Sensibility and Discovery in Ted Chiang’s Speculative Fiction

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It’s been months since I finished the stories in Ted Chiang’s Arrival. Before that I had binged Rick Remender’s Black Science comic book series. It was a struggle to get through the opening story in Ted’s book. After the kinetic shootouts and chases of Black Science, it was a challenge adjusting to the slower pacing and methodically presented details of “Tower of Babylon.”

I should mention that I picked up Arrival with very little knowledge of Ted and his writing. I hadn’t even seen the movie! Which actually a sore point with me. I am going to blame the publisher though and not the author. Arrival is actually Ted’s Stories of Your Life and Other Stories short story collection published over a decade earlier. I’m making the obvious if not cynical assumption that the title change was an attempt to cash in on the movie adaptation of “Story of Your Life,” Arrival starring Amy Adams.

Unlike other first contact stories I have read so far, “Story of Your Life” is interestingly told from the perspective of a linguist hired by the government to “communicate” with the aliens. The story is driven by this linguist’s description of the process of finding shared perspectives and learning the aliens’ language. I found this much more interesting than what Wikipedia describes as an exploration of “free will”:

This raised questions about the nature of free will: knowledge of the future would imply no free will, because knowing the future means it cannot be changed. But Louise asked herself, “What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?”

Once I got acclimated to the measured pace of his stories I really enjoyed them. Their attractiveness is not in the suspense they might induce or twists they might employ but in their carefully plotted progress of their protagonists’ discoveries. There are no leaps of faith in any of the stories collected here. Instead there are series of sensible actions and consequences that result in rational conclusions that provide readers with food for thought. This is why I feel Ted Chiang’s writing is a great example of the nuanced difference between speculative fiction and science fiction. It is the questions that get asked after you’ve reached the end.

In the opening story, “Tower of Babylon,” migrant workers leave their families and homes to work on the Tower of Babylon. Hillalum, the story’s protagonist explains the mechanics of how they are able to sustain the Tower as it ascends higher and higher towards the sky. He also describes the villages created by the workers who have decided to live in the Tower instead of making the long journey back to their earthly homes. The story ends with a twist that was at first frustrating but reading on became clever, allegorical, and thought provoking. It made me a Ted Chiang fan.

“Division by Zero” is my favorite story in this collection because of its subtlety. It provides the same intellectual punch as “Tower of Babylon” and “Story of Your Life” without the grandiose sci-fi setting. There are no aliens or ancient towers. The story takes place in modern times and is set in the relationship between two mathematicians, Carl and Renee. Their courtship has the familiar start that leads to marriage but sours when Renee makes a devastating discovery that unravels her faith in the infallibility accepted mathematical truths. Carl is unaware of his wife’s discovery but in many ways victimized by it. The story profiles Carl as copes with his wife’s despondency.

Like “Tower of Babylon” there is a twist here but this one is an emotional one, played out in Carl’s resolve and evolving attitude towards Renee. The story’s ending reminded me of an episode of The Twilight Zone where an astronaut being sent on a decades long deep space mission secretly opts not to use his suspended animation chamber so he can age with his new lover on earth.

Writing about it now, I imagine that Louise and Gary from “Story of Your Life” might have divorced over a similar crisis of faith and despondency. She like Renee is hiding a discovery that has profoundly changed her leaving those who love her confused about her change in attitude.

Ted Chiang is like a “writer-MacGuyver” creating really imaginative situations using common household narratives. But you really need to be in the right mood and mindset to relish them. They are a little heavy. I was cognitively drained by the end so I probably didn’t give the closing stories in his collection the attention they deserved (though they are great stories). The last story in his collection, “Liing What You See,” reminded me of a Black Mirror episode. The one where parents can implant chips in their children so they can block out and censor sights they feel are inappropriate. Second to last, “Hell is the Absence of God,” provides an interesting twist to the notion of angelic visitation. It adds interesting details on the paths of destruction angels leave behind when they “visit.”

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