The sublime science fiction of Ted Chiang
February 21, 2022 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Twelve years on, Ted Chiang remains 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 eighteen short stories in the last thirty years, one and a half 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. His collected works, mostly available in the anthologies Stories of Your Life and Others (2010) and Exhalation: Stories (2019), have cemented his reputation as one of the greatest SF storytellers of all time (and inspired one of the best SF movies of all time). Click inside for a complete listing of Chiang's work, with links to online reprints or audio versions where available, as well as a collection of one-on-one interviews, links to his other writings, video essays, movie clips, and lots more.

The 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 the life of her daughter as she struggles to grasp the meaning of an alien language. Nebula Award (Best Novella). Adapted into the acclaimed 2016 film Arrival by Denis Villeneuve (trailer - original screenplay).
Scenes from the film: Opening - The Ship - First Contact - The Nature of a Question - A Proper Introduction - The Heptapods - The Phone Call - Ending

Video of the premiere's Q&A panel

Gwern: "Story of Your Life" is Not a Time Travel Story - CJ the X: "Time is an Illusion" video essay
Catching Crumbs from the Table (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).
Related: The terrifying eldritch horror of Biblically-accurate angels
Liking What You See: A Documentary (2002) - A documentary examines people's reactions to a technology that allows one to see others without regard for physical beauty. Chiang declined a Hugo nomination, feeling the story was unacceptably rushed. Currently being adapted for AMC by Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer.

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. Hugo Award (Best Novella).
Related: The beauty and loneliness of abandoned virtual worlds
Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny (2011) - Victorian social mores are explored through the efforts of a disgruntled inventor to devise a mechanical nanny.

The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling (2013) - The experience of two societies separated by space and time contrasts the natures of truth, fiction, and collective memory.
Related: The Black Mirror episode "The Entire History of You" deals with similar technological ideas
The Great Silence (2015) - A heartbreaking message from the parrots of Arecibo to the builders of the great radio telescope that lies there.
Chiang discusses the making of The Great Silence as well as other works addressing interspecies communication, including "Story of Your Life", the novella which was adapted into the 2016 feature film, Arrival.
Omphalos (2019) - In a world where Young Earth creationism is true, an archaeologist discovers an unsettling fact about the universe.

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom (2019) [scroll down]- A new technology that lets people see and communicate with alternate timelines throws society into an existential crisis.

It's 2059, and the Rich Kids are Still Winning (2019) - A successful project to genetically enhance the intelligence of poor children runs into the realities of structural poverty and economic inequality.
Essays
Story Notes from the first anthology discussing the background and inspiration for selected stories (contains some spoilers).

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

The New Yorker: "Why Computers Won’t Make Themselves Smarter" by Ted Chiang
Interviews:
SF Site (2002) - Infinityplus (2002) - Fantastic Metropolis (2003) - Nebula Awards (2008) - IndieBound (2008) - StarShipSofa podcast (2009) - BoingBoing (2010), discussed previously - Asian American Writers' Workshop (2012) - The Believer (2019) - Ezra Klein, NYT (2021)

Speculative Visions with Ted Chiang, an 81-minute reading and Q&A hosted by the Asian American Writers' Workshop in 2016.
Other
"Future Imperfect" - A 2010 feature piece on Chiang's 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.

Tor: Let’s Rank Every Ted Chiang Story Ever Published

Ted Chiang (ology) - A vintage fan blog dedicated to documenting characters, defining terms, and cataloging statistical information from Chiang's stories.
[This blissfully updated post brought to you by #DoublesJubilee!]
posted by Rhaomi (34 comments total) 219 users marked this as a favorite
 
PS If you like Ted Chiang, you may enjoy another technical writer who wrote some excellent short stories, Greg Egan.
posted by sixswitch at 3:36 PM on February 21 [19 favorites]


Such a great writer, but one of those ones whose stories you want to savor because you just know there won't be many more.

I'm still astonished they pulled off the movie Arrival. The central narrative conceit is really confusing and hard to follow. I think they made a good choice in the film by not centering the weird causality inversion but still including it.
posted by Nelson at 4:35 PM on February 21 [12 favorites]


I once came in second to Ted for an award.

My reaction: "Cool! I won!"
posted by jscalzi at 4:43 PM on February 21 [101 favorites]


Thanks so much for compiling a summer's worth of reading.
posted by Jesse the K at 5:08 PM on February 21


I loved his first collection; I'll have to pick up the second.

Count me among those who were disappointed in Arrival. The original story is in a sense without a plot, and certainly without the world-threatening drama of the film, so I understand that Villeneuve had to depart from the source material to make a marketable film, but I felt like they turned it into an overly serious episode of Doctor Who with a timey-wimey denoument. I also didn't like that they cribbed one major plot point from Contact, which I won't spoil for those who haven't seen one or both films. There were a few other details that bugged me, mostly the cliches Hollywood uses whenever depicting academics. No way a linguistics professor lives in a freakin' mansion like Amy Adams has unless they got a big-time inheritance (which is possible, of course, but her house was seriously expensive from what I remember... it stuck out). I thought the first meeting with her and Renner's character in the helicopter was also kind of hokey. They are having some playful argument about what is the foundation of any civilization, or something, and she says "language" and he says "science," because they are like opposites, get it? And I'm thinking, "What kind of idiot would say 'science' when he knows that the modern scientific method is only a couple centuries old?" OK, I'm nitpicking.
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:19 PM on February 21 [8 favorites]


I just thought I reread all of his stories this week.
But there is one here I haven't read!
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
How can this be? I'm excited!
And sad that once I read it then there won't be a new one any more!

