Why you should be excited about Ted Chiang’s Arrival into mainstream pop culture

Gautham Shenoy October 14, 2016 8 min


What if I told you that one of the brightest stars in contemporary science fiction is a freelance technical writer who earns a living writing documentation for programmers? What if I told you that this author from a small town, hailed as one of the best short story writers of our day by people such as China Miéville, Harry Harrison, Greg Bear and Tom Disch, has never written a single novel? What if I told you that with only 16 pieces of short fiction – one as short as three pages – he has won more prestigious awards than many win in a lifetime, including multiple Hugos and Nebulas?

Well, I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t believe me. Because Ted Chiang – for that’s his English name – is a little unfamiliar outside SF circles. And that’s a crying shame, because his short stories, while putting the science in science fiction, are nothing less than good literature and tales even people with no interest in science fiction would enjoy, as long as they like good stories.
Brilliantly conceived, meticulously crafted, full of ideas that make you think, cerebral, emotionally moving, philosophical, dazzling in their clarity of thought, haunting, brilliant endings – when writing about Ted Chiang or describing his stories, one will never fall short of adjectives. Even though many will be superlatives and tend towards hyperbole, most of them will be well deserved. Except perhaps ‘prolific’, for as an author who values quality over quantity, he has published hardly a dozen short stories in the past decade.

China Miéville says of Chiang that he is the kind of author in whose hands “SF really is the ‘literature of ideas’ it is often held to be”

Perhaps the widespread anonymity of Ted Chiang will end with the arrival of Arrival – the Dennis Villeneuve-directed Hollywood film starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker – an adaptation of Chiang’s short story, Story of Your Life.

What if exposure to an alien language forever changed our perception of time and memory? In Story Of Your Life, that’s exactly what happens. Aliens have arrived and they’re not green or furry and neither are they even remotely humanoid. A woman, a linguist, is called upon to help decipher their language and communicate with them. But the catch is that these seven-legged aliens, heptapods, have two languages, one spoken and one written. While the former sounds vaguely like that of a wet dog shaking water out of its fur, the latter is unlike any human language.

Unlike humans, the aliens have a different perception of time. They know what is going to happen.   

That’s because unlike humans, the heptapods have a very different perception of time. They know what is going to happen. And in trying to learn this language, our linguist sees how the heptapod’s language is changing the way she perceives reality, and remembers the future (yes, the tense is correct there!). For the heptapods, there is no such thing as free will. They know the future which makes life deterministic. Interwoven within this narrative is the linguist’s own personal story of grief and hope, and that of her daughter. In just about 55 pages, Ted Chiang tells a story of alien first contact, ruminates on the nature of free will, time and mathematics, invokes the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity where language shapes reality, touches upon Fermat’s principle of least time – all in the context of an all-too-human story with an astonishingly moving resolution.

Yes, all in less than 60 pages! And in simple, lucid prose to boot. Read it before watching Arrival, I’d recommend, because however good it is as an adaptation, it is bound to miss out on thoughts unfilmable, which make Story of Your Life a modern classic.

Originally published in the Starlight 2 SFF anthology, Story of Your Life is now available in a short-story collection that brings together eight of Ted Chiang’s masterpieces, seven of which were published elsewhere first, where, as mentioned earlier they won a whole bunch of awards. In fact, this collection – Stories of your Life and Others – by itself won Ted Chiang yet another award, a Locus this time for ‘Best Collection’. Yes, it’s THAT good a collection.

A much-read and much-borrowed copy of Ted Chaing’s Stories of Your Life and Others stands tall on this writer’s shelf

While Story of Your Life by itself is worth the price of admission, the other seven stories in this collection, including one written specially for this collection, are no less mind-blowing or mind-expanding, to various degrees of course. You’d be hard pressed to choose three favourites, let alone one.

What if men built a tower from Earth to Heaven and broke on through to the other side? The short story Tower of Babylon tells how this could be so and comes to pass; not in religious terms as the Biblical phrase may imply, but in purely mechanistic terms, creating a world where people use tools and technology to create marvels to break into Heaven’s vault to learn about the very nature of creation itself, and our place in it. Read it for its ending.

