Ted Chiang, one of literature’s greatest hidden gems, has hit the press via two fascinating new outlets at MOMA’s PS1 and The Asian American Literary Review.
Chiang is an unrecognized master of short fiction. Armed with a degree in Computer Science from Brown University, he’s been writing for over 20 years but has published only 13 short stories to date. Not novels. Short stories. His longest work is a novella titled The Lifecycle of Software Objects. The scarcity of his fiction speaks volumes for the rich quality of each and every story, most of which can be found in his collection Stories of Your Life and Others (the title story of which is set to become a major motion picture). In the words of Junot Diaz: “Shining, haunting, mind-blowing tales…this collection is a pure marvel. Chiang is so exhilarating so original so stylish he just leaves you speechless. I always suggest a person read at least 52 books a year for proper mental functioning but if you only have time for one, be at peace: you found it.”
An interview or talk by Ted Chiang is nearly as rare a find as one of his short stories — and just as spectacular and thought-provoking.
In what is probably the most in-depth interview with Chiang I have yet to read, the Asian American Literary Review posted Part I and Part II of a conversation moderated by Betsy Huang, Associate Professor of English at Clark University — covering everything from the plausibility and ethics of AI, to religion and philosophy, to free will and determinism, to race and imperialism. Some highlights:
How does Chiang define and contextualize science fiction?
I think science fiction is fundamentally a post-industrial revolution form of storytelling. Some literary critics have noted that the good-versus-evil story follows a pattern where the world starts out as a good place, evil intrudes, the heroes fight and eventually defeat evil, and the world goes back to being a good place. Those critics have said that this is fundamentally a conservative storyline because it’s about maintaining the status quo. This is a common story pattern in crime fiction, too—there’s some disruption to the order, but eventually order is restored.
Science fiction offers a different kind of story, a story where the world starts out as recognizable and familiar but is disrupted or changed by some new discovery or technology. At the end of the story, the world is changed permanently. The original condition is never restored. And so in this sense, this story pattern is progressive because its underlying message is not that you should maintain the status quo, but that change is inevitable. The consequences of this new discovery or technology—whether they’re positive or negative—are here to stay and we’ll have to deal with them.
Huang engages Chiang on a topic I have not seen the writer often discuss — the influence (or lack thereof, as he seems to imply) of his identity as an Asian American, a minority writer, in his work. He has some intriguing personal insights and broader conclusions about underrepresented science fiction writers to bring to light:
Science fiction is a marginalized genre, and I feel that only recently has it gained any sort of respect at all. I think that SF is well suited to addressing questions of race or being the Other, but its lack of social respectability has made it a poor choice for people who want to address those issues. I think it’s hard enough to write about issues of race and get published, even when you’re working in respectable literary fiction. If you try to do it in genre, it’d be an even steeper uphill battle because there would be, I think, two axes of disenfranchisement to deal with.
I think these reasons may have contributed to the underrepresentation of writers of color in the genre. Science fiction wasn’t respectable, and if you’re trying to gain respect, science fiction will not be your first choice. If you’re looking to increase awareness of your experience, the reputation of science fiction will work against you.
Meanwhile at MOMA’s PS1, Chiang delivered an excellent talk on the nature of memory and human beings’ gradual shift away from “a state of nature,” beginning with Socrates’ warning against the use of the written word (for more, read the tale of Theuth). I suspect this is related to his upcoming work of fiction. Chiang covers memory, historiography, and technological change in a thoughtful, logical way which reveals the deeper social and philosophical underpinnings of our progression into a plausible future in which constant self-surveillance via life logs (or the next step in technological evolution) eliminates the value of our flawed memories:
Maybe the result will be that our attitude toward inconsistency itself will change. Walt Whitman famously said, ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’ Maybe we will become more willing to overlook inconsistent behavior in others, because we will know that we are all ourselves. Maybe we will learn to value nuance more than we do now. But whether we like it or not, we are headed toward a future in which machines will do our remembering for us, and more accurately. This may seem unnatural, but we have been headed away from a state of nature for a long time. Socrates felt that something important would be lost when people relied upon writing to remember things instead of using our own memories, and I have no doubt that to some extent he was right.
The talk is most definitely worth your time: