Interview: Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang headshot

Ted Chiang is one of the four writers featured in AALR’s new series of interviews with young Asian American speculative fiction writers. In this first installment of the two-part interview, Chiang shares with us his thoughts on video games and science fiction.

AALR proudly presents a new series of interviews with four young Asian American writers of speculative fiction: Ken Liu, E. Lily Yu, Charles Yu, and Ted Chiang. All under 45, these writers have amassed numerous major science fiction and literary award nominations and awards–evidence of their ability to bridge the parallel universes of speculative and mainstream literatures.  Their work differs radically, ranging from peculiar fables to intricate meditations on the relationship between humans and technology.   But taken together, that work exemplifies the kind of intersectionist worldview that shifts conventionalized perceptions, encouraging us to think across traditional social and literary categories.

Conducting the interviews is Betsy Huang, Associate Professor of English at Clark University, author of  Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction  (Palgrave, 2010).


Interview (Part One of Two):  Ted Chiang interviewed by Betsy Huang

One of the most decorated writers of contemporary science fiction, Ted Chiang has won an absurd number of major science fiction awards since he collected his first Nebula for “Tower of Babylon” in 1990: four Nebulas, four Hugos, three Locus Awards, and the prestigious John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1992.  Yet Chiang is notoriously un-prolific, publishing an average of about one story or novella every two years.  But while some see the slow pace of literary production as a phenomenon that only adds to Chiang’s mystique and rarity, I see it as the very basis of the scrupulous storytelling for which he has come to be known.


Interviewer Betsy Huang is an Associate Professor of English at Clark University and author of Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction.

The British fantasy writer China Miéville rightly describes Chiang’s universe as one in which “humanism is inextricable from rationalism.”1 Indeed, often it is precisely those stories organized around an abstract mathematical theorem or philosophical postulation that seem to reach the most poignant emotional heights. Chiang’s Nebula winner “Story of Your Life” is a case in point. His authorial notes on the story cite his interest in the variational principles of physics and in Fermat’s Principle of Least Time specifically as its seeds—a signal to prepare the reader for an intellectual workout. By the end of the story, however, the reader is deeply moved by the ways in which one’s view of the world, the family, and the self can be profoundly shifted by learning an alien language—a transformation that Chiang somehow manages to link elegantly to Fermat’s Principle.  And in his latest novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010), in which two programmers attempt to prolong the lifespan of their sentient digital creations against an industry that renders them obsolete with every new upgrade, a theoretical interrogation of the relationship between the virtual and the real gives way to the perennially difficult questions of how to hold on to and let go of those you love.

Contrary to the old complaint leveled at science fiction that depth and nuance of characterization are sacrificed in service of the development of the idea, Chiang’s characters are never subordinate to nor merely embody the governing concept. Instead, Chiang hits the sweet spot between cerebral exercise and emotional investment squarely and consistently. For at the center of all of his stories is a relationship between people made vulnerable by the implications of the concept or novum, whether it be a device that deactivates our discernment of facial beauty, a mathematical formula the paradoxical mysteries of which threaten to disintegrate a marriage, a hormone enhancement that produces two “supermen” who hold diametrically opposing moral views of their existence, or a Borgesian gate of time-travel that compels a re-evaluation of what it means to know the story of your life—before you’ve lived it.

Chiang and I met via Skype over two separate sessions last fall.  As measured in conversation as he is in writing, he takes his time processing the questions, his head clearly inhabiting another space as he does so. And while I had endless questions to ask about his work, we spent the first hour talking about video games, the science fiction “tribe,” and why Star Wars and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are not really science fiction before delving into the nitty gritties of his fiction. Below is the first of this two-part interview.

The full text of The Lifecycle of Software Objects is generously made available by Subterranean Press and can be accessed here.


Betsy Huang: Please share with us where your life began, where you consider your hometown, and how you found your way from there to the Seattle area where you currently live and work.

Ted Chiang: I was born in Port Jefferson, New York, a small town on Long Island about 50 miles east of Manhattan.  I lived there until I went to Brown University for college.  After Brown, I moved out to the Seattle area where I got a job working as a technical writer for Microsoft. Eventually, I switched from being a permanent employee to a freelancer so that I could free up some time to write fiction.

