +1
b) cheap hackwork. Huh. I wonder if the novel is, too. -1

3) What does the back of the book say?
a) Well, that sounds interesting. +1
b) ... a half-elf finds a magic sword? Is this based on someone's D&D campaign? -1

4) And finally, let's open to a random page. The prose:
a) is pretty darn good. +1
b) makes me want to stab my eyes out with a sharpened spoon. -3

So, I won't say a cover makes me buy or not buy, but it sure as heck might flip me one way or the other if a book is sitting on the fence for some reason (say, good prose but a dumb-sounding plot).

And if I'd come across Ted Chiang, whom I'd heard of only vaguely before this thread, in a random bookstore, I might have thought, "well, the prose is good, but I tend to be very picky about short stories ..." And I will admit that cover art was awful enough that I might have ended up putting the book back and going with something else.
posted by kyrademon at 7:00 AM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is a really well done post; I've been using China Mieville as my Shibboleth for years; I'd nearly forgotten how much I loved Ted Chiang's writing until The Merchant and the Alchemist's gate came out in F&SF. I just hope he continues to publish, even if only infrequently.
posted by Dedalus at 7:05 AM on December 28, 2010


Also, addressing a point earlier in the thread, speaking as someone who works with both large and small presses, it's not necessarily accurate to suggest Ted is taking a pay cut to work with a smaller press

I'm going to take this moment to apologize for using the word "vanity" in association with Subterranean Press. I meant no ill to SubTer and I didn't mean to accuse Ted Chiang of self publishing.

I honestly and simply screwed up a term -- SubTer is a true and honest publishing house, who follows Yog's Law and I regret that I implied that they were anything but.

Authors having zero input on cover art is, as far as authors are concerned, a bug rather than a feature.

Users on corporate networks not having domain administrator rights is, as far as users are concerned, a bug rather than a feature.

That's because users are not administrators, and do not have the skills and knowledge necessary to safely use those rights. Just as the SysAdmins do not have the skill to sell products, or keep the corporate books, or design, maintain and run a production line, or keep the corporate books, or thousands of other things.

Authors do not sell books. Authors sell manuscripts. Publishers buy salable manuscripts and turn them into salable books.

Note -- you may not think it's a good book. I couldn't stand a thing that Jim Rigney wrote, and I never would have considered it worth printing. This is why I am not a publisher, and Tor is. Tor did consider it salable, and went on to sell over 40 million of his books.

And, to be honest, I rather hate that cover. But that cover was, to me, a non-factor. The name "Ted Chiang" on the spine is what sold that book. Nobody who likes Ted Chiang would have really needed a cover to buy that book.

What they're trying to do is sell that book to people who *don't know* who Ted Chiang is. Given the number of new authors they've found over the almost 30 years Tor has been publishing, I'm willing to accept that may just know how to get someone wandering a bookshelf to pick up a book they've published despite the fact that the buyer has never heard of the author.

Once they know and like the author, sales to those readers is vastly easier.
posted by eriko at 7:16 AM on December 28, 2010


Weirdly though they often get mentioned in the same breath (around here anyway) Egans short stories frequently bore me - too much posthuman proselytising.
posted by Artw at 9:01 AM on December 28, 2010


This post got Ted Chiang featured on io9!

Congratulatory MeTa.
posted by griphus at 9:10 AM on December 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


What they're trying to do is sell that book to people who *don't know* who Ted Chiang is.

Yes. And to me, it's a horrible decision, because someone picks up that book thinking it will be a "muscular hero saves doomed city" thing and then they are disappointed. Whereas someone who might like super-thinky stories, but who had never heard of Ted Chiang, would be likely to be interested in a book that had a cover illustration of a head made out of data on it, and they would really enjoy the book.

I know what you're saying, eriko. What I am saying is that sometimes marketing people are terribly, terribly mistaken. Having been part of that particular sausage machine myself, I know how arbitrary decisions about cover art can be, so both as a writer and a former publishing drone I think that the actual content of the book should be reflected in the cover art.

You could put naked Pamela Anderson sitting astride a Harley with an M-16 on the cover of the next Ian McEwan book, and it would certainly sell that book to lots of people who don't know who Ian McEwan is, but I don't think they'd be happy about it. Nor would the Ian McEwan fans.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:46 AM on December 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


I get that most people aren't graphic designers, or marketing folks - I did a few years of commericial graphic design, I know.

At the same time, having a minimal say over the artwork is important, especially if the art is actively misleading compared to what you're going to be reading about. Consider, for instance, the ongoing issue of black protagonists magically becoming white on book covers.

