In the small world of science fiction short stories, Ted Chiang is a superstar. It’s easier to list the major science fiction awards he hasn’t won than those he has, and he’s equally acclaimed in the broader field of literary short fiction – all for a body of work that could probably fit within half a Game of Thrones novel.
Chiang is sometimes described as a literary science fiction writer, but that’s a lazy label in which “literary” means “good” – a fairer one would be to say that Chiang is the Platonic ideal of a science fiction writer: his writing displays no particular interest in style, and yet it shines with a brutal, minimalist elegance. Every sentence is the perfect incision in the dissection of the idea at hand.
The quantum event about to flip Chiang from niche superstar to widespread recognition is the movie Arrival, an adaptation of his 1998 short story Story Of Your Life. A linguist assists the US military in its “first contact” with an alien race and, as she learns their language, her own perception of reality is altered by it.
It is an exploration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that Chiang – who was born in New York state to Chinese parents but now lives in Seattle – reflects in the text’s shifting tense structure. On the surface, Story Of Your Life may seem an unlikely candidate for the Hollywood mill. But with director Dennis Villeneuve at the helm, fresh from his tour de force crime thriller Sicario, and on his way to directing the as yet untitled Blade Runner sequel, there’s every indication Arrival will capture the essence of Ted Chiang’s storytelling on screen.
But why stop here, Hollywood? Chiang’s 2002 short story Hell Is the Absence of God is a restrained, brilliant demolition of fundamentalist religious belief that explores the possibilities of a reality where biblical angels roam suburbia. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, which scooped both the Hugo and Nebula awards, is a Silk Road fantasy about a simple merchant who stumbles upon a gateway to the future in the market place of old Baghdad.
The Life Cycle of Software Objects traces the accidental emergence and evolution of artificial intelligence. A tech startup develops learning algorithms as virtual pets, and two engineers find themselves looking after these software objects over the decades that follow. Chiang’s real interest is less with AI than with life as a whole – perhaps rare for an author in the scienc fiction genre.
If there is a single recurrent theme in Ted Chiang’s work, it’s the attempt to square the circle between human fantasies of belief and the perceived certainties of a rational, scientific world view. There’s a strong sense in Chiang’s work that he sees conflicts of faith versus reason, or freedom versus determinism, as illusionary, that if we can simply see clearly enough, all conflicts give way to harmony. Chiang’s rigour and logic take him to a point of mysticism.
Ted Chiang is all the more conspicuous for his absence from all forms of authorial self-promotion. There is no Ted Chiang Twitter feed issuing entertaining quips on pop culture. His work has been published almost exclusively in limited runs through the small press, with the text often released free online. It is tempting to wonder why: perhaps the status games of writerly life are as illusory to Chiang as the boundaries between space and time. Or, perhaps, he’s simply busy doing what he does best – writing great stories.