I guess Port Jefferson is my hometown. It’s the only other place where I’ve lived for a significant stretch of time.  My family has lived overseas for short periods—a year in Switzerland when I was six, another in Cambridge, England when I was thirteen.

BH: Have you been back?

TC: I don’t get back there very often these days. I don’t have anything against Port Jefferson, but I don’t feel a strong connection or  emotional bond to it. My father still lives in the area; he’s been a professor of engineering at SUNY Stony Brook for many years. My mom and sister live in Denver.

BH: Port Jefferson strikes me as a very different place, culturally, than Seattle.

TC: Yes, I suppose they are very different. The Seattle area suits me.  Some people are surprised to learn that I’m from New York, I think because they associate New Yorkers with a more aggressive, always-in-a-hurry kind of attitude.  Whereas the stereotypical Seattleite is more low-key and laid back. So, to the extent those stereotypes hold, I guess I am more stereotypically a Seattleite just by my own disposition.  In any case, I like it here.

BH: Hobbies? Hobbyhorses?

TC: I can’t say I have any really interesting hobbies. I like movies, I watch TV. I recently became a fan of video games …

BH: Only recently?

TC: I didn’t play them as a kid. I only got into them as an adult, in the last few years.

BH: What do you play?

TC: I’ve been trying a bunch of different games. Recently I played a very interesting game called Papo y Yo. It’s set in a Brazilian favela, and you play a boy who has to lead a monster around to accomplish certain tasks, and sometimes the monster attacks you. It’s explicitly a metaphor for coping with an alcoholic father, and the gameplay creates this feeling of anxiety, of walking on eggshells, as you try to avoid triggering the monster’s rage. It’s the first time I’ve seen a subject like this addressed in a video game, and it’s not one that I would have thought video games could tackle, but I feel that the game handled it very well.

BH: That sounds like an unconventional but emotionally powerful premise.  And it doesn’t seem like any shooting is involved. These days it seems that most of the really popular story-driven games are combined with shooters and that you have to shoot your way through a story.

The first game I ever played was Myst.  Remember that game?

TC: Yeah, I remember that one.

BH: I liked that game because it was all story reconstruction and no shooting. You’re given no information or premises at the start of the game and have to figure your way into and out of the story.

This is related to something I’m planning to ask you about—that is, in most of these games, the entire story has been plotted.  You might be given different plots to follow, but ultimately you are still playing out a plot written by someone else.  You are not the author of any of it.

TC: Yes. There is actually very little player agency in video games. They try and give you the illusion of agency but for the most part there is very little that you can do to change the story in most video games.

BH: There was a Blade Runner game I played that had several possible outcomes.  The outcome hinged on whether you sympathize with Deckard or with the replicants.

TC: The game that I think did the best job of offering different outcomes was Heavy Rain.  It’s a crime story, and it follows four separate characters who are all working on the same case, trying to find a serial killer who’s kidnapped a child. You alternate between these four characters.  There’s almost no combat in the game, but there are a few occasions where the characters do have to fight for their lives. If you fail, then that character simply vanishes from the game, and then you continue playing the remaining characters. The game has endings where different combinations of the characters make it to the end, and they may or may not save the child. There’s an ending where the serial killer gets away scot free. I replayed it multiple times to see all the endings, which is not something I usually do.

But just recently I played a game that took a very different approach to player agency, called The Walking Dead. I was never a fan of the comics or the TV series, but I gave the game a try because I’d read good things about it, and it turns out to be very interesting. A lot of games present you with very black-and-white choices, letting you be either really good or really evil. In this game, you’re faced with situations where there are no good options. You have to choose between two bad alternatives, so it’s not an easy decision. Ultimately, your choices don’t change the outcome of the story in any material way, because the game has only one ending. But it did a really good job of making those decisions feel consequential when you were making them, and of reminding you of your choices later on, far more so than I would have thought possible in a game with only one ending.

BH: This is intriguing because questions of agency seem so very crucial in your work. When did you start writing—or reading—science fiction?

TC: I started becoming a reader of science fiction in the fifth or sixth grade, when I was eleven or twelve. It was also about that time when I started to try to write science fiction. It wasn’t that long between when I became a reader and when I became an aspiring writer. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy had a big impact on me. My recollection is that before that, I was reading mostly children’s books. Back then, the young adult genre didn’t exist in the way it exists now. So I think a lot of kids who were twelve or so graduated from children’s books directly to adult books.  For me, I wound up reading science fiction novels – Asimov, Clarke.  Those were the ones that really blew my mind, and I very much wanted to write science fiction after reading those. So I’ve been reading and writing science fiction for about the same length of time.

BH: Did you show your early work to your friends, to anybody?

TC: Not many, just to a couple of people. I didn’t know anyone who really read science fiction, so I didn’t know anyone who would understand where I was coming from. Certainly no one else I knew had any interest in writing science fiction.

BH: Sounds like it was a pretty solitary experience for you. Some people come to science fiction because it was a very communal experience, because many of their friends were reading it, but for you it wasn’t that way.

TC: Yes, I know that a lot of people found community going to science fiction conventions. I was aware of science fiction conventions as a teenager; when I was in high school I attended a small, local science fiction convention held on the Stony Brook campus, but I didn’t talk to anyone while I was there, not a soul. I just listened to panel discussions.

So yes, it was pretty much a solitary experience for me. There was no social dimension to my interest in science fiction until after I graduated from college, when I attended Clarion. Clarion was the first time I met other people who had read the books I’d read and were interested in the things I was interested in. So Clarion really introduced me to science fiction as a community instead of just a genre of literature.

BH: Sounds like you were a reader and observer of science fiction culture long before you got to Clarion, where you were able to participate fully in the culture. When you got to Clarion, was it immediately wonderful, or was it terrifying that you have to share your work and such?

TC: It was amazing. I definitely consider Clarion to be a life-changing experience. I felt like – this is kind of a cliché – I felt like I found the family I didn’t know I had. I was surrounded by people with whom I had more in common than anyone else I’d known in my entire life. That was great. Many people say that science fiction is their tribe, and I definitely feel that way. These people are my people; this is my tribe.

BH: Who did you meet and work with there that shaped you as a writer, that had an influence over the way you think?

TC: My Clarion instructors were Tom Disch, Karen Joy Fowler, Octavia Butler, Spider Robinson, Kate Wilhelm, and Damon Knight. I became friends with Karen Joy Fowler and am in regular contact with her. I certainly learned a lot from all of my instructors, but I wouldn’t say that my work strongly resembles any of their work. So in that sense I can’t point to a visible influence; the influence was more indirect.

BH: Clarion is still going strong …

TC: Yes. I actually taught it for the first time just a few months ago.

BH: How was that experience like, being on the other side of the workshop?

TC: It was interesting. I was definitely a little nervous, but I enjoyed it. I had a good class of students and I was impressed by how sophisticated they were. I’ve heard it said that the caliber of students attending Clarion has risen steadily over the years and I can easily believe it, because the class I taught was definitely stronger than the class I was a part of as a student.

I had a good time teaching. For a long time, I was resistant to the idea of teaching writing because I just feel like writing is so subjective. I felt that if I were to teach anything, it’d be math or physics, because there I could tell you why this is the right answer and that’s the wrong answer, whereas in writing things are not so clear cut.  And when I was a student I was in awe of my instructors, and one reason I resisted teaching was that I didn’t feel qualified to make the kind of pronouncements my instructors made. Eventually I was persuaded that Clarion students nowadays know that no instructor has the definitive word on whether a story works or not. And that turned out to be true. My students, who weren’t in awe of me, understood that anything I said was just one opinion.

I’ve also been to a number of workshops over the years—like the Sycamore Hill Workshop and the Rio Hondo Workshop, which are one-week, invitation-only workshops where writers work together, share stories and critique each other’s work. The experience that provided of reading drafts of other writers’ stories and giving them feedback on it was what made me feel like I could teach Clarion.

BH: I certainly sympathize as a teacher. To respond to others’ writing and to be able to explain how and why it does or doesn’t work is an art unto itself.  But it is so rewarding when reader and writer reach that point where being awestruck is not part of the exchange and they get each other and connect in a meaningful way.

So at Clarion, you talk to and work with science fiction devotees.  How would you tell folks who don’t know much about science fiction why you make the genre your home?

TC: I make science fiction my home because it’s been said that a genre is an ongoing conversation, one where novels and stories are responses to previous works. And in that sense, science fiction is a conversation that I continue to pay attention to, and that I want to participate in.

