Ted Chiang Interview

Ted Chiang
Interviewed by Gavin J. Grant

Ted Chiang

StoriesTed Chiang has published only seven stories, yet he has won the Nebula Award twice, the Sturgeon Award, and the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer.

His first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, collects these award-winning stories as well as a new story, "Liking What You See: A Documentary."

Chiang lives near Seattle, Washington.


BookSense.com: The (almost) title story of your first short story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, considers a woman who learns an alien language that gives her a new view on time. What sparked this story?

Ted Chiang: I've always been interested in stories that are told in non-chronological order, and one of the things I like about them is that they illustrate how knowing the ultimate outcome changes our perception of an earlier event. For example, seeing two people meet for the first time takes on a new significance if you know that they'll marry and stay together for 50 years.

Obviously, in our everyday lives, we don't know how most things will turn out, and there are a lot of choices we'd make differently if we did know. But there are also situations where we're willing to accept the bad with the good, where knowing what will happen -- even if it's not the perfect outcome -- might not change our actions. I thought a different mode of consciousness, a different way of perceiving time, would be a good way to explore this in a story.

Have you attempted to learn languages as an adult?

I studied Latin throughout high school, but that's pretty much the extent of my foreign language study. I guess I'm more interested in linguistics than in any specific language.

Do you think that different cultures view the world differently due to their different languages?

Certainly language is closely tied to culture, and there are ideas -- especially culturally-bound ones -- that are easier to express in one language than in another. But the idea that language ultimately determines how one perceives reality, known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, has largely been discredited. So far, all the evidence indicates that translation is possible, and that wouldn't be the case if speakers of different languages perceived reality in fundamentally different ways.

But I still think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a fascinating idea. I suppose I could have chosen some other way for my protagonist to gain a radically different worldview -- drugs, or perhaps meditation -- but none of the alternatives seemed as interesting to me as language.

Do you think the human brain is hard-wired for language? Or is it a nature/nurture thing?

LanguageI think there's pretty persuasive evidence that the human brain has some degree of hard-wiring for language. Children learn language very rapidly, more so than can plausibly be explained by general learning mechanisms. They pick up a lot of grammatical rules, even if those rules are never explained or even adequately demonstrated to them (this is known as the "poverty of input" argument). In fact, there have been situations where people have had to essentially invent language (for example, when immigrants who don't share a common language are forced to work together); in such situations, adults don't invent grammatical rules for the new language, but children do so spontaneously, in a process called "creolization." All of this suggests that language has a strong innate component.

Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct gives a great overview of this subject. I recommend it.

Your stories are rigorously worked out, yet not mechanical -- the characters come to life and aren't just talking heads. When you're writing a story, do you know who will be in it and what they will do right from the start?

I always have the end of a story in mind before I start writing. I've tried writing a story when I didn't know where it was going, and it never went anywhere. I'm not one of those writers whose characters take control of the storyline; if a character isn't the sort of person who'd behave in the manner I need, I revise the character's personality to fit.

Again, your stories are quite firmly grounded in science. Do you keep up with science on an ongoing basis?

That depends on what you mean by "keep up." Keeping truly current with even a single area of science would be a full-time job. I try to read up on whatever subject I'm writing about in a given story.

In a literary world of multiple-volume epics and never-ending series, you've established yourself over the last decade as a short story writer. Have you thought of writing novels (or expanding one of your short stories), or do you expect to continue to write short stories?

Starlight 2I'd write a novel if I thought I had an idea which could sustain one, but so far I don't think I've had one. Some people have suggested I expand one story or another into a novel, but so far I prefer to leave them as is. When I'm writing a story, I usually think about how to keep it short, because I don't think anyone will put up with it for very long. I would obviously have to shift gears and work in a more expansive mode if I were to tackle a novel. I'm in no hurry though. I'm perfectly content working at shorter lengths.

If something like the "spex" (computer-enhanced eyewear that can display everything from text to realistic 3D imagery to the wearer) from "Liking What You See" were available, do you think you would use them?

It would naturally depend on their specific capabilities, but I certainly might. People's reactions to new technology generally move from "Why would I need that?" to "I suppose it has its uses" to "I can't live without it." Look at how many people carry around palmtop computers these days (although I have yet to get one); functioning in a similar capacity, I think spex could be very useful.

A potential downside of spex is that, if they provide realistic 3D imagery, they could be used to deliver immersive advertisements, customized to the individual consumer. (There was something like this in the recent movie "Minority Report".) People will certainly try to turn these off, but just as with TV and the Internet, it may be difficult to avoid advertising and still take advantage of the services you actually want. And spex could have other, more radical uses. Vernor Vinge recently imagined using such devices to give the real world a makeover, transforming it into a more attractive virtual landscape. (He also imagined the devices in the form of contact lenses.) I'm not sure why people would want that, but of course that's precisely the typical initial reaction to new technology.

Do you enjoy pop-culture science fiction, like "Minority Report"?

IronI do, although I see it as very different from written science fiction. Most movies -- SF or not -- don't stand up to close inspection in terms of logical consistency, and it's probably not fair to expect them to. I think the real strength of movies is how they use images and sound in the service of storytelling, and seeing a movie in which all those elements work together is a wonderful experience. "Minority Report" was entertaining, but even aside from its logical shortcomings, I thought there were problems in its tone; there were inappropriate attempts at humor, as if Spielberg thought he were directing an Indiana Jones movie, and the ending was a typical attempt to graft a happy ending where one didn't belong.

