Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
I’d never read Ted Chiang before because I don’t tend to read sci-fi, but in most senses these tales don’t read as sci-fi at all but rather as thought-provoking speculative fiction.
Each of these eight stories tackles an exotic problem, from the building of the Tower of Babel to how to deal with the social consequences of beauty, and Chiang demands, if not quite a bit of prior knowledge, a great deal of open-mindedness from readers as he fleshes out the nuances. In “Story of Your Life,” for instance, which was made into the recent film, Arrival, we get an education in physics and linguistics along the way, while adjusting to the idea that aliens are here on Earth and trying to communicate with us. The story called “Seventy-Two Letters” is totally mind-boggling, set in Victorian London and dealing with the manufacture of golem-like automata that are programmed via paper notes with Hebrew writing on them to do manual labor. “Was this even a thing?” you ask.
Only in Ted Chiang’s imagination.
I think what I liked most about the collection is that you can’t tell at the outset where any of the stories is headed. It’s refreshing to be led by a brilliant mind through the maze of what’s possible – or just what’s imaginable. It’s like you’ve been granted admission into the wildest theme park ever, with exhibits that take what you think you know about the world and expand it to almost hallucinogenic limits. Yet, much of Chiang’s stuff appears to be based on real concepts in science and technology, so there’s a believability about his vision that keeps the reader anchored.
Chiang’s writing isn’t stylish or overblown. It’s technical and dispassionate a lot of the time, and occasionally I wished that he would have broken out of the academic voice. He doesn’t indulge in a lot of dialogue, or in a lot of similes and imagery, though you’re definitely seeing some of the more vivid scenes, such as an angel touching down in the desert before terrified witnesses. Mostly, though, it’s the ideas that stick with you as opposed to the writing itself.
Several of these stories are pretty long, and I found myself at times looking ahead to see how much further I had to go in some of them. If Chiang adhered to a more traditional kind of storytelling, that wouldn’t be a problem, but not only is he a “tell, don’t show” sort of writer, he’s not wed to typical notions about pacing. Again, though, his concepts are so unusual and arresting that these issues are easy to overlook.
I’m not sure if Chiang publishes much nowadays, but you can sample other stories of his online. Just check out his Wiki page for links. I for one will keep an eye out for any new work from this imaginative artist.