Ted Chiang: Realist of a Larger Reality

We’re on winter break until January 6. In the meantime, please enjoy our contributor’s take on one of 2019’s most acclaimed books. This article was originally published on July 19, 2019.
What is science fiction for? A good friend says that in imagining other worlds, science fiction helps us understand our own. Such work addresses scientific ...

This is the 18th installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.


What is science fiction for? A good friend says that in imagining other worlds, science fiction helps us understand our own.1 Such work addresses scientific discovery or technological change. It may anticipate or even inspire technologies, as the work of writers as diverse as Jules Verne and Jennifer Egan has done.2 Devices such as time travel and multiverses let us consider causality and free will—an engaging way to examine what it means to be human. In fact, the series An Engineer Reads a Novel began with an essay discussing two speculative novels in which I expressed the wish that the humanism of one of the books might be melded with the scientific curiosity of the other.3 In that sweet spot resides the work of Ted Chiang.

Chiang’s work acknowledges and honors more than just the technical “hard science” of physics, chemistry, computer science. His “Story of Your Life,” which inspired the film Arrival, made immaterial concepts like determinism and empathy, along with the social science of linguistics, as critical as the technologies that enabled communication between natives of different planets. Chiang’s new collection, Exhalation, is as holistic as that earlier story; it’s a book filled with stories that draw on religion, anthropology, and psychology while exploring what-if technologies.

This “liberal arts” approach to sci-fi resonates with the attitude and writing of Ursula K. Le Guin, whose work stood apart from that of the allegedly “hard science” Asimovs, Clarkes, and Bradburys. Le Guin once told the Paris Review:

The “hard”–science fiction writers dismiss everything except, well, physics, astronomy, and maybe chemistry. Biology, sociology, anthropology—that’s not science to them, that’s soft stuff. They’re not that interested in what human beings do, really. But I am. I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that.4

Le Guin was an outsider among the fraternity of sci-fi authors for whom technical progress was viewed as synonymous with (or even responsible for) social progress. Le Guin, meanwhile, addressed themes of gender and racial inequality; most importantly, her speculative worlds were not utopias.

A certain rah-rah-science attitude in the science fiction of the ’60s and ’70s may have been a natural outgrowth of that era’s space-race zeal, but, of course, the scientific community was not as homogeneous in ideology or in demography as it was portrayed by that fraternity of authors. If women got airtime in their books, it was to distract or tempt the white male hero (Hey, instead of burning that book at 451 degrees Fahrenheit, why don’t you … look inside, big guy?).5

Science fiction, of course, reflects the time in which it is crafted: the intrepid pioneers of 1960s Star Trek, for example, gave way to the 1980s and ’90s Star Trek: The Next Generation’s warnings about colonization and missionaries who transplant their own geopolitical drama into foreign lands and distant planets. There’s always been a role for fiction in identifying the risks and darker what-ifs of technology and our uses of it: from nuclear power to gene editing to artificial intelligence to continued dependence on fossil fuels to Black Mirror’s tech of the week. We might hope that such imaginings will temper technological enthusiasm, making developers and users more thoughtful and cautious.6

“Exhalation” is a book filled with stories that draw on religion, anthropology, and psychology while exploring what-if technologies.

It’s too facile to call Chiang’s work an “optimistic Black Mirror,” but it’s at least a humanistic one. Chiang shows us the real human beings who create the technologies, with foibles and backstories: he presents us with not just the neat-o memory-recording device, but the father who hopes it will help him reconcile with his daughter.

In Exhalation’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” a technology called “Remem” can record one’s memory as a searchable lifelog. The story’s narrator is initially uneasy about Remem, reflecting on the fact that “a forensic pursuit of the truth could be harmful.” Because our human, faulty memories can permit our moving on, remaining friendly with those who’ve hurt us, the narrator fears that a more accurate record will keep wounds fresh. The corporate spokesperson tries to persuade him that the tech is neutral: “Making information more accessible is an intrinsic good. … If your marriage is solid, Remem isn’t going to hurt it.”

Viewers of Black Mirror may be reminded of the first-season episode “The Entire History of You,” in which a digital recorder called a “grain” enables people to revisit previous events. As one might imagine—in a world where not every marriage is “solid”—the grain permits an already jealous and insecure man to further feed those emotions. Black Mirror tends to lay blame with technology rather than with the humans who develop and use it, gravitating toward worst-case scenarios in which human users have little agency once they’ve logged on or plugged in. Conversely, Chiang’s default position is to appreciate that technological development is a human, social activity.