Writers aren't graphic designers... but they are people who read books- people who love books. They buy them regularly - they may not always have the -best- ideas of what's going to look good, but they've seen enough books that they're not a completely uninformed audience here.
posted by yeloson at 10:47 AM on December 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Or, what Sidhedevil said, basically.
posted by yeloson at 10:48 AM on December 28, 2010


Oh man, yeloson, that link probably deserves it's own top level post. That is evil, evil, evil.
posted by lumpenprole at 12:08 PM on December 28, 2010


Yeah . . . I don't want to self-link, but I just did a blog post on my writing group's blog last night about cover whitewashing on yet another YA novel. Color me as yet another reader/writer who would be happy if writers got a greater say in their covers.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:27 PM on December 28, 2010


You could put naked Pamela Anderson sitting astride a Harley with an M-16 on the cover

When did we start talking about Baen Books?
posted by Justinian at 1:27 PM on December 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


What they're trying to do is sell that book to people who *don't know* who Ted Chiang is.

Eriko, you're arguing the general case in a specific one, which is always tricky. I don't doubt that TOR, on the whole picks better covers than it's authors. I don't doubt that this is the best business decision for a publisher in general.

In this particular case though, that unnamed editor screwed the pooch, dropped the plot, ran the caboose off the rails and forgot to feed the dog. That cover is beyond awful. It's worse than some of the Theodore Sturgeon covers from the fifties. If that cover is representative of the judgement of our unnamed editor, it's a wonder that the book was published with all of the vowels left in. Its a crime against all the lettered, much less the author.

I have no trouble with the concept that in the usual case authors are their own worst enemies when it comes to cover art. However, this does not eliminate the possibility of a total systematic failure of taste and market savvy on the part of the publisher either in any particular instance. While this may have been an unusual failing on the part of TOR, normally the best of mass-market SF publishers, it only goes to prove that the best can have their terrible, awful days too.
posted by bonehead at 4:10 PM on December 28, 2010


In this particular case though, that unnamed editor screwed the pooch, dropped the plot, ran the caboose off the rails and forgot to feed the dog. That cover is beyond awful.

Have you seen Darrell K. Sweet covers? I think you're underestimating the appeal of beyond-awful covers. It's relatively trivial to find much worse examples on genre novels in the last 10 years.
posted by Justinian at 4:59 PM on December 28, 2010


Oh, and FWIW "Stories of Your Life and Others" was edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden. He may be abrasive and a (expletive deleted) but he is also the greatest SF editor of the last 20 years. So I'm likely to defer to his editorial judgment.
posted by Justinian at 5:07 PM on December 28, 2010


I vote this post best if thats how its done.

“Not that the average person would notice. It’s just that I’ve spent a lot more time with animals than most people.”

“That’s okay,” he says.”I appreciate hearing a different perspective.”

-The Lifecycle of Software Objects

this is the first SF ive read in a while.
genius.
oh the cover art guffaw is real, ya know, kool.
thanks Rhaomi.
posted by clavdivs at 11:49 PM on December 28, 2010


I haven't read any of these yet and I'm already excited. This looks like exactly my sort of awesome.

I will report back after digging through a few of these, as I'm sure it will be meted out.
posted by disillusioned at 12:08 AM on December 29, 2010


Because of this thread, I went to Dymocks and bought a copy of Stories of Your Life and Others. It's the 2010 small beer press edition which actually has Chiang's preferred cover and to be honest it's not fantastic (the cover, that is - I won't start the book until I've finished my current challenge of reading all six of the original Dune novels, which from this point in God Emperor is looking like a very steep hill covered in slidey rocks and thorn bushes and bizarre failures of continuity). The spacing of the words in the title is odd and the equation-head makes it look like a year 11 maths textbook. So maybe the moral to this story is that sometimes nobody is right.

(the cover of this edition makes better use of the equation-head)
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 12:17 AM on December 29, 2010


(If I were assigned to write what would happen next, it probably would involve the tower toppled, Yahweh's temples burned, and the people of Babylon turning on each other, but there are many ways out of this. What concerns me is that Chiang doesn't seem to address it or any other outcome at all.)

Aw man, one of the best parts of that story is that Chiang doesn't show the outcome -- I would find that heavy-handed, personally. He leaves it open-ended what the consequences of the revelation might be. We already know how the original story ends, so to regurgitate that ending would be redundant. Chiang's story is subtly different from the original, and different enough from our world that we might imagine a different outcome, or a thousand diferent outcomes. That's what separates the story from a simple retelling of a tired myth.
posted by speicus at 7:24 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


AHHHH. I've been reading through these in order at work since this post. I'm also throwing down my vote for best post.

I just finished Hell is the Absence of God.

__SPOILER ALERT__

And God sent him to Hell anyway.

That line hit me harder than anything I've read in a long time.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 7:31 AM on December 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


And I just finished reading it all. Wow. I'm pretty sure joining metafilter was the best 5 bucks I've ever spent, even if only for this post.

