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.
Exhalation follows scientists, con artists, merchants, software designers, and even parrots across time, space, and dimensions. This impressive range and Chiang’s visible respect for his characters’ differences have led him to be characterized by some critics as a humanist, but that term fails to capture the ambition on display here. The collection’s title story, for instance, takes place in a universe where metallic beings powered by mechanical lungs learn that the planet they live on is encased in a sealed chamber, meaning the energy that powers them is finite. They had believed that their sky, and thus breathable air, was infinite. Following the second law of thermodynamics (entropy never decreases in a closed system), this revelation portends doom: With the air pressure marching toward a fatal equilibrium between the atmosphere around them and the argon they draw from an underground reservoir that gives them life, it will eventually reach a level at which all airflow and breathing will cease. “It will be the end of pressure, the end of motive power, the end of thought,” the narrator says.
Chiang stages this grave news within a moment of surreal body horror. The narrator, an anatomist, discovers the truth of his universe by dissecting himself and observing the mechanisms of his brain. Recalling that strange moment, he says, “I saw that air does not, as we had always assumed, simply provide power to the engine that realizes our thoughts. Air is in fact the very medium of our thoughts. All that we are is a pattern of air flow.” As he processes this news, he sees his mind contemplating death: “Body locked in a restraining bracket, brain suspended across my laboratory…I could see the leaves of my brain flitting faster from the tumult of my thoughts, which in turn increased my agitation at being so restrained and immobile.” The scene is lurid and disturbing and strikingly inhuman. There’s an intimacy to the image of self-dissection, too, but it’s so foreign, so welded to the narrator’s particular anatomy and circumstances, that it resists becoming a human parable. This isn’t a story about peak oil or climate change; it’s about an irreversible catastrophe as experienced by a wholly alien life-form.
This focus on foreign bodies and untranslatable conflicts allows Chiang to keep the story firmly within the grip of the narrator, who, despite the collective panic caused by his revelation, embraces his fate and turns toward the sublime. “The universe began as an enormous breath being held,” the narrator says after its peers struggle to halt the coming equilibrium. “Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I am glad that it did, because I owe my existence to that fact. All my desires and ruminations are no more and no less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe. And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on.” In Chiang’s hands, an imminent extinction becomes an opportunity for reflection. This is why humanism fails to fully capture his ambitions. He isn’t simply affirming life’s value; he’s probing its specific resonance, exploring how the nature and value of existence—for both the human and the nonhuman—arise through particular experiences, even the specter of death.
The relationship between character and context is equally important in “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a time-travel story set in medieval Baghdad. The narrator is a Muslim merchant who learns that the course of human life is fixed and predetermined. The time-travel device that he encounters—a doorway—allows the future and the past to be visited but not changed. Through that permanence, Chiang weaves three stories within stories, in the vein of One Thousand and One Nights, into a knot of loss and acceptance. Time-travel stories are often built on the allure of defying destiny—preventing a death, saving a lost friendship, saying goodbye—and derive their tension from the risk of failure or the unforeseen consequences of success. Fate flouts the plans of every character in “The Merchant,” but none of them are losers. They emerge from different time frames with greater comprehension of their lives and less anxiety about the future. “Nothing erases the past,” the merchant concludes. “There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.”
As a matter of abstract principle, this is a grim moral. But again, Chiang is interested in the possible social function of time travel, how it shapes travelers’ sense of community and purpose. It’s noteworthy that the merchant offers this wisdom in retrospect, telling his story to a caliph. His journey has made him more pious and more capable of dealing with the loss of his wife, whom he entered the past to save. He frames his epiphany as a parable, but it’s really a recounting of how his belief in Allah was renewed after tragedy. His story is a public declaration of faith, a lesson for others in doubt.
Chiang’s attention to setting extends to nature as well. “The Great Silence” is an elliptical story from the perspective of a Puerto Rican parrot. Speaking with resignation, the parrot reflects on the irony of humans searching for extraterrestrial life when there are species on Earth whose intelligence they neglect: “We’re a nonhuman species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?” In the tone of a personal essay, Chiang juxtaposes the bird’s longing with the history of the Fermi paradox, reportedly proposed by the Italian American physicist Enrico Fermi, who wondered why we have thus far seen no evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy despite the high mathematical probability that they exist. The Arecibo telescope, a radio instrument in Puerto Rico, listens for alien signals but has never been known to detect any, hence the story’s title. From the parrot’s perspective, it is humans who are poor at communicating, not the universe. (It’s further damning that the Arecibo Observatory is only a few kilometers from Bosque Estatal de Río Abajo, the parrot’s native home, and that the birds are endangered.)
The topic and framing are unique, but the crux of the story is its narrator’s voice. The bird feels a blatant abandonment that borders on jealousy. “Parrots are vocal learners: we can learn to make new sounds after we’ve heard them,” it says. “It’s an ability that few animals possess. A dog may understand dozens of commands, but it will never do anything but bark.” For Chiang, human arrogance is complicit in the parrots’ loneliness. He imagines them as not just ignored but unrequited, which makes the parrot’s final lines—“You be good. I love you”—sting.
