IT’S ENCOURAGING TO see that Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Arrival remained in the box office top-ten for so long after its initial release, because Ted Chiang, the author of the story on which it was based, is relatively unknown outside of his field. In the admittedly small world of science-fiction short stories, it might seem vaguely ludicrous that Chiang isn’t more popular, because he’s risen in a matter of years from relative obscurity to become one of the most well known writers of the genre. It’s quite an achievement given the size of his bibliography: Chiang produces a new collection only once every two or three years, but almost invariably receives a handful of awards each time he does so (a Hugo for The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, a Nebula for Tower of Babylon, a Sidewise for Seventy-Two Letters, to name just three).
Though Chiang’s genre is science-fiction, his work has very little in common with what people tend to believe to be science-fiction, namely Star Wars, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (apparently, anything with ‘star’ in its title). Chiang, in response to the charge that his writing ‘isn’t science-fiction’, calls Star Wars and its like ‘adventure stories dressed up with lasers’ which are not ‘engaging in thought experiments, investigating philosophical questions’ as sci-fi ought to. Chiang’s stories might be science-fiction, but they stray into the realms of other genres: Chiang draws on theology (Hell is the Absence of God), classical myth (Tower of Babylon) and others areas of human knowledge. ‘Science-fiction author’, therefore, seems a woefully inadequate description for Chiang in the same way it does for Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov, alongside whom Chiang will no doubt be talked about in years to come. Like the stories written by those authors (and any great author for that matter), Chiang’s work has, as nearly as possible, the potential to change the reader’s perspective on the world. Take, for instance, The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Fiction, which is about the invention of a device which allows the wearer to see specific events in their memory through the eyes of the others who were present. The central character is alarmed to learn just how much, and just how dramatically, he has misremembered significant incidents in his life, and the experience leads him (and the reader) to question how many of their ‘memories’ are part of a narrative of his or her own creation, constructed to preserve their sense of identity, if not their sanity.
Chiang, in response to the charge that his writing ‘isn’t science-fiction’, calls Star Wars and its like ‘adventure stories dressed up with lasers’ which are not ‘engaging in thought experiments, investigating philosophical questions’ as sci-fi ought to.
The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Fiction, which was released in 2013, isn’t featured in Chiang’s best collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, which was released in 2002, but the most well known short stories in his slim body of work, including Tower of Babylon, Understand and the titular Story of Your Life––on which Arrival is based––are all included, along with the triple-award-winning Hell is the Absence of God, and a story Chiang composed specifically for the collection, Liking What You See: A Documentary. All of Chiang’s writing has an understated brutality to it; he isn’t a stylist, exactly, but nevertheless there is an elegance to his prose: every sentence Chiang writes moves the story in some way. There are no wasted sentences in his body of work, then, and yet it’s still staggering just how much meaning he packs into his stories.
The singular thread which runs through nearly all of Chiang’s stories is the conflict between science and faith and the suggestion that this conflict might be resolved. In Tower of Babylon, Chiang describes a miner from Elam’s unforgiving three-month journey to the top of the obelisk of the story’s title, where he is to try to break through the Vault of Heaven of Babylonian mythology and discover Yahweh’s creation. Typically Chiang gives the reader little by way of background. The setting is revealed through the dialogue, of which there is also relatively little. It’s the weakest of Chiang’s better known short stories, and, due to its setting, the one that fans of ‘traditional’ science-fiction will likely enjoy the least.
The singular thread which runs through nearly all of Chiang’s stories is the conflict between science and faith and the suggestion that this conflict might be resolved.
Hell is the Absence of God is set in a world in which various doctrines of Christian theology, including the existence of Heaven and Hell and angelic beings which sometimes come down to earth, are literally true. There is no dialogue in the story and therefore a sense of cool detachment from the described events; Hell is less emotionally affecting than other Chiang stories, and this is both its weakness and its strength. The impression is something like that of a documentary or thought experiment: Chiang deliberately reframes the questions of theology as questions of science, and in doing so treats the doubt and internal conflict which arise from the believer’s inevitable crisis of faith with compassion. The injustice of a serial rapist and murderer ascending to heaven because he sees the light of God reflects the Christian paradox that virtue is not necessarily rewarded and vice versa. (Chiang, incidentally, has said he found the Book of Job unsatisfying because at its end God restores Job’s fortunes, apparently undermining the Book’s overarching message that bad things happen to good people). Story of Your Life, which won no less than five awards and rightly gives the collection its title, is a story of staggering emotional depth and thematic range. The story has a simple plot consisting of two narratives and is narrated by the linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks. In the first narrative, Dr. Banks and the physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly are hired by the military to communicate with a race of aliens that have arrived on the planet; in the second narrative, Dr. Banks describes the short life of her daughter. Through these narratives Chiang explores the relationship between thought and language popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, determinism and loss, and the story is desperately sad. It’s perhaps the best illustration in all of the author’s work that in his universe it is impossible to disentangle humanism and rationalism.
A humanist science-fiction author is maybe the most appropriate description of Ted Chiang, which makes him something of a rare commodity. Whatever you choose to call him, the high-concept sci-fi Stories of Your Life and Others is sometimes eye-opening, often thought-provoking and always utterly readable.