Shortly after teaching Clarion last summer I attended a science and technology conference in South Korea, where I’d been invited to speak about science fiction. One of the things I talked about was how my sense of science fiction differs from the popular conception of it. I think most people’s ideas of science fiction are formed by Hollywood movies, so they think most science fiction is a special effects-driven story revolving around a battle between good and evil, or something along those lines. While I like a story of good versus evil as much as the next guy, I don’t think of that as a science fiction story. You can tell a good-versus-evil story in any time period and in any setting. Setting it in the future and adding robots to it doesn’t make it a science fiction story.

I think science fiction is fundamentally a post-industrial revolution form of storytelling. Some literary critics have noted that the good-versus-evil story follows a pattern where the world starts out as a good place, evil intrudes, the heroes fight and eventually defeat evil, and the world goes back to being a good place. Those critics have said that this is fundamentally a conservative storyline because it’s about maintaining the status quo. This is a common story pattern in crime fiction, too—there’s some disruption to the order, but eventually order is restored.

Science fiction offers a different kind of story, a story where the world starts out as recognizable and familiar but is disrupted or changed by some new discovery or technology. At the end of the story, the world is changed permanently. The original condition is never restored. And so in this sense, this story pattern is progressive because its underlying message is not that you should maintain the status quo, but that change is inevitable. The consequences of this new discovery or technology—whether they’re positive or negative—are here to stay and we’ll have to deal with them.

This is a quintessentially science fiction storyline and it makes sense only in the wake of the industrial revolution. To a pre-industrial society, this kind of story would be incomprehensible, because no one had ever seen the world change in their lifetime.  After the industrial revolution, we understand this story because we’ve all seen the world change. That’s what I think is at the heart of science fiction and what I usually tell people who aren’t familiar with it, whose ideas are mostly informed by Hollywood.

There’s also a subset of this progressive story pattern that I’m particularly interested in, and that’s the “conceptual breakthrough” story, where the characters discover something about the nature of the universe which radically expands their understanding of the world.  This is a classic science fiction storyline.  In Asimov’s “Nightfall,” for example, the characters undergo a conceptual breakthrough.  They discover that their world is merely one planet in a universe that is vastly larger than what they had imagined before. Or James Blish’s “Surface Tension,” in which the characters are microscopic organisms living in a pond.  They build a craft to leave the pond, which means overcoming the powerful surface tension of the water’s surface.  When they do, they discover that the world is vastly larger than they had conceived.

That is a story pattern I like a lot, because one of the cool things about science fiction is that it lets you dramatize the process of scientific discovery, that moment of suddenly understanding something about the universe. That is what scientists find appealing about science, and I enjoy seeing the same thing in science fiction.

BH: Your description of the boilerplate Hollywood good-versus-evil story pattern is essentially the structure of a medieval romance, from which these modern romance patterns spring. And as you say, the struggle between clearly delineated good and evil, or, more specifically, the structure of the hero’s trials and eventual victory, are immediately recognizable no matter what new tropes or settings you wrap it in. Star Wars is probably the most well-known example of this. Star Wars offers no new way of seeing our world, no conceptual breakthrough in our understanding of it. In spite of the droids and Wookies and the Millenium Falcon, its moral and existential scopes are not far from the familiar romance patterns. It’s one of the oldest stories ever told.

TC: Just curious: Have your students seen Star Wars? When I was talking with some college students in South Korea, many of the said they’ve never seen Star Wars because it predates them.

BH: Well, most of the students who end up in my science fiction classes are self-selecting, so most have not only seen it, but know it inside out. Some are aware that Star Wars is a very familiar form of romance in the way you talked about, while for others this is not something they’d thought about because they are, well, romanced by the stories of rebellion, royalty, and roguery. But when you point out to them that this is not the kind of science fiction that, say, you write, or the kind that “Nightfall” represents, they see the distinctions.

The class discussions on “Nightfall” in my classes have been interesting. For one thing, you really see the influence of binary paradigms like the good versus evil pattern on ways of reading fiction.  Some students reduce the story to a fable about a battle between scientific and religious explanations of the world, and impose the good and the evil on one or the other depending on their religious or secular persuasions.  A few bristle against what they see as Asimov’s condescending attack on religion.  The atheist students, of course, think that this is exactly what makes the story great. [Both laugh]

I ask the students to take a closer look at whether the scientists in the story deliberately set out to disprove the religious cult’s version of the impending “nightfall” or if they are after something else. The students do point out that the attack is felt by the cult and not necessarily intended by the scientists. But everyone agrees that the scientists’ methods and findings do threaten to invalidate the cult’s narrative of the phenomenon. So the central tension is between the cult’s narrative, which freezes the event in myth and discourages new discoveries, and the scientists’ narrative, which is still being written and is open to new conceptions of the world.