Communicating across the void is also the subject of “Omphalos,” the story of a Christian archaeologist, Dorothea, whose worldview is challenged by an astronomy paper. Framed around a series of private prayers to her god and a single letter, the story uses the epistolary format to explore Dorothea’s deepest beliefs. She views the world with intense religiosity and deep empiricism, a perspective that is reinforced by the scientific norms of her time. Even though the story takes place in an age with e-mail and air travel, the science of Dorothea’s world is creationist. Distinct fields like geology and physics and tools like carbon dating have not been developed as we know them to be. Science has remained yoked to religion. Chiang describes Dorothea as a natural philosopher, a term that is archaic in our time because science and religion are now discrete but one that still resonates in her world. (She works for Boston’s Museum of Natural Philosophy.) Chiang emphasizes that the science of this world is not wrong per se—Dorothea is a rigorous thinker and knowledgeable about biology as well as archaeology. She practices the scientific method. The difference is that the fundamental assumptions of her world’s science have yet to be proved false. All knowledge, Chiang reminds us, is premised on an underlying set of suppositions.
Dorothea is forced to confront her views when an astronomy paper is peer-reviewed for publication in an academic journal titled Natural Philosophy. The manuscript in question is not an empirical breakthrough or discovery. Rather, it’s a standard theoretical paper that reinterprets existing data to propose a new paradigm—specifically, a creationist account of a planet at the center of the universe. “[Although] there’s no way to detect life on that planet,” the peer reviewer tells Dorothea, “[the paper’s author] suggests that the planet is inhabited, and that its inhabitants are the reason God created the universe.” Upon learning of the paper, Dorothea doesn’t pray for two months and leaves her post at an archaeological site.
A creationist archaeologist digging into the earth for truths being bested by a creationist astronomer looking up at space and being just as off base is a hilarious conceit. But the story is no send-up; Chiang is more interested in the experience of truth rather than its facticity. He uses the story to explore how Dorothea restores her commitment to science when that pursuit is no longer religious and her fundamental beliefs have been tested. Now we meet a different Dorothea, one open to the uncertainty if not satisfied by it. “Even if humanity is not the reason for which the universe was made,” she prays, “I still wish to understand the way it operates. We human beings may not be the answer to the question why, but I will keep looking for the answer to how.”
It’s tempting to ascribe a sentimental bent to Chiang’s work. Many of these stories end on notes of resilience or transformation that, taken together, imbue his characters with a kind of nobility. When asked recently in an interview in Electric Lit whether that hopefulness is intentional, Chiang offered a conflicted answer: “I’ve seen—both from a distance and up close—how often people’s behavior is rooted in malice or hypocrisy, so it’s fair to say that I’m a cynic now. (They say no one is more cynical than a disillusioned idealist.) Many writers draw on such experiences as fuel for their fiction, but my imagination doesn’t seem to work that way. It’s not so much that I have to actively struggle against cynicism in my work as it is that I’m currently less interested in stories that reinforce cynicism.”
That rejection of bleakness is undeniably there. But there is little determinism in his stories. When his characters face extinction or paradigm shifts, they don’t do what’s logical; instead, they respond in line with their beliefs and their environments. These are stories of potential rather than reaction or reflex, tales in which mysteries and conflicts are just as embedded in history, time, and place as the characters that experience them.
“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom,” the collection’s best work, takes this as its subject. The story follows Nat, a recovering drug addict infiltrating a therapy group to score a prism, a technology that allows communication with a parallel world by splitting a time line in half. Prisms are mass-produced but are not all equal. Each prism communicates with a different parallel world, and the one Nat is eyeing, owned by an unsuspecting addict, offers a payoff if she can obtain it in time. The clock is ticking because once a prism’s power runs out, the link to that world is closed forever. Power is drained through use, so the more data is exchanged between worlds, the more quickly the prism expires. This makes every prism fragile and potentially valuable, as there are prisms in which certain global events never happen or happen differently (but only those events that happened after the first prism in that world was activated, which varies between worlds).
Nat and her coworker Morrow conspire to procure a prism that connects to a reality in which the victim and the survivor of a deadly car crash in their world are reversed. Across worlds, they hope to use this prism to unite the survivors, who are celebrities, and receive a huge reward. The fact that their plan is built around a con and a seedy technology makes this the pulpiest and most conventional story in Exhalation, but it’s also the wackiest and funniest. Channeling Philip K. Dick, Chiang stacks the story with trippy imagery like prism users asking themselves for dating advice and collaborating across dimensions to run scams. It’s delirious and exciting as hell.
Beyond the thrills, though, the conceptual focus of “Anxiety” is how to live with excess. Nat works at SelfTalk, a company that connects prism users to themselves across time lines. A whole industry has blossomed through data exchange and analysis across worlds, and the characters in the story experience overload from all the possibility. Celebrity gossip and sports news become more engrossing because there are time lines in which the speculations and predictions prove to be true; authors compete with themselves as readers find better versions of their books. Seeking guidance, prism users contact their “paraselves,” as they’ve been termed, and gawk as their counterparts live out the choices they didn’t make or are given opportunities they didn’t have. “Anxiety” is about free will in an age of tangible infinite possibility, and Chiang dwells on the prism as both a tool and a commodity, its value arising from trade and negotiation, work and play.
While the story ends with an act of kindness, it also leaves us with a challenge. Chiang takes technologies and scientific principles and dares us to imagine them as more than just devices to be controlled or problems to be solved. The robots do not want to kill us, and the animals are not (yet) resigned to our stupidity. Ultimately, it is each of us who makes our world. Science and technology will neither save us nor kill us. It will do what it has always done: provide us with understanding and tools. The rest is up to us.