Thanks again everybody.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 9:22 AM on December 29, 2010


It's the 2010 small beer press edition which actually has Chiang's preferred cover and to be honest it's not fantastic

let's face it, it's boring and looks like a physics textbook or the packaging for an 80s Spreadsheet. Still, it's not ugly like the other one.

TBH it's pretty hard to envision a cover that really sells that book.
posted by Artw at 11:13 AM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'd put a bunch of spaceships shooting and blowing each other up.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:55 PM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


PEW PEW PEW
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 2:00 PM on December 29, 2010


Sad that this thread has become a discussion about the Tor cover.

Yeah, I'm not really sure who the bad guy is in the case of Chiang v. Tor, but I am glad that Stories of Your Life And Others is coming back into print with some better cover art.

The small press version with the new art has been available for a while. I bought it even though most of his stories are floating around online because it feels good to have them in one nice, clean, portable package that doesn't need recharging.

If Ted Chiang was more productive he cease to be Ted Chiang?
posted by mecran01 at 10:15 PM on December 31, 2010


"would he cease to be Ted Chiang"
posted by mecran01 at 10:16 PM on December 31, 2010


Thank you so much for this post- I've been enjoying the stories during my commute for the past week.
I think "Story of Your Life" is one of the best short stories I have ever read.
posted by koakuma at 4:40 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I re-read "Tower of Babylon" recently, and it came to me that the structure of the story's universe is very similar to the Hebrew cosmology map from this post. The only difference being that [*SPOILER*] the "waters above the firmament," when reached by tunneling through the firmament itself, turn out to be the same thing as the waters of "the great deep." Yahweh, if he exists, exists beyond the boundaries of the universe, which wrap around and connect to each other like a three-dimensional game of Asteroids. [*END SPOILER*]

Also, I did some figuring using information from the story and have a rough guess as to the height of the tower: after seven full days of steady ascent, they find themselves "the better part of a league straight up." Given that a league equals nearly 3.5 miles, we can estimate the rate of travel at about three miles per week. And since it takes "four months" to pull a cart to the top of the tower (which is nearly complete), that works out to a total height of (4 months ≈ 120 days, divided by 7 days ≈ 17.14 weeks, times 3 miles per week) ≈ 51.42 miles high. That's straight through the stratosphere, the ozone layer, and the mesophere, scraping the lower fringes of the thermosphere. Of course, their world's atmosphere works differently, but still. That's pretty damn high.

Lastly, this passage:
As they climbed higher up the tower, the sky grew lighter in color, until one morning Hillalum awoke and stood at the edge and yelled from shock: what had before seemed a pale sky now appeared to be a white ceiling stretched far above their heads. They were close enough now to perceive the vault of heaven, to see it as a solid carapace enclosing all the sky. All of the miners spoke in hushed tones, staring up like idiots, while the tower dwellers laughed at them.

As they continued to climb, they were startled at how near they actually were. The blankness of the vault's face had deceived them, making it undetectable until it appeared, abruptly, seeming just above their heads. Now instead of climbing into the sky, they climbed up to a featureless plain that stretched endlessly in all directions.
That reminds me a lot of that scene from the end of The Truman Show (at the 4:00 mark in this video), where Carrey's character is sailing across the sea in a stolen boat, defying the control of the reality show around him... when he suddenly crashes into the sky. The sky, which is actually the wall of a massive dome enclosing his world. At least he gets a chance to escape it.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:19 PM on January 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I thought of that exact same thing IE: The Truman Show, Rhaomi
posted by The Whelk at 4:32 PM on January 23, 2011


Yeah, I almost thought he was inspired by it before remembering the publication date.

Also, it looks like Chiang did take some inspiration from history:
The 17th century historian Verstegan provides yet another figure - quoting Isidore, he says that the tower was 5,164 paces high, or 7.6 km (4.7 mi), and quoting Josephus that the tower was wider than it was high, more like a mountain than a tower. He also quotes unnamed authors who say that the spiral path was so wide that it contained lodgings for workers and animals, and other authors who claim that the path was wide enough to have fields for growing grain for the animals used in the construction.
Or from a Google Books link quoting the same source:
According to Verstegan, "the passage to mount vp, was very wyd and great, and went wynding about on the outsyd: the middle and inward parte for the more strength being all massie; and by carte, camels, dromedaries, horses, asses, and mules, the carriages were borne and drawn vp: and by the way were many logings and hosteries both for man and beast. And some authors reporte the space for going vp to haue bin soo exceeding wyd; that there were feildes made all along besydes the common passage or highway, for the nuriture of cattel and bringing foorth of grain, but how-euer it were, an almost incredible great woork, may it well be thought to haue bin."
posted by Rhaomi at 5:37 PM on January 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


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