Star Wars is a myth. It formularizes and makes static a particular type of story about our human experience.

TC: Yes. At the conference in South Korea, I also mentioned that, with the good-versus-evil story, it’s very easy to tell a sequel to that story. The world is a good place again until another evil comes along and it’s up to the heroines to defeat this evil again, and they defeat it, and you’re back where you started, and you can tell it over and over again. But in a science fiction story–especially in a conceptual breakthrough story—the sequel would not, cannot look the same because at the end of the first story, we’re in a completely different place relative to where we started. You can tell a different story as a sequel, but you can’t tell the same story over again.

Again, this is only comprehensible to someone who has lived since the industrial revolution. In the past, people didn’t conceive of the future as being different from the present. The only way they imagined the future might be different was if the world were going to end, like if they were a millenialist cult who thought they were living in the end times.

So when you mention myth or mythic structure, yes, I don’t think myths can do that, because in general, myths reflect a pre-industrial view of the world. I don’t know if there is room in mythology for a strong conception of the future, other than an end-of-the-world or Armageddon scenario …

BH: Eschatological projections …

TC: Yes.

BH: In terms of stories that move you out of your comfort or familiar zone, what other types of science fiction do you read and enjoy—even if you don’t write that type of science fiction?

TC: [Laughs] When you say “other types of science fiction,” I’m not sure what you mean. What other types are there? What type of science fiction do you see me writing?

BH: Well, one distinction that’s out there, whether people consciously make them or not, is the kind of mainstream speculative narrative that offers a consideration of a hot topic in social or environmental politics or is driven by a particular point of view. The post-apocalyptic narrative has quite a lot of cachet right now because it expresses various concerns about our environment and taps into that anxiety about the end times you just mentioned.

The print fiction that gets adapted to film these days are usually post-apocalyptic stories conducive to spectacular cinematic representations. They are usually billed as science fiction, but they are really disaster films dressed up with some familiar science fictional tropes such as alien invasions or collisions with objects in space.  And since these are usually big Hollywood studio films, they share very similar structural patterns with the mythic narratives we talked about earlier. The disasters are essentially disruptions of peace and order, and so the desire produced in the audience is the desire to restore the world to the state before the cataclysm, a desire for the return of the status quo.

And there are the space operas and the political allegories that dramatize encounters with difference, with alienness of some form, and with the inevitable social conflicts that arise.

Your fiction, to me at least, is that you start with a scientific concept and not necessarily a social concept. “Story of Your Life,” for instance, begins with Fermat’s Principle of Least Time, which serves as a governing metaphor for the entire story. As the framing concept, it helped me understand the story as both a scientific and a narrative exercise. That’s a different approach than, say, Octavia Butler’s work, which is largely based on current developments in genetics and human biology; but I would say that her main preoccupation is social relations concerning race, gender and the consequences of social and biological mixing.

TC: Yeah, I’d say that’s a fair assessment.

BH: There is also a current trend in which writers who don’t write in the genres of science fiction or speculative fiction more broadly contribute a novel that appears to participate in the exercise of speculative thinking, if not scientific thinking. There’s Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. There’s Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is often read as a consideration of how life and social relations might be realigned after a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.

TC: It’s interesting that you mention McCarthy’s The Road, because I’ve had a number of conversations with people about it. To me, it’s not science fiction at all; it’s a novel about McCarthy’s protective feelings toward his son. My reading is that McCarthy is not interested in writing about the end of the world. He’s not interested in nuclear war or environmental disasters. He depicts this desolate landscape as a metaphor for the hostility of the world, the world he is trying to protect his son from.

It might be worth talking about this in the context of other science fiction novels that get a lot of mainstream attention. In a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, the author is often putting together a cautionary tale about some social trend, the destruction of the environment for example, that is currently underway and against which the author is trying to warn us. But McCarthy isn’t interested in any of that.

BH: Yes. Because he never points to the causes of the destruction. The destroyed world is just a premise.

