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A Conversation With Ted Chiang
An interview with Lou Anders
July 2002

© Beth Gwinn
Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang was born in Port Jefferson, New York. He graduated from Brown University in Providence Rhode Island with a degree in Computer Science. The same year, he attended Clarion. He moved to Seattle to work as a technical writer in the computer industry. With his first 8 stories, he has won the Campbell New Writer Award in 1992, a Nebula Award for "Tower of Babylon" (1990), a second Nebula and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for "Story of Your Life" (1998), a Sidewise Award for "Seventy-Two Letters" (2000), and the Locus Award for "Hell Is the Absence of God" (2001). He lives in Bellevue, Washington.

ISFDB Bibliography

Stories of Your Life and Others

In person, Ted Chiang is friendly and soft-spoken. He comes across as somewhat reserved while being neither shy nor aloof. And he is very hard to read. But "hard to read" is hardly a suitable phrase when speaking about his new collection Stories of Your Life and Others. Released this past July from Tor Books, this is as "solid" a collection as you can hope to find. There isn't a bad tale in the lot, and each is told with a superbly polished narrative craft. So who is this virtuoso, whose debut story won the Nebula? Maddeningly, his author blurb on the jacket says only "Ted Chiang lives near Seattle, WA." Not a lot of help. So if we're to know any more, we've going to have to go to the source:

You're a Clarion graduate and a damn good writer, and I'm guessing you've got degrees in mathematics. And that's it. Care to tell me a little bit about your background?

I was born and raised in a small town called Port Jefferson, New York. I attended Brown University, where I wound up with a degree in computer science. Nowadays, I work as a freelance technical writer, writing documentation for programmers.

I first began reading SF in the sixth grade and began submitting stories to the magazines a few years later. I collected nothing but rejection slips for years and was considering giving up writing when I was accepted at Clarion. Before then I hadn't known anyone who even read SF, let alone wanted to write it, so for me, attending Clarion was like meeting a family I didn't know I had. Since then, I've always felt that SF is where I belong.

So who are your influences? What science fiction authors do you read?
When I first started to read SF, I imprinted on Asimov and Clarke. Then when I was in college, John Crowley and Gene Wolfe made a big impression on me, and I still think of them as the titans. I also like Greg Egan, Bruce Sterling, Karen Joy Fowler, Ken MacLeod and a bunch of others.

Your debut story "Tower of Babylon" won the Nebula in 1990. What was it like to receive such a prestigious award your first time "out of the gate," so to speak? Did this put pressure on you to make sure subsequent works met or raised the bar? (I noticed that the first three stories in the book are from 1990 and 1991. Then we jump to 1998 and forward for the remainder.)
Winning the Nebula was bewildering. After years of receiving form-letter rejections, suddenly winning an award like that made me wonder if something were wrong somewhere; it's okay for art to be surreal, but uncomfortable when real life is. And yes, afterwards I felt the weight of expectation on me, which made writing difficult for me. It was so difficult for me, in fact, that I found it easier to put all my energy into my day job. At the time, I was an on-staff technical writer at a company where long hours were the norm. I focused on that for a number of years before I felt a desire to write fiction again.

You say that "Understand" is an examination of the point at which quantitative improvements results in qualitative differences. This story seems to me to be an updated, thoughtful reworking of the classic science fiction trope that "there are some things that man was not meant to know." In those tales, the superhuman that achieves absolute power is always absolutely corrupted. But do you think this has to be the case -- or can the trans-human evolution occur without the evolved looking back at the rest of us as insects? What's interesting to me about "Understand" is that the protagonist develops almost a "turn on, tune in, drop out" attitude regarding the general populace -- envisioning but not implementing quite a few "life enhancing" technologies but opting instead for improvements in his own internal landscapes.
I hadn't thought about "Understand" in terms of the "there are things man was not meant to know" trope before. While the story is about the search for knowledge, its message is not that some forms of knowledge are intrinsically corrupting or destructive. It's true that the story's protagonist feels little kinship with ordinary humanity, but many people feel the same way right now, without having enhanced intelligence.

There have been a lot of different ideas about how high intelligence would affect one's moral behavior. One is that it would make you cold, unfeeling, even amoral, e.g. the cliché of the mad scientist. Another is that it would make you kind and altruistic, e.g. the cliché of the benevolent, super-intelligent alien race. I don't believe there's a correlation in either direction. I think superintelligent people would, if anything, vary more than ordinary people in their behavior; after all, humans probably have a broader range of behavior than, say, dogs.

One could claim that enhanced intelligence implies an increased moral obligation ("with great power comes great responsibility," ála Spiderman). This certainly sounds plausible, but I'd need to hear more argument to be convinced of its truth. Where is the line between the obligatory (what we must do) and the supererogatory (what is above and beyond the call of duty)? I don't know.

"Division by Zero" may be my favorite story in the collection. It typifies for me the way you blend the scientific and the poignantly human. Strangely, it's also the least "sci-fi." Tell me how this story came about.
What I wanted to do was draw a parallel between the way we value consistency in mathematics and the way we value it in human behavior. At the time I wrote it, I was thinking of the stories in Ed Bryant's collection Particle Theory. Nowadays Bryant is perhaps best known for reviewing horror fiction for LOCUS, but in the late 70s he primarily wrote SF short stories.

Those stories were among the first that showed me how SF could use science metaphorically to illuminate human experience. I sought out a copy of Particle Theory after reading Barry Malzberg's recommendation of the title story in his Engines Of The Night; Bryant's collection had been out of print for several years at that point, and in the days before the Internet, it wasn't easy to find an out-of-print paperback, but it was definitely worth the effort.