I use 'exhalation' in teaching about entropy. I've had quite a few groans when there's a short story?? In physics class??
But also some really cool looks of dread as people start to get the idea that entropy itself is not fiction.
posted by Acari at 5:38 PM on February 21 [6 favorites]


A friend literally sent me a story of his last night. How perfect this timing. Thank you!
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 5:46 PM on February 21


So many good stories, but I think the one that stands out for me is "Understand." Sort of a revisioning of Flowers for Algernon. "Tower of Babel" stands out as well, if for no other reason than its amazing visuals. That Ezra Klein interview done very recently--last month, I think--is very very interesting.
posted by zardoz at 6:12 PM on February 21 [3 favorites]


A friend does a book related thing and one week the book was “Exhalation.” Intrigued, I put a hold on it at the library. Eight months later I got the email that it was available, and I no longer remembered having placed the hold. It took a while to figure out how I’d learned about it in order to place the hold. I loved the stories.
posted by fedward at 6:44 PM on February 21


The Great Silence is so good. Thanks for reminding me to read it again.
posted by drowsy at 8:02 PM on February 21


"Understand" is what made me a big Chiang fan. Some stories just make the brain sizzle and that did it for me. It's fairly common that authors will sometimes write about characters who are bleeding-edge-to-superhuman smart...which is really difficult when the author's not up to the task. He is.

Perfect timing also tied into it: I discovered Ted Chiang right around the time I first read Peter Watts' Blindsight which also rated very high on the personal brain-sizzle factor. And I love how the two works reflect each other in some thematic ways, by taking polar opposite views of the nature of consciousness-and-intelligence, and just sprinting at exactly opposite points of the horizon and it's breathtaking.

My only complaint is every time somewhere mentions him again I get all excited thinking it means there's a third story collection out and nope!
posted by Drastic at 8:16 PM on February 21 [3 favorites]


Thank you so much for posting. Ted Chiang is a treasure. I loved the story of your life and thought arrival was an excellent movie adaptation. I’d just had a baby around that time as well so it hit so deep in the feels. Exhalation, the lifecycle…
Like so many thinky sci fi writers, the characters take second to the story/theme/idea being explored but generally in his case so well executed it’s not noticeable (unlike others…)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:17 PM on February 21


I didn't see it in the post above (forgive if I've overlooked it), but I rather enjoyed his interview on the Manifold podcast.
posted by klausman at 9:02 PM on February 21


I read "Understand" when it was published in August 1991, when I was twelve—the Golden Age of Science Fiction (or indeed, of anything). For the rest of the decade, it was the bar by which I judged other SF shorts, which I now see was really unfair of me. (The other stories I read which compared favorably were "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" by Borges, "A Sound of Thunder" by Bradbury, and "Someday" by Asimov.)
posted by infinitewindow at 9:24 PM on February 21 [3 favorites]


I've only read a few Ted Chiang stories so far but have always meant to read more. This post is my new reading list. Thanks, Rhaomi, your Doubles Jubilee posts have been killing it!
posted by ejs at 9:53 PM on February 21


I've really enjoyed reading all of Chiang's stories, I think "Exhalation" was the last book I recommended to someone IRL.

Re-reading "Liking What You See," I find myself dissatisfied in a way I would not have been just a few years ago: His characters are too thoughtful, too self-reflective. They consider the way they feel and they change what they believe on the basis of new experiences and new information. They're too rational, too emotionally intelligent. Today, I expect real people to dig in, to double down, to deny reality and invent elaborate bullshit to justify their feelings rather than contemplate changing them.

...here were a few other details [regarding the movie adaptation Arrival] that bugged me, mostly the cliches Hollywood uses whenever depicting academics. No way a linguistics professor lives in a freakin' mansion like Amy Adams has...

This bothered me, too, but (golly its been a long time) wasn't there some kind of visual rhyme between her house and the alien craft interior, some scenes that transitioned back and forth fluidly and deliberately? Was there some hint that she'd been drawn to this house because of her future?
posted by Western Infidels at 9:57 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]


They are having some playful argument about what is the foundation of any civilization, or something, and she says "language" and he says "science," because they are like opposites, get it? And I'm thinking, "What kind of idiot would say 'science' when he knows that the modern scientific method is only a couple centuries old?" OK, I'm nitpicking.