TC: Yeah. In The Road, in some ways it’s a nonsensical premise because every living thing on earth, except for human beings, has died. All the animals are dead, and all the plants have been turned to ash. How could this possibly have happened? There’s no way a nuclear war or an ecological disaster could cause that. But he’s not interested in explaining that. He’s interested in the image of the world as unremittingly hostile and incredibly bleak, and about a father trying to protect his son in that world.

BH: That’s consistent with his aesthetic. No country for old men and their sons.

TC: Yeah. So he’s not actually interested in the future at all.

BH: What about the child? Is the child in some way a figure of his vision of the future?

TC: That’s not a child that grew up in a post-apocalyptic world, that’s a child that grew up in the here and now. There’s a scene in the novel where someone else is hurt and the child wants the father to help him. This is a child who ostensibly has lived his entire life in this nightmarish landscape. Every single human being that they have ever met, his father has treated as a threat; it has always been kill or be killed. A child raised under those circumstances would never ever think, “oh, there’s someone who’s hurt, let’s help them.” He wouldn’t feel compassion or empathy for anyone.

BH: He doesn’t have experiences of that. But at the beginning of the novel, there are descriptions of his father reading “stories of courage and justice” to him …

TC: On how to be a “good guy.”

BH: Yeah, on “carrying the fire.” The suggestion is that the child has vicarious memory of the residues of a moral system through his father’s storytelling. Whether this is plausible is up for debate. Probably not. But thematically this is, I think, a writer’s way of demonstrating the power of narrative as a vehicle for passing down values, ethics, beliefs.

TC: I agree. It’s not a psychologically realistic account of a child raised in a blasted hellscape, it’s McCarthy’s way of saying that his son gives him hope. That’s not to say that it’s not worth writing about. But it’s not really a science fiction story.

BH: Yes. Philip K. Dick had said that science fiction is a protest medium for criers of doom. If The Road is read as such, the protest would be the projections of readers.

Most readers tend to see science fiction in that light—as cautionary tales. I don’t necessarily read your fiction in that light. Do you see any of your stories as cautionary?

TC: I’m weary of the cautionary science fiction you see in Hollywood because much of that is very anti-technology. The message of many of those cautionary tales is that technology is bad and science causes nothing but trouble, and that’s not a message I agree with at all. That kind of story is easy to sell to Hollywood because it offers a very straightforward bogey-man that people can be afraid of. If there’s someone we can easily blame, then that’s a very comforting story, a very reassuring and familiar kind of story.

BH: We’re back to the good-versus-evil story pattern.

TC: Realistically speaking, no technology is all bad or all good.  The more interesting science fiction story tries to show both sides of technology—the positive and negative consequences, and an ambiguous future as a result. To me, that is the more honest kind of science fiction. But ambiguity doesn’t make for a Hollywood blockbuster.

BH: We’ve spent a lot of time so far talking about other people’s work. Which of your stories are you most proud of? Which were the most difficult to write?

TC: I’d say “Story of Your Life” is my high water mark. That is the story that aimed the highest and achieved the most. There are some stories of mine which were more successful at doing what I wanted them to do, but they had more modest aims. In “Story of Your Life,” I’m not sure I achieved all that I set out to do, but I had very high aspirations for it.

BH: You said in another interview that that was a tremendously difficult story for you to write.

TC: It definitely was.

BH: What was the nature of the difficulty? What did you set out to achieve?

TC: I had an ending in mind and an effect I wanted to achieve, but I was aware that it would be very difficult to do. Writing about losing a child is risky, and the unconventional narrative structure was also a challenge. On top of that it was from the point of view of a woman, and a linguist. I didn’t know much about linguistics when I started, so I was conscious of the high degree of difficulty.

BH: I’m intrigued by your choice of a linguist for your first-person narration when you say you know little about linguistics. How did you come to connect it with the governing concept of the story?

TC: The initial concept had to do with Fermat’s Principle, which is something I’d read about many years ago that I thought was a fascinating bit of physics. I’ve always wanted to write a story about it, but I didn’t know how. Eventually, it occurred to me that I could use it to write a story about a person who could see her future and who would face a very tough choice because of that. She has to consider whether to go ahead with a decision, knowing that it would bring a lot of joy, but also a lot of pain. That was the initial impulse.