In your Story Notes at the end of the collection, you talk about the physics underlying "Story of Your Life," but what really fascinated me about the piece was the discussion of linguistics. What is your background in this field and how did you go about constructing the grammatical oddities of the heptapod's written language?
I have no formal background in linguistics, but I'm interested in the subject. I did some reading about how field linguists study a new language, and it occurred to me that if we ever meet a technologically sophisticated species and try to learn their language, we might make better progress by learning its written form. However, I wanted the writing system to be really alien, just as I wanted the heptapods themselves to be, so I tried to make it as different from human writing systems as possible. One particular inspiration was sign language, which has a three-dimensional grammar unlike anything in spoken languages. There's no good way to transcribe sign language; written English has about as much to do with American Sign Language as written Chinese does. I was fascinated by the differences between sign language and spoken language, and tried to imagine an analogous form of language that was designed purely to be written, without being a transcription of speech.

"The Evolution of Human Science" almost seems like a companion piece to "Understand." What are you thoughts on the coming metahuman evolution? If writers like Greg Egan and Charles Stross are even partially correct in their prognostication, we really are living in the last century where one can speak meaningfully about a single human race.
I don't think of Egan and Stross as being similar, but I guess both of them (like many other SF writers, going back to Wells and Stapledon) envision major changes in the human species. Certainly technology will continue to force us to reconsider our ideas of what constitutes a human being. I'm skeptical, however, of some of the more extreme "Singularity" scenarios that have been offered (although they can be entertaining to explore in fiction), and I'm wary whenever anyone claims that an ascent to godhood is our destiny.

I think you're right to imply that the human race will diverge, rather than simply ascend as a group. I'm reminded of Steven Jay Gould's response to the assertion that evolution inevitably produces greater complexity. Gould argued that evolution proceeds in all directions, with some species becoming simpler, others becoming more complex, and most staying the same. The overall increase in biological complexity over time is simply a consequence of the fact that life started at the level of minimal complexity -- organisms can't get much simpler than bacteria -- and to focus on humans is to get a skewed picture of evolution. Complexity isn't the best evolutionary strategy for everyone; there are also niches in which simplicity works well. It's possible that in the future, there will be humans living across an enormous range of technology levels, and there will be little correlation between individual happiness and technology level.

Notions of religion factor into several of your tales. "Tower of Babylon" seems to be a very pro-Deity piece, while "Hell is the Absence of God" takes a more judgmental view of the Almighty. What's your view on religion and its place in your life?
I'd say that, as far as divine intervention goes, the world in "Tower of Babylon" operates the way I see our universe operating, while the world in "Hell is the Absence of God" operates the way certain other people see our universe operating. Good and bad things happen in both universes. In the former, it's unclear whether any of them are the result of divine intervention; in the latter, it's clear that many of them are. That accounts for some, if not all, of the difference between those stories' depictions of religion.

I wasn't raised in any religion, so I don't have the love/hate relationship with it that many people do. When I was younger I had a vague belief in God that I'd acquired through cultural osmosis, but I'm currently an atheist. I think religion is interesting, but primarily in an abstract way. I haven't encountered a solution to the question of innocent suffering that I find satisfactory, and perhaps that prevents me from finding religion really compelling. I wonder if I'm fortunate, in a way; there are people who are also frustrated by the problem of innocent suffering, while still feeling a strong belief in God. That seems to me to be a difficult position to be in. Which is what "Hell is the Absence of God" is all about.

"Liking What You See: A Documentary" may be tied with "Division by Zero" as my favorite in the book. It was particularly effective when I read it, perhaps, because I was in the Los Angeles airport, surrounded by examples of enhanced humans from the most appearance-conscious city on earth. What I responded to the most about the tale was its ambiguity. I really found myself consistently shifting my allegiance from one side of the debate to the other. In fact, I wasn't sure how I was supposed to feel by the stories resolution. In your story notes, you say you yourself would try calliagnosia, and I was a little surprised by this admission. You would try it, but would you keep it?
That would depend on what the actual experience of being calliagnosic was like. I couldn't guarantee that I'd keep it, but I wouldn't be averse to trying it out.

I think having ambiguous feelings about beauty is appropriate, so if the story evokes that in the reader, I'm satisfied. The idea of voluntary calliagnosia initially strikes most people as bizarre: why would anyone give up one of the pleasures of life? But I think the issue is worth examining. There's an analogy to be made with sweetness. Many people find that their attraction to sugary foods diminishes as they grow from childhood to adulthood. To a child, this seems like a tragedy, but does it seem that way to most adults? Are we as adults actually poorer for not enjoying sugar as intensely as when we were kids? Or can one legitimately claim to be just as well off, or maybe even better, for having outgrown that sugar craving?

And it goes further. In the recent book The Botany of Desire, author Michael Pollan describes how the advent of cheap sugar changed what we mean by "sweet." Before sugar was widely available, "sweetness" described an unalloyed good, even a noble quality. Nowadays, it has far more mixed connotations, having been cheapened, almost debased, by sugar's ubiquity. It occurs to me that the same thing that happened to taste may be happening to appearance.

We seem to be entering a period where there is a lot of innovation and excitement in science fiction. Whether we are at the start of a "next wave" as some people have suggested remains to be seen, but what are you thoughts on the current "state of the genre" and your place among it?
I don't know how to judge the current state of the genre, and I'm not sure anyone can; it's probably safe to say that it's the best of times and the worst of times. As for my place in it, as long as no more than a few people claim I'm making it worse, I'll be satisfied.

What's next for you? And will we get to see a novel at some point?
If I get an idea that I think will sustain a novel, I'll try writing one. But I'm in no hurry; I'm content writing short fiction.

Copyright © 2002 Lou Anders

Lou Anders has written, directed, and edited articles, plays, screenplays, books and websites. He hasn't taken over the world yet, but he thinks he should get points for trying.

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