What if we discovered that the fundamentals of mathematics were arbitrary and inconsistent? Division by Zero begins with a mathematician being checked out of a mental facility by her husband who thinks he can help her out with her suicidal tendencies as he’s himself grappled with it earlier. And yes, she attempted suicide when she suffered an extreme crisis of faith; her faith in mathematics shattered with a proof that mathematics is inconsistent and that all its wondrous beauty just an illusion.

What if we discovered that the fundamentals of mathematics were arbitrary and inconsistent?

The question of faith returns in another story Hell is the Absence of God, albeit in a twisted, harrowing manner. What if all the beliefs of Christianity were literally true, and the sight of sinners being swallowed into fiery pits were a routine event on city streets? Angels in this world are very real, as real as earthquakes and natural disasters in themselves, and the tale is told from the perspective of a man who endures the death of his wife at the hands of an angel, but sorrow and anger apart, he must now learn to love God in order to be reunited with her in the afterlife.

While it sounds metaphysical and theological, it isn’t quite what you’d expect. The line between science fiction and fantasy is a very nebulous one at best. And even when he takes a leap into the fantastic, Ted Chiang does not sacrifice rationality and scientific underpinnings, even if created ones, which puts his stories squarely within the traditions of good science fiction.

But at the heart of it all is the profound questions he asks of us, and of our understanding of the world. To do full justice and to speak in depth of all the stories in this collection would perhaps — in the hands of a lesser writer — require a word count that would be more than all the stories put together. But here’s a quick glimpse into what else awaits you within the pages of this collection.

Even when he takes a leap into the fantastic, Ted Chiang does not sacrifice rationality and scientific underpinnings  

In Liking What You See: A Documentary, a story Chiang wrote specially for this collection, we meet students on a campus who make a political statement by disabling their ability to recognise beauty — through a voluntarily accepted condition known as ‘calliagnosia’. Why? Because they’re protesting against a deeper societal problem, ‘lookism’. For decades people have been willing to talk about racism and sexism, but they’re still reluctant to talk about lookism. Yet this prejudice against unattractive people is incredibly pervasive. People do it without even being taught by anyone, which is bad enough, but instead of combating this tendency, modern society actively reinforces it. Narrated using transcripts of a documentary, the story examines what happens, and the reactions thereof from different perspectives, when we switch off our ability to see beauty.

Interestingly, Ted Chiang refused a Hugo nomination for this story because he felt it wasn’t up to the mark as it was rushed out due to deadline pressures. If not, he perhaps would have had one more award on his already-groaning shelf full of awards.

The Evolution of Human Science, a very short story that was first published in Nature magazine as Catching Crumbs from the Table, offers a tantalising glimpse at a future where post-humans have advanced beyond the ability of humans, and human scientific exploration depends on deciphering and comprehending the work of these ‘metahumans’.

The Evolution of Human Science offers a tantalising glimpse at a future where post-humans have advanced beyond the ability of humans

Heightened abilities and super-intelligence is also the theme of Understand, where a man almost dead, is given an experimental hormone to heal the supposedly irreparable brain damage. The drug does more than just regenerate his damaged neurons, ending up exponentially improving his intellect and motor skills to the point of super-intelligence. What happens next will shock you!

What happens now will maybe not shock you as much, because the NWWonFD contest is back! To save you the trouble of looking for, and ordering this must-read collection of great short stories, we’re giving away a free copy. All you have to do is tell us why you think this book belongs on your shelf. As simple as that! Cloaking your reasons in science-fictional terms would help, so would keeping it short and impactful, like a Ted Chiang story. Have your say in the comments section below, leave a note on the FactorDaily Facebook page or tweet to us, with the hashtag #NWWonFD, (that’s New Worlds Weekly on Factor Daily, by the way), before October 22, 2016 and prepare to read The Stories of Your Life and Others.

On that note, I’ll see you next week when we shall foray further into science fiction. Until then, and beyond, Live Long and Prosper!