Ted Chiang’s Sci-Fi Goes Beyond the Promise of Technology

Ted Chiang’s Sci-Fi Goes Beyond the Promise of Technology

One of the frustrations of science fiction becoming the bedrock of popular culture is that we’ve primarily adopted the genre’s aesthetics. From the sleek Afrofuturism of Black Panther’s Bugatti spaceships to the gleaming cityscapes of Blade Runner 2049, much of today’s sci-fi emphasizes kick-ass design. Even the problems of these fictional worlds are stylish: the dangerously sexy AI of Love, Death & Robots, the variegated aliens of Saga, the slick technologies of Black Mirror. Even allowing that a number of these works are excellent, there’s a clear bent for sightseeing over storytelling, mood over meaning and intellectual provocation. Contemporary sci-fi is a vibe.

Science fiction author Ted Chiang has long been one of the genre’s holdouts: He is interested in more than landscaping and interior decoration. His stories brim with wonder and horror, spectacle and mundanity, philosophy and religion. Tapping into a range of speculative traditions, from pulp and fantasy to the rigorous scientific accuracy of hard sci-fi and the popcorn thrills of soft sci-fi, his work has a profound richness. On both a conceptual and a narrative level, the technology and scientific inquiries that animate his stories never function as props or pretexts. Chiang’s science fiction is fundamentally social, every character and object deeply intertwined in history and in future possibility. His narratives trace the consequences of these social relations, networks, and webs expanding, collapsing, and evolving.

Exhalation, his second and latest collection of short stories, comes on the heels of 2016’s Arrival, a film adaptation of his 1998 novella, Story of Your Life. A winner of the Nebula Award, the story centers on a linguist who learns an alien language that allows her to view time nonlinearly. From this new perspective, she discovers that she will one day have a daughter who will die from a terminal illness; the rest of the story explores how the linguist lives with a tragedy she has yet to experience and the choices she has yet to make. Like its film adaptation, Story of Your Life showed Chiang’s knack for melding the personal, the wondrous, and the epistemological. Exhalation continues that tradition.

Composed of pieces from the past two decades and two new stories, Exhalation demonstrates Chiang’s commitment to form as well as ideation. Across the collection he finds shrewd ways to meld perspective and setting, using prayers, museum plaques, and journal entries to channel character voices and outline his peculiar worlds. Based in Washington state, he balances his fiction writing with his work as a freelance technical writer in the software industry. He’s been active for about three decades, but there was a 17-year gap between his first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, and this latest one. While he attributes this sparse output to the grind of writing—​”Writing is very difficult for me, and so I write very slowly,” he once said—each entry in his catalog feels like a thought experiment that’s been thoroughly considered and tested. In Exhalation, Chiang gives us storytelling as a kind of terraforming: He builds worlds and makes them inhabitable, for their characters, for their readers, and for their ideas.

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