Then I decided it should be a parent deciding whether to have a child. It seemed that that would be the most dramatic situation of that type—deciding whether to have a child, knowing that that child would die before them.

Then I had to decide how this character comes to be able to know the future. I briefly considered a mind-altering drug, or a form of meditation, but neither of those seemed interesting to me. Then I remembered the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which posits that the language you speak influences the way you see the world. I thought it’d be interesting if my protagonist gained the ability to see the future through learning an alien language. That was where the linguistics came in.

BH: The new way of seeing the world in the story involves a radical temporal shift, too.  Louise, the linguist, learns from the alien Heptapods not only a way to see the future, but perhaps more challengingly, a way to know the future, the past and the present simultaneously.

Many of my students read Louise’s newfound condition of knowing the future to be a tragedy. They know that Louise does not see it that way. I don’t see it as a tragedy either. But many of the students do. What were some of the reactions to this story and to some of your other work that deal with this idea of knowing the future, of knowing how things will end, of knowing one’s path, that you are aware of?

TC: To this question of whether knowing your future is thought of as a tragedy, I guess that depends on what your future is. If your future is going to be all happy and wonderful and puppies in a rose garden, then knowing that would probably be great. But if your future is filled with misery, then knowing that would be, well, not great. Most of us fall somewhere in between; we know that there’s going to be both happiness and sadness in our future. We don’t know specifically what types, but most of us reasonably assume that both lie ahead of us.

BH: Louise does decide to go ahead and “make” her daughter (she and her husband Gary decide to “make a baby” despite what she knows about the fate of the child).  But here is the paradox at the heart of Louise’s story: I just said that she decided—she chose—to go ahead and make the child, suggesting that there is agency on her part to create the future.  But, on the other hand, the future has been set and theoretically there is nothing she could change. Or, perhaps a different way to look at it is that there is no reason for her to try to change anything because her path has been laid. There is perhaps no way of knowing whether her decisions precede the path or the path precedes her decisions.

TC: That is one of the things the story is about. When we say that bad things are going to happen in the future, implicit in that is the notion that you can’t change it, you can’t avoid it. Because if you could avoid it, well then of course there’d be no tragedy. You could say, “well, I’ll simply take all the necessary steps to avoid any unhappiness from this point on,” and your life will be a bed of roses.

BH: Somehow we understand that to be absurd. In a way, “Story of Your Life” was comforting to me because it allows me to see the life we live as a combination of autonomy and fate, and how the two are mutually constituted and enabled.  The two concepts are somehow fused rather than set in opposition, as they often are in stories about free will and determinism. It’s less about finding out something about the future so that you can choose to change or keep it, but more about achieving a greater understanding of the arc of your life.

This reminds me of another story of yours, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” in which one character tells another that using the time-travel Gate is not about trying to change things, but about understanding the present in relation to the past and the future.

TC: In a sense, both “Story of Your Life” and “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” are attempts to depict a scenario where knowing your own future is not a tragedy. Because at first glance, if you knew your own future and couldn’t change it, it seems like it’d be a tragedy because you’d live in dread of the inevitable. But the two stories try to frame the situation in a way that is not about awaiting your doom. They are attempts to find the positive in this predicament, to find some way of living with it.

BH: I’m sure this strikes a heavy chord with folks who believe that the future is not yet set and is completely contingent on the choices they make of their own free will. Those enamored with the illusion that they are sovereign agents of free will would of course bristle against stories that suggest otherwise. There’s this primarily Western attachment of individualistic “choice” or “will” to the very reason for a good life. If you cannot exercise will, then you have no reason to live. The other side of free will can only be oppression and enslavement. Less celebrated is the idea that you have a role to play in an arc, a community, a history—a role you can play abjectly or subjectively.

TC: Well, the question of free will of course has been turned over by philosophers for pretty much forever. Everyone wants to believe we have free will. Everyone resists the idea that our futures are determined. But the more you understand about the world, the weaker the case for free will becomes – at least the naïve notion of free will. The goal is to find a definition of free will that is satisfying to us and is compatible with everything else we know about the universe. So, yes, there’s a sense in which those two stories of mine are fictional attempts to argue for the compatibility of free will and determinism.

BH: I ask my students if they would learn the Heptapod language (the language that enables one to see past, present, and future simultaneously) if they had the opportunity, and most say a resounding no, consistent with their belief that to know the future is to have no reason to go on living. If you had to opportunity to learn it, would you?