Some science fiction writers, such as Vernor Vinge, have posited a near-future "singularity" -- a point in history after which the world changes so much that we cannot predict what will happen. Do you think they have it right?

The future has always been unpredictable. As for the singularity, different people use the word to refer to different things. For example, some people compare it to a major technological revolution, and say that a singularity separates us from pre-industrial cultures. Others say that it's something much greater, like the gap that separates us from ants. I don't doubt that major changes await us, but I'm skeptical of claims that we'll ascend to godhood. Ken MacLeod once described the singularity as "the Rapture for nerds," and while the phrasing may sound facetious, I think he had a good point; people seem to have a deep-rooted desire for transcendence, and in this technological age, it's easy to see how that might feed into the idea of the singularity.

In the shortest story in the collection, "The Evolution of Human Science," humans are almost obsolete in the face of "metahumans." What do you think are the chances of humanity actually uploading themselves into computers? Do you think this will be only something the upper or technological classes do, or will it be available to everyone?

Uploading itself doesn't actually appear in that story, but uploading is definitely an interesting idea. I think that true uploading -- where the uploaded identity actually thinks of itself as being the same as the biological original -- won't happen for a long time. The technical difficulties are staggering, and since the scanning process will almost certainly destroy the original, it'll be difficult to find volunteers during the development stage. But even if the process is someday perfected, I expect there will always be people who won't be able to afford it.

Another theme you've explored is alternate histories. What is about them that attract you? Are you a history buff?

GiftI wouldn't say I've explored alternate histories, per se, but rather alternate sciences. For example, in "Seventy-Two Letters," what's different isn't the outcome of a pivotal historical event, but rather the underlying mechanism of reproductive biology: in the world of that story, there's a fully formed, tiny fetus inside each sperm cell, which ultimately grows to become an infant. The theory is known as preformation, there's a famous sketch, drawn around 1700, that illustrates it. Initially I didn't know much more than that, but I did some reading and found that there's quite a history behind it. For decades scientists debated whether the preformed fetus originated in the sperm or the ovum, and they tried to design experiments to prove either the "spermist" or "ovist" hypothesis. I'm fascinated by episodes like this in the history of science.

Religious beliefs are taken as literally true in the stories "Tower of Babylon," "Hell is the Absence of God," and "Seventy-Two Letters." What is it that sparked these stories? Are you interested in faith, or is it that you were interested in alternate social systems? Or something else entirely?

Vanishing ActsTo me, "Tower of Babylon" and "Seventy-Two Letters" are more about science than faith, although I certainly understand why many people focus on the religious elements. In the past science and faith were much more closely aligned than they are now; investigating the natural world was seen as a way of celebrating God's creation, and that attitude is visible in both of those stories. But I wouldn't say that the characters' religious beliefs are literally true; the universe in those stories appears consistent with the inhabitants' religious beliefs, but the same could be said of our universe.

"Hell is the Absence of God," on the other hand, is very much an attempt to examine the idea of faith, specifically by imagining a situation in which faith is no longer a part of religion. In our world, religion relies on faith because definitive proof is lacking. This lack of proof allows some people to reject one religion and choose another based on which makes them feel better, e.g. "I don't like the judgemental god of Religion A, so I'm going to worship the kind and gentle god of Religion B." We have that option because neither deity is unambiguously present, but if a particular god were here right now, we'd have to deal with him whether we liked him or not; faith would have nothing to do with it. I thought that would be an interesting scenario to explore.

Do you have any idea whether your future stories will be science fiction? Is there any other kind of writing that interests you enough to try -- such as mysteries, nonfiction, literary mainstream, etc.?

Seeing VoicesRight now I think I'll stick with science fiction. I enjoy reading other types of fiction, but whenever I read something that makes me think, "I'd like to do something like that," it's always "I'd like to do something like that in a science fiction story." So far, the ideas I get for stories have always been science-fictional ones.

Are there any short story writers who you admire? Any role models when you were first writing, and has that changed?

I admire the short stories of Greg Egan and Karen Joy Fowler (two writers who are about as different as can be). When I first began writing, I was influenced by Asimov and Clarke, and I would try to imitate their work very closely. Later on, I discovered the work of John Crowley and Gene Wolfe, although by then I knew better than to try imitating their work.

What are you reading?

BotanyMichael Pollan's The Botany of Desire, an interesting book about mankind's close relationship with plants. He makes some good points about how plants have benefited just as much as humans from the advent of agriculture. However, it's worth noting that this relationship doesn't qualify as "coevolution"; the human genome hasn't changed significantly as a result of our interaction with plants, so only plants can be said to be evolving.

If you worked in a bookshop, what would be on your Staff Picks shelf?

I always find it hard to think of titles when asked, but here are a few that would rotate onto the Staff Picks shelf at some point: Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks, An American Childhood by Annie Dillard, Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman, The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace, Peace by Gene Wolfe, and the original British version of Lempriere's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk.

Do you have a favorite bookshop?

I like the University Bookstore[1], near the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Dark DreamersAuthor photo by Beth Gwinn. Gwinn's photographs of authors of fantasy and horror have been collected in Dark Dreamers, with text by Stanley Wiater. She also provided us with an author photo of Joan Aiken.

[1] University bookstore, 4326 University Way NE, Seattle, WA 98105 (206) 634-3400; Fax: 206 634-0810; ubsbooks@u.washington.edu