On the Awesomeness of Ted Chiang

Because I don’t write about science fiction often enough. Crossposted from elsewhere.


Ted Chiang’s science fiction career has been pretty remarkable. While he’s only published a handful of short stories over the past twenty years, nearly all of them have been nominated for major awards, and most of them won. His subgenre is difficult to pin down—while stories like “Tower of Babylon” and “Seventy-Two Letters” are steeped in religious mythology, “Understand”, “Exhalation” and “Division by Zero” deal with more technical or scientific concepts. “Story of Your Life” and “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” play with time and non-linear storytelling. I would say that they are all thought experiments of a sort—polished, philosophical explorations of clearly defined ideas.

That may make Chiang’s work sound rather dry—and maybe it is, I enjoy a certain amount of didacticism in my SF so I’m not the one to say—but while intensely cerebral, his fiction still remains human. Chiang is not one of those writers who seems to think that scientific extrapolation and character development are mutually exclusive, nor the kind that peoples his stories overmuch with brilliant straight white middle-aged men who have difficulty relating to women (which is why I hesitate to call his work “hard SF”). Rather, he eagerly explores how big, world-changing theoretical paradigm shifts affect the everyday lives of ordinary people. In “Division by Zero”, a mathematician’s discovery precipitates a psychiatric crisis and turns her marriage upside down; in “Hell is the Absence of God”, a brutally literal depiction of born-again Christian theology, people form support groups in the wake of angelic visitations, which heal some and disable others. “Story of Your Life” is both an inventive imagining of what alien language could be like, and the story of a woman coping with her daughter’s untimely death.

I could go on and on about Chiang’s writing, but why not see for yourself? Several of his stories are available online in various formats, as listed at Free Speculative Fiction Online:

  • “Understand” (1991), HTML. More conventional and much inferior to his later stuff, but you may find differently.
  • “Division By Zero” (1991), HTML.
  • “Hell Is the Absence of God” (2001), podcast.
  • “What’s Expected of Us” (2005), published in Nature as part of the esteemed science journal’s “Futures” short fiction series (later published as an anthology). Available at Concatenation in PDF with many others. Also, podcast.
  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (2007), podcast, and archived (HTML): page 1, page 2, page 3.
  • “Exhalation” (2008), podcast, and various formats available at Nightshade Books (and may I say it is the most gorgeous and moving illustration of the Second Law of Thermodynamics EVAR, I highly recommend it if you want your MIND BLOWN)

Oh, and he recently had a new novella come out! There are quite a few interviews and reviews floating around out there, but I’ll wait till I’ve read it to write more.

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