The narrator of “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” knows that “writing is a technology,” and that “people are made of stories.” Without tech like Remem, “we rewrite our pasts to suit our needs and support the story we tell about ourselves.” But Remem implies that “we will be replacing our malleable organic memories with perfect digital archives.” This marks a transition from a kind of oral, adjustable tradition to a literate, fixed one, Chiang writes. “Literacy encourages a culture to place more value on documentation and less on subjective experience.” The same preferences animate an insidious STEM chauvinism, which values “soft” skills and qualitative data less than the “hard” and quantitative. But written history is not objective history, just as technologies are neither neutral nor apolitical.

This reader was reminded of Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Read After Burning,” anthologized in Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams’s A People’s Future of the United States. Headley’s story is set in a near future when all books have been burnt, their stories and knowledge kept alive by tattoo artist librarians. With her own “arms tattooed in a hundred colors and designs, the secret history of the former world,” the Librarian revises as she records information on others’ skin. “There are some stories here that are holy,” she notes. “Others, I think, may benefit from being remembered differently.”

In Chiang’s story, which begins with the assumption that the written memory will be found superior and eclipse the oral, those members of a community who have long listened to verbally and gesturally expressive storytellers find “the paper version of the story … curiously disappointing.” The father in “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” is reflective and introspective; he ultimately concludes that “the point [of digital memory] is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong.” This is a fundamentally humanist conclusion to draw: superior technology is not an automatic social “win.”


Books after the Death of the Book

By Matthew Kirschenbaum

In the title story of his collection, Chiang describes an “inscription hypothesis” of human memory itself. The hypothesis holds that symbols inscribed on gold foil, to be deciphered later, comprise human memory—or, as the narrator believes, there may be a mechanism in the body that enables erasure as well as recording, “perhaps in the rotation of gears.” Such a “cognition engine” would preclude the need for Remem.

The trouble in “Exhalation” is that this engine, like all human organs, is powered by air that’s running out, as society sprints headlong toward a “fatal equilibrium.” An equilibrium in pressure will mean no flow of oxygen, and thus no life. The hopeful conclusion of even this doomed narrator may explain that “optimistic” label: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.” As Joyce Carol Oates wrote: “Human curiosity, for Chiang, is a nearly divine engine of progress.”7

Chiang’s novella-length story “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” which is included in Exhalation, centers on the development of AI “digients,” whose integration of machine learning makes them very much like children or pets, rapidly converting their observations and developing understanding of the world into their behavior and cognition patterns. The primary human characters are Ana, whose experience with animal care and development has shaped the protocols for the algorithmic creatures’ learning, and Derek, an animator who designs the digients’ avatars. Here, Chiang focuses not on the computer scientists or engineers in the team, but on the two members whose expertise developed outside the coded world.

The digients are a plausible outgrowth of our current fixations on machine learning and adaptive AI. A recent New Yorker profile of musician Holly Herndon described her “collaboration with a two-foot-tall gaming PC, which houses an artificial neural network that she designed with her husband,” an artist. “For the past two years, they have been teaching this ‘AI baby,’ which they named Spawn … how to use her voice. … We often say that people find their voice; Spawn iterated hers.”8 Chiang’s writing about digients is no distant future, nor is it unrealistic to imagine a pair of humanists (Ana and Derek, or Holly and husband) serving as the caretakers and trainers of a digital being.

The imagined worlds and moral dilemmas of science fiction like Exhalation are a forum in which readers can work out what we value, and how we formulate responses within (or beyond) ethical frameworks. We must weigh, with Ana and Derek, how to maintain the digients once their initial platform becomes obsolete. What is in the best interest of these digital beings that certain humans have come to care for, and what’s in the best interest of those humans, and the other humans in their lives?

Chiang’s default position is to appreciate that technological development is a human, social activity.

The parent-child relationship, in all its permutations, is thoughtfully portrayed here. In general, Chiang is better with severed connections than with nascent or extant ones. Exhalation’s romantic subplots are his least convincing; those concerned with grieving or with striving to reconnect are far more effective. This is not uncommon to the genre: few science fiction stories take the time to develop characters’ existing friendships or romantic relationships, while many focus on solitary adventurers who are missing or mourning lost ones.

