The Immense, the Mysterious, and “Impossible Observations”: An Interview With Ted Chiang


When reading “Tower of Babylon,” the first story in Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, I found myself feeling a sense of deja vu. The story is a take on the familiar story of an absurdly high structure, here abutting the heavens, and the people working on it. As it turns out, I had encountered the story for the first time when it was published in OMNI in the early 90s; that Chiang’s work can leave that kind of impression speaks volumes about his work. He’s won numerous awards for his work, and this year should be one in which his fiction reaches an even wider audience. The title story of the collection has been adapted for the screen; the resulting film, Arrival, has been getting fantastic reviews. I talked with Chiang about a few of the stories in the book and its long publication history.

Several of the stories in this collection, including “Seventy-Two Letters” and “Tower of Babylon,” make use of science fictional explorations of technologically archaic concepts. When writing a story like this, how do you determine the groundrules for how the laws that govern this world are like our own, and how they differ?

I lean toward the view that science is not primarily a collection of facts, it’s an approach to understanding the universe. Similarly, I’d say what makes a story science fiction is not whether it adheres to a certain set of facts, but how the characters in it understand their world. At every point in history there were people who tried to understand the universe as a system governed by rules. The biggest difference between their explanations and our modern explanations is the set of observations they had to account for. For example, before there were microscopes, no one had ever seen cells or cell division; what they did see with magnifying glasses was that germinating seeds contained a tiny stalk with tightly curled leaves. Under those circumstances, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that all of a mature organism’s features are present from the very beginning, at a scale too small to see; that’s the theory of preformation. What I do in my stories is imagine that these archaic explanations were correct, and then imagine subsequent observations that would confirm rather than disprove them.

The critic Gary Wolfe uses the term “alternate cosmology” to describe stories like mine because they take place in a universe with different physical laws. However, I would argue that there’s a sense in which a lot of science fiction falls into this category. For example, there are plenty of stories in which spaceships travel faster than light. You could just as accurately say those stories are set in a universe with different physical laws than ours, because our universe doesn’t permit faster-than-light travel. The difference between those stories and “Seventy-Two Letters” is the point in time at which the departure from our scientific knowledge occurs. In more traditional science fiction, the impossible observations happen in the future. In “Seventy-Two Letters,” the impossible observations happen in the past.

In the Story Notes that close the collection, you talked about how “Hell is the Absence of God” was your way of writing a story with angels. How far into the process was it before you arrived on this particular approach?

The idea of a story about angels rattled around in my head for years. For a while I toyed with the idea of some kind of crime procedural set in the afterlife, where a dead person was trying to find out why an angel had killed him. But I found that I wasn’t happen with treating angels as if they were people with recognizable psychology and motivations. While there are a few very human-seeming angels in the Bible, I was more taken with the ones who were distinctly not human, the ones who made warriors fall to the ground in terror with their mere presence.

Eventually I came up with the idea of having angels being solely in the background of the story, like natural disasters being reported on the nightly news, and I liked the impersonal nature of that. In a way, it’s similar to one of my favorite depictions of an alien invasion, in John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline. In that novel, humanity is virtually wiped out as a side effect of alien action because they don’t recognize humans as intelligent life forms; our civilization looks like a coral reef to them. Most stories containing aliens or angels assume that we are worthy of their attention. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’d like to see more stories where we encounter beings who are so immense that we can barely comprehend them and they barely notice us

You also mentioned that your interest in writing about angels stemmed from seeing the film The Prophecy. Has this been the only time a film has prompted you to write a story?

Yes, but given that I don’t write that many stories, it’s probably not surprising that more of my stories haven’t been prompted by films.

There were other occasions when I was tempted to try to do something based on episodes of television, but those were more along the lines of formal structures rather than subject matter. For example, for a long time I wanted to write a story told in strict reverse-chronological order, where each scene took place before the previous one. I knew of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, but that play still contains sequences in conventional chronological order. Then I saw an episode of the TV series China Beach that fully committed to the reverse-chronology conceit, and I thought it succeeded beautifully. I remember studying that episode very closely. As another example, I once saw an episode of thirtysomething that used flashbacks in a very interesting way: the episode was about the end of two characters’ business partnership, and there was a scene set in their office where the characters argued while walking in and out of frame. The scene was combined with a flashback to the day they had first moved into their office, with the past versions of the characters brimming with enthusiasm as they walked in and out of frame, and it was done without interrupting the shot. It was a seamless blending of past and present in the same physical space, with the characters very nearly running into their past selves, and I used to wonder if there was a way to do something similar in prose.

The questions of beauty and perception raised in “Liking What You See: A Documentary” still seem very relevant today. Do you feel like you anticipated anything in the real world with this story?

The current moment seems filled with contradictions; I feel like there’s a greater awareness of issues like unconscious biases and media manipulation nowadays, but at the same time people seem to be embracing superficiality. I was recently informed that people using dating apps have stopped using photos of their faces for their profile pictures and started using photos of just their torsos. If I had read that in a story fifteen years ago, I would have considered it broad satire.

As for the response to the story itself, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that it’s repeatedly taught in college classrooms. Earlier this year I spoke to a philosophy class at the University of Michigan about the story and was asked by a student whether it wasn’t equally problematic for people to judge each other on the basis of intelligence, since that’s just as much out of an individual’s control as appearance. I argued that there were significant differences, but I think the question is an interesting one, if perhaps not in the way the student intended. How much of our selves is under our control?  What is it fair to judge a person on?

The first edition of Stories of Your Life and Others appeared in 2002. Do you feel that readers’ perspectives on it have shifted over the years?

I really don’t know. The book is finding a lot more readers now that it did initially; some of that, I’m sure, is due to there being more readers who are open to reading science fiction than there used to be, but a lot of that is probably the result of a critical mass finally being achieved in terms of awareness of the book. For many years after its initial publication the book languished in that state of limbo where it wasn’t technically out of print, but so few copies were available that it might as well have been. I don’t know if word of mouth among readers could have accomplished anything in that situation. The book was reissued in 2010 by Small Beer Press, who did a great job of increasing its visibility. Without them, I don’t know if enough people would have been aware of it to make the Vintage edition possible.

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