Ted Chiang's Stories Transcend Themes, Pose Essential Intellectual Riddles

In every story, a single, surreal enigma overpowers the world of its characters.

Ted Chiang’s new collection of short stories contains stories that have been published over the last decade, along with two new unpublished ones. Like ‘Story of Your Life’ (1998) which was made into the film Arrival, this collection too demonstrates why Chiang’s stories are perfect for cinematic adaptation and why Chiang does not have to write a novel.

Reading Chiang is such an immersive experience that it is only in retrospect that some parts seem aesthetically unsatisfying. 

Several themes that have won Chiang the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards recur: bioethics, free will, memory, extinction, technology.

Some stories could easily be Black Mirror episodes in their deft execution of sudden reversals and surprising revelations. The strength of these stories is Chiang’s commitment as a humanist to delineating subjective experiences such as love and memory.

The best stories in this collection are the longer stories: ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ (2010), ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ (2013), and ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ (2019). Their length allows Chiang to meditate on personal themes and to populate the world with full-blooded characters, and not just outline intellectual puzzles.  

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In ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’, a genomic engine called Neuroblast allows for the development of digital organisms called “digients”. With anthropomorphic features and cognitive development, the digients are marketed as pets you can talk to. One of the central characters is Ana Alvarado who is hired because of her work experience in the zoo.

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang. Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

The striking feature of the story is how naturally the digient evokes the animal without being overly technological or artificial. The heart of the story has two related motifs: one, the animality of the digient and the other, the relationship between the digient and the human. At several points in the story, the narrator compares the digients to special-needs children and details the growth of their intelligence and skills.

The digient is treated as a pet and increasingly as a child in the story. The story follows the upgradation of their softwares whose eventual obsolescence threatens the extinction of their virtual worlds. 

At a startlingly poignant moment in the story, the digients cannot port their softwares to a new virtual world. It is an apocalyptic moment as all the residents leave for another virtual space. The apocalypse is not a physical destruction of the world but an emptying of it: the bleakness of “a post-apocalyptic landscape”.

Yet Chiang does not need to resort to anthropomorphism to examine the digients’ feelings. The idea of a world is so central to science-fiction as a genre that perhaps its chilling desolation signifies enough. 

What kind of relationships do we envision with AI or personal robots? When we talk of a multi-species world, should we focus on the moral attitudes or intimate relationships with other beings?

If they are sentient and not merely products and yet non-human, how do we co-exist in this world? In the story, along with the narrator and the protagonists, we too sympathise and root for the digients. But shockingly, no one else seems able to because they are technological products for everyone else. 

In Chiang’s future, even as technology rapidly advances, human finitude persists along with the human capacity for love, empathy, and understanding. Technological progress does not eliminate human emotion or desires, even as it seeps into the very filaments of our humanity.

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This is also the reason for the enduring popularity of Chiang’s stories. He recognises that the nature of human problems remains the same. 

Such an admission is also essential to ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’. The title of the story is from Roy Pascal’s words on autobiography: “On the one side are the truths of fact, on the other side the truth of the writer’s feeling, and where the two coincide cannot be decided by any outside authority in advance”.

Memory is after all, the code to autobiography.

The story is in the form of a personal essay that attempts a fair assessment of a new technology called Remem. Remem proposes to record everything, specifically our episodic memory. But as the narrator points out, it is precisely the function of memory to let us forget and forgive, and to romanticise our formative experiences. Once everything is recorded there would be a flattening of experiences that make them less special. Who would we be without the idea of childhood or some happy memories of childhood? 

Ted Chiang at a book reading. Photo: Christchurch City Libraries/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The main story is intercut with a parallel story of a tribe that interacts with Europeans and writing for the first time. In the story, Chiang resorts to a dichotomy between oral literacy and writing to demonstrate two distinct worldviews. For Chiang, oral cultures value their past primarily to validate their sense of community and an understanding of themselves. Writing emphasizes documentation and is less subjective as thoughts are arranged and written down. 

This literary bias is based on Walter Ong’s generalisations in his seminal book, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word which was published in 1982. The author references him in his notes for the story. But writing is rarely ever merely passive documentation, and oral literatures too record the past as well as construct identities.  Following Ong, the narrator argues that writing is itself a technology that has transformed human consciousness. The inventory of memory under Remem will institute a similar change. Ultimately the narrator upholds the usefulness of Remem based on a personal discovery, but what about the collective conversion that will ensue? 

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It is intriguing that Chiang does not characterise any of his invented worlds as a dystopia.

Could this be because it is an intellectual riddle that sustains every story and the setting is secondary? For instance, in ‘Exhalation’ (2008), there is an entire alternate cosmology of metal beings with brains of innumerable gold flakes who refill their lungs at filling stations.

Chiang’s thoughts on a topic often serve as an epiphanic moment in the tale, arriving in the form of a stunning deduction or a logical conclusion. In the story, as the town clocks slow down, the narrator performs an auto-dissection on his brain to find out the truth. Along this drilling process into his own brain, the narrator makes several earth-shattering discoveries. The narrator deduces that in this ‘gradual exhalation of our universe’ they are approaching equilibrium and are all going to die. 

Chiang’s alternate worlds are unlike other sci-fi universes because they are not fixed or permanent. Thus in ‘Exhalation’ a vibrant society is suddenly en route to extinction. The complex world-building in Chiang’s stories is always under siege; whether from an idea, a perspective, a discovery, technology. 

Like with a lot of science fiction, the cerebral dimension is sometimes impoverished by poor stylistic choices. In ‘Omphalos’ and ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’, there are ludicrous quasi-mystical settings that Chiang attempts to conjure up through the usage of the address ‘Lord’. However, such servile appellations do not servitude make. 

The collection is appended by ‘Story Notes’ with Chiang’s notes and sources for every story. It is interesting for the reader to speculate and compare notes.

The best stories in the collection are dramatic in their treatment of human subjectivity and the human condition. In every story, a single, surreal enigma overpowers the world of its characters and their humanity is played out with moving intensity. For Chiang, humanity is a dynamic mode of being rather than a fixed set of species traits. The textual world of the story dominates thematically and propels the story forward. The human fumbles and tries to figure it out.

Susan Haris is a writer pursuing her Phd in literature and philosophy at IIT Delhi.