Chiang’s time travel story “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” features a husband who seeks to reverse his wife’s fate but learns that “past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully.” The point was not to intervene in another’s life, but to reflect upon his own. “Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.”

The time traveler in H. G. Wells’s 1895 novel is a Victorian gentleman who seeks to bring his own idea of “civilization” to other times and other races, to “save” them from dystopian degeneracy. This is classic white-savior stuff, as he endeavors to single-handedly prevent class- and race-based warfare—a proper imperialist Victorian. Ultimately, however, the Traveler finds his own interventions futile. Rather than prevent the worst case, he has done damage to the future: he “infects [it] with the past.”9 Wells himself labeled The Time Machine a “scientific romance.” One may fairly wonder whom the romance is between: the Traveler and his Eloi companion; or the Traveler and his own sense of purpose; or, perhaps, the Traveler and his Machine, whose scientific operating principles are lovingly and lengthily explained.

Unlike that Traveler, Chiang’s traveler is moved to introspection. In the notes that close the collection, Chiang acknowledges his diverse inspirations; for “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” they are scientific—specifically, physicist Kip Thorne’s mathematical analyses—and religious: “I thought that a Muslim setting might work, because acceptance of fate is one of the basic articles of faith in Islam.” (This particular combination, of science and religion, also works to great effect in Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.) Instead of the rage Wells’s Traveler feels at his failure to have his desired impact on future society, Chiang’s traveler feels at peace and even comforted by what he learns from his journey through time.


My Neighbor Octavia

By Sheila Liming

Thorne’s influence was also felt in the 2014 film Interstellar. Filmmaker Christopher Nolan used quantum physics to tell a story about familial love, and vice versa. Even without participating in space travel, many parents feel time rushing and distorting as their children grow up; the film uses an extraordinary situation to illustrate that universal theory. Interstellar, like Arrival and Carl Sagan’s Contact, is also a rather lovely synthesis of “real” science and science fiction.

Exhalation is one answer to many pressing questions. It’s not just the kind of science fiction that this engineer-who-reads-novels hopes writers might create—modeling consilience among ways of knowing rather than focusing exclusively on either the technical or social. It’s also a response to a plea from Ursula K. Le Guin herself. In her National Book Award speech in 2014, Le Guin warned that “hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.”

Thankfully, Chiang is a thoughtful seeker of larger and larger realities, looking through many lenses in that quest. icon

  1. The friend in question, Augustus Rose, is also the author of a speculative novel, The Readymade Thief (Viking, 2017).
  2. Jenn Stroud Rossmann, “Prophecy in Future Perfect,” Public Books, July 19, 2016.
  3. Jenn Stroud Rossmann, “Technological Citizenship at the End of the World,” Public Books, January 6, 2016.
  4. John Wray, “Ursula K. Le Guin, The Art of Fiction No. 221,” Paris Review, no. 206 (Fall 2013).
  5. Since this genre of fiction is the primary source of “leisure reading” for many STEM students, having it reinforce their sense of STEM’s primacy, with straight white men as conquering, frontier-penetrating heroes aiming to “science the shit out of this” may be doubly problematic.
  6. This is the worthy goal of much “cli-fi,” in which authors use the prospect of future climate catastrophe to compel contemporary readers to address climate change. See, for example: Jenn Stroud Rossmann, “Even Broken History Is History,” Public Books, July 17, 2017, and, more recently, Dylan Brown, “To Dust You Return: On Terese Svoboda’s ‘Great American Desert’,” Los Angeles Review of Books, March 31, 2019.
  7. Joyce Carol Oates, “Science Fiction Doesn’t Have to be Dystopian,” New Yorker, May 13, 2019.
  8. Hua Hsu, “Electronic Pop for the Surveillance Era,” New Yorker, May 13, 2019.
  9. This phrase (from Rebecca Curtis, “Morlocks and Eloi,” New Yorker, June 1, 2015) also subtly suggests issues of equity and inclusion in time travel, which are explored vividly in Octavia Butler’s 1979 Kindred. The novel, about a modern black woman’s journey into the past of American slavery, highlights the relative privilege of other literary time travelers while masterfully interrogating race as a social construct, destiny, and history, using science fiction conventions.
Featured image: xMx Luo, To the IDEAL World. Creative Commons