"What kind of idiot would say 'language' in a world with India and China and Canada and Great Britain and Spain and Morocco and the EU and the historical Spanish empire and Holy Roman Empire and Rome?"
posted by Superilla at 11:47 PM on February 21


I think Chiang and Egan make for an interesting comparison, but ultimately they're quite different. In my opinion, they're both very gifted technical thinkers, but whereas Chiang takes technical ideas and translates them into stories for lay people, I suspect many (most?) of Egan's stories are pretty hard to enjoy if you don't already have a strong technical foundation.

I think Chiang is probably a better writer as such, but as a working scientist I do find Egan's work more stimulating.
posted by Alex404 at 12:22 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]


holy cow, this post. just seeing it now and couldn't favorite it fast enough. seconding the comments that this is my new reading list. I really have nothing of value to add here; this is just one more "thank you" to Rhaomi.

although how do I manage this post and the Starship Titanic post? Not enough hours in the year. Thanks Rhaomi. :)
posted by martin q blank at 6:29 AM on February 22


Just cherry picking from the list, and man, The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling is a real gut puncher. This is towards the end and it really resonated with me:

We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:44 AM on February 22 [7 favorites]


Such a great writer, but one of those ones whose stories you want to savor because you just know there won't be many more

And sad that once I read it then there won't be a new one any more!

You guy sent me into a panic-mode, where I thought perhaps he had passed, or was inflicted with a debilitating health condition.
posted by rozcakj at 7:39 AM on February 22 [2 favorites]


Read the first collection; must add the second to the queue. "Tower of Babylon" and "Hell Is the Absence of God" really stay with me; I think of them often.
posted by Rash at 8:50 AM on February 22


Damn.

I haven't read Story of Your Life since having a baby.

Not sure I should've.
posted by The Monster at the End of this Thread at 8:59 AM on February 22 [5 favorites]


I read "Stories of your Life and others" on my last beach trip. I don't remember much about the beach but the stories stayed with me.

I love how strange and internally consistent the worlds he creates are. I don't know how to classify stories like Babylon or Seventy-Two Letters. Science fiction doesn't really seem to fit.
posted by fzx101 at 10:48 AM on February 22


"What kind of idiot would say 'language' in a world with India and China and Canada and Great Britain and Spain and Morocco and the EU and the historical Spanish empire and Holy Roman Empire and Rome?"

Those countries didn't have languages?
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:55 AM on February 22 [2 favorites]


Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.
posted by vincebowdren at 11:25 AM on February 22 [6 favorites]



You guy sent me into a panic-mode

Sorry - I just meant that there won't be a new one RIGHT NOW RIGHT NOW. Sometimes I can really sympathize with my 3yo son, and this appears to be one of them.
posted by Acari at 3:04 PM on February 22 [1 favorite]


Chiang's "Lifecycle of Software Objects" has been resonating in my heart for a decade. I've been using (and helping design) assistive technologies for 30-some years.

Chiang captures the profound human connection that assistive technologies can support, as well as the dread we feel when change-for-change's sake spoils the tools and the patterns of our lives.

In the U.S., assistive technology users often can't afford upgrades. Suppliers are not held to any support guarantees. Just last week Alensin posted about people whose retinal implants are no longer being supported.

Chiang's lesson is relevant here: design our assistive tech so it's also useful for sex work.
posted by Jesse the K at 5:03 PM on February 22 [2 favorites]


What's Expected of Us is a nice story but I don't think the Predictors would work as depicted, as I don't think that once we decide on an action we are compelled to carry it out. I think if Predictors really did exist, the light would never come on if it was your intention to try to "trick" the machine, or even if you couldn't say for certain that you definitely wouldn't try. I think it would only light up if you intended to press the button irrespective of what the light did. I agree that we don't have free will but this doesn't mean that we can't change our minds whenever we "want" to.

Re. the film Arrival, I found the ending unsatisfying, due to the paradoxical nature of the way the world-saving information was acquired (the event in the present depended on the event in the future, which depended on the event in the present, creating circular logic...?)

Understand is excellent.
posted by mokey at 5:07 AM on February 23


Re. the film Arrival, I found the ending unsatisfying, due to the paradoxical nature of the way the world-saving information was acquired (the event in the present depended on the event in the future, which depended on the event in the present, creating circular logic...?)

Agreed; this was the biggest change from the book, and the weakest point in the film I thought.
posted by vincebowdren at 5:27 AM on February 23


Re-reading “Hell is the Absence of God” after a lengthy stay in Twelvestepville hits different.
posted by infinitewindow at 7:11 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


Damn. Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom is just DAMN. The issues about who you are and how your choices matter and how they form who you are. I'm clearly going to have to read all of these over time because every one I read really brings an issue into crystal clear perspective and then fogs it up again and then brings it back into some kind of perspective again. I don't even know what I'm saying, exactly, but I feel the rightness of these stories in a very visceral way.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:43 AM on February 23 [3 favorites]


[Archive.org copy of this post]
posted by Rhaomi at 6:16 PM on February 27 [1 favorite]


Rhaomi, because of your post back in 2010, I joined a book club a couple of years later specifically to discuss a Ted Chiang story. And there, I met my future spouse! So thank you!
posted by vasi at 7:19 PM on February 27 [10 favorites]


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