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The Interview

The Mind-Boggling World Of Short-Story Writer Mr Ted Chiang

Deep breath: the award-winning author mixes science fiction and philosophical inquiry in his latest story collection

Mr Ted Chiang is an extraordinary writer. Widely celebrated in the universe of speculative fiction, he is among the rare genre authors who has also achieved mainstream renown. His intricately crafted tales border on philosophy, but can be read for pure delight. He has only published 17 short stories, but he has won a cache of prestigious science-fiction awards, and his work was chosen for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories series, one of the literary world’s highest honours. His first book was released nearly two decades ago, and its title story became the basis of the Academy Award-nominated film Arrival. But the most important thing to know about him at this juncture is that his second collection is almost here – and it’s among those rare long-awaited things that are worthy of the anticipation.

Each of the nine narratives in Mr Chiang’s new book, Exhalation, out on 11 July, offers exquisitely wrought escapism, science fiction that’s not only precision-crafted and thoughtful, but instantly immersive, no matter how far-fetched the conceits. Subjects range from a time-travelling fabric merchant in ancient Baghdad to a former zookeeper who parents nascent AIs, to an involving rumination upon the Fermi paradox – a conundrum about the existence of extra-terrestrial life – by a Puerto Rican parrot. The energy at work in Mr Chiang’s stories is electric. The magic is their emotional resonance. His fiction may take flights of fancy, but it has a human heart.

“Science fiction is really good for performing thought experiments,” says Mr Chiang. “This is something philosophers often do, describing hypothetical scenarios to illustrate philosophical questions. But when philosophers describe a thought experiment, it can seem pretty abstract. Science fiction allows readers to feel the impact on an emotional level.”

Among Mr Chiang’s preoccupations is communication, as depicted in the novella from his first collection, “Story Of Your Life”, which concerns a linguist’s attempts to decipher alien language, and its aforementioned adaptation, Arrival. Many of the themes in his new book, too, deal with language, and the role it has to play in personal and cultural memory. (As he notes, “Every writer has their obsessions.”)

The title story, “Exhalation”, is told as a diary entry from the point of view of an alien scientist, a member of a race of mechanical beings with replaceable air canisters for lungs, who is disturbed that on his otherwise-orderly world the clocks are running fast. Guessing that this has nothing to do with the clocks themselves, but, instead, his society’s machine-driven brains, the scientist performs surgery on himself, opening up his head to observe the real-time operation of his thoughts. What follows is a discourse on fate versus accident, an explanation of how even systems with rules, such as language, or, say, existence itself, can produce wonderful anomalies and surprises. “Even if a universe’s lifespan is calculable,” writes the story’s narrator, “the variety of life that is generated with it is not. The buildings we have erected, the art and music and verse we have composed, the very lives we’ve led: none of them could have been predicted, because none of them was inevitable… The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you.”

Mr Chiang, renowned for his meticulous working habits, says he never expected to make a living out of fiction, envisioning himself as a physics professor who wrote on the side. After graduating from Brown University with a degree in computer science, he found work as a freelance technical writer, and spent years crafting fiction when not on the job. These days, he is able to write full time, and seems cautiously optimistic about that advantage; it is, after all, uncommon for any contemporary author of short stories to reach such a level of success.

Uncommon, but in Mr Chiang’s case, understandable. From Exhalation, it’s easy to see why readers have responded to his exactitude, the thoroughness of his world-building, and how his stories explore complex ideas in such affecting ways. He says it isn’t often that an idea big and interesting enough for a story will come to him, and, when it does, he might mull it over for months or years before committing words to the page. (In answer to the inevitable question: he isn’t writing a novel, but isn’t ruling one out. Should he find an idea that requires a novel’s length to unpack, he will set to it.) “Some writers say that they enjoy the act of writing,” he says. “I do not. I’m very envious of people who get an idea and can bang out a story in a couple of days. For me it’s pretty much always an ordeal.”

Such labours vanish in the end result, in which Mr Chiang uses clear, direct language to tackle topics that, to another writer, might become impossibly weighty, but in his hands, develop an enveloping warmth and charm. Within the 368 pages of Exhalation we’re asked to think about the concept of free will (“What’s Expected Of Us”), the possibilities available to us if we could access multiple timelines (“Anxiety Is The Dizziness Of Freedom”), and, in “The Truth Of Fact, The Truth Of Feeling,” – which in part concerns a West African tribesman meeting a missionary – the trouble with human memory and oral and written histories. (Explains the missionary: “A sermon is different than conversation…. I won’t forget what I want to say, but I might forget the best way to say it. If I write it down, I don’t have to worry. But writing the words down does more than help me remember. It helps me think.”)

“For me, the idea comes first. It’s not that I’m straight-out thinking, ‘I’m going to write about free will,’ or, ‘I’m going to write about parenting,’” says Mr Chiang. “But in thinking about a scenario, I’ll find it raises bigger issues. So I come up with a character whose story I think will help illuminate those, a character for whom these issues become personally important.”

That method is perhaps most fully realised in Ana Alvarado and Derek Brooks, the human protagonists of “The Lifecycle Of Software Objects”. This novella-length story is about their attempts to raise “digients” – that is, fledgling, virtual artificial intelligences, which have about the same capacity for learning (and base level naivety) as human children. Alvarado plays mother to Jax, whose avatar is a neo-Victorian robot made of polished copper, and Brooks is dad to Marco and Polo, who render as panda-bear brothers, but the child-rearing issues they encounter will be familiar to anyone. “Complex minds can’t develop on their own,” thinks Brooks. “If they could, feral children would be like any others. And minds don’t grow the way weeds do, flourishing under indifferent attention; otherwise all children in orphanages would thrive. For a mind to even approach its full potential, it needs cultivation by other minds.”

It is sweet and strange that it takes this fantastical premise – how a person might parent bits of code – to arrive at deeper revelations about what it means to be human.

Exhalation (Picador UK) by Mr Ted Chiang is out 11 July