In one story, Old Testament angels appear in the skies of modern America like natural disasters, destroying buildings, blinding people and administering miraculous cures at random. In another, the owners of virtual pets watch them grapple with the challenges of growing up, and wonder whether human understanding can be downloaded into non-human beings. In a third story, a scientist ponders life’s mysteries in a technological Enlightenment where lumbering golems have replaced millworkers, and the building blocks of creation are 72 tiny Hebrew letters microscopically engraved on living cells. In a fourth, a medieval Islamic alchemist devises a time-travel device, plunging his subjects into a miniature Arabian Nights of intersecting timelines and events.
This amounts to just over a quarter of all the stories written by Ted Chiang, an American science-fiction author whose work has been adapted into the alien-contact blockbuster “Arrival”, released this month. His stellar reputation in his field rests on 15 short pieces and novellas produced over the past 25 years. Although Chiang has won most of the awards his genre has to give, sometimes several times over (four Hugos, four Nebulas, two Locuses), he takes a strikingly low-temperature approach to public life as a writer. He maintains no internet presence, gives very occasional interviews (of perfect opacity and impeccable politeness), and does sufficiently well out of his day job as a technical writer that he only has to produce fiction when he wants to. Since 1990, when he published his first piece, he has managed a single eight-story collection (“Stories of Your Life and Others”, republished this year as “Arrival”), with the rest scattered between small presses and out-of-print magazines. He has never written a novel. “When I’m writing a story, I usually keep it short,” he has said, “because I don't think anyone will put up with it for very long.”
He treats fantastical subjects with understated compassion and economical language. What seems to fascinate him is the idea of making a single change in a well-known context, like substituting terms in an equation, then observing the social and moral effects on the human participants in his drama. The story “Liking What You See: A Documentary” explores what might happen if teenagers, in a process called calliagnosia or “calli”, were offered the chance to switch off the bits of their brains that recognise beauty and ugliness. Set in a liberal-arts college, it presents faux-documentary testimony from students and staff on both sides of the divide, closing with the news that a PR company has developed “enhancements to voice intonation, facial expression and body language” that render the technology irrelevant by making spoken rhetoric irresistible instead of beauty. It resembles an episode of “Black Mirror”, Charlie Brooker’s dystopian TV series, except it’s calmer and more humane, and was written in 2002, a decade before Brooker’s show began.
In “Divide by Zero” (1991), Chiang imagines a woman discovering proof of the defective nature of all mathematics; in “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” (2014), a father watches the video-diary, or “lifelog”, that his daughter has kept throughout her childhood, and finds the events it has recorded are different from his memories. Soon, he reflects, “we will have a record of what we actually did instead of stories that evolve over repeated tellings. Within our minds, each of us will be transformed from an oral culture into a literate one.” There’s a melancholy earnestness to Chiang’s treatment of subjects that might well turn out as satire in other hands, and his undemonstrative prose, shaped with calm efficiency to each story’s subject, underlines the effect.
The signature mood is even on show in “The Evolution of Human Science” (2000), a three-page story he wrote for Nature magazine that reports on a world in which gene therapy has created humans so advanced that non-enhanced scientists can no longer understand the research they’re doing. “We need not be intimidated by the accomplishments of metahuman science,” it concludes wistfully. “We should always remember that the technologies that made metahumans possible were originally invented by humans, and they were no smarter than we.”
And then there’s “Story of Your Life” (1998), the elliptical tale of alien contact that forms the core of “Arrival”, directed by Denis Villeneuve. It follows a translator and linguist (in the film she’s played by Amy Adams, above), who discovers that communicating with Earth’s visitors has consequences for her own outlook on being and time. A head-stretcher about the nature of free will and linguistic theory – revolving around the mostly discredited hypothesis that the structure of language dictates the way that speakers perceive the world – it ought to have been the least likely candidate for adaptation of all Chiang’s work. Small wonder, perhaps, that getting the film made took its screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, ten years of negotiation.
“Arrival” is not a direct lift from Chiang’s story. A looming world war has been added to move the plot along, and certain ideas have been tweaked and revolved. But the quiet, problem-solving intelligence that animates his writing gives the film its intellectual soul. If it’s the box-office success it promises to be, Chiang could find his work reaching readers who didn’t think they were interested in sci-fi. This Borgesian master of modern letters could finally get the attention he deserves.