TC: [Laughs] I don’t know. As I was saying earlier, as you get older you get a stronger sense of what lies ahead of you in your life. You know tragedies will befall you. To that extent, we already know our futures. Not in detail, but in very broad strokes. We know what our future holds, and we continue anyway.

BH: Mortality is of course the knowledge we all have. Those with terminal illnesses who are aware of the time left to them nevertheless go on living.

TC: There’s a sense in which we’re all in that situation already. And people don’t kill themselves.

BH: You’ve said in other interviews that you begin the writing process for a story by writing the ending first.

TC: Yes.

BH: This seems to map nicely onto the themes you deal with in “Story of Your Life”knowing the ending, knowing the future.

TC: Well, I don’t really see writing in those terms. The way I see it, if you’re writing a mystery story and you have no idea who the murderer is and are hoping to figure it out along the way, then the odds are not good that the culprit you eventually decide on will match all the clues you laid out. Not all stories are mysteries or whodunits, but I tend to approach my stories in a similar fashion. I need to know “who done it” before I can start.

Obviously, not all writers do it this way, and it works for them. But I suppose I write the way a mystery writer does.

BH: I’m curious, then, about some of the stories I see as more open-ended, such as “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” or The Lifecycle of Software Objects, in which a range of views is presented and no view emerges at the end that appears to be the one you wholly endorse. How do you determine the endings of these stories? There is a sense that these stories haven’t concluded. In “Liking What You See,” for instance, why did you end with Tamara Lyons’s voice? And in Lifecycle, there is a sustained ambivalence between whether Derek or Ana represented the best course forward for the digients. They aren’t foreclosed in the way that the time-oriented stories like “Story of Your Life” and “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” are.

TC: Yes, these are ambivalent stories. In those cases, I wanted to end on a feeling of uncertainty, of having to decide between two opposing positions. And in that respect, I would say that the ending of these stories actually has something in common with the ending of “Story of Your Life.” The end of “Story of Your Life” asks you to choose between two interpretations: is this a tragedy, or is this a happy ending? Is it a good thing or a bad thing for Louise to have a child? “Liking What You See” and Lifecycle offer a different category of choice, but the intention is still to create the feeling that there is a legitimate case for both sides.

BH: Which is why these stories are realistically discomfiting for me, but also satisfying in their truthfulness. Nothing is settled in the end because you’ve made such a strong case for both sides. In the case of Lifecycle, I swung between Ana’s and Derek’s points of view throughout the story, and I’m still swinging.

TC: That was the reaction I was hoping for. I don’t think most issues are clear cut, because usually there are good arguments to be made on both sides. This ties in with what I said earlier about science fiction that depicts both the positive and negative consequences of technology, as opposed to only the negative ones. That’s actually my underlying position on most things. When I propose these thought experiments in my stories, it’s not because I have a definitive conclusion. I think there’s merit to examining an idea from different angles.

BH: Let me focus on “Liking What You See: A Documentary” for a moment. You are aware that Clark University, my home institution, has used the story as the reading that incoming first-year students respond to in their essays for their writing placement, right?

TC: Yes.

BH: In the essays, students generally oppose the mandated use of “calli”—an abbreviation of “calliagnosia,” a device, named after the condition it enables, that “shuts off” the ability to discern and evaluate facial beauty. In my classes, I also assigned your interview with Interzone, in which you make the useful distinction between the perceiver and the perceived and calls out the power of the gaze and the person doing the looking, to help students try to sort out the benefits and detriments of calli from the position of the perceiver and the perceived.

In class discussions, generally it has been the women who tended to be more open to trying calli, while the men took much more convincing to entertain the idea to try it.  This may be predicable because women, on the whole, understand more deeply how it’s like to be the object of the male gaze. The men understand it intellectually, but feel that the price of giving up the ability to distinguish beauty is too high a price to pay for something like gender equality. And many – this includes both the men and the women – say that doing away with the ability to see facial beauty will only redirect our natural discriminatory tendencies elsewhere. Most decide in the end that they would not use calli. What are some of the readers’ responses to calli that you’re aware of?

TC: That sounds pretty consistent with what I’ve heard. Most people’s instinctive reaction to the idea of calli is: Why would you ever want that? When I was writing the story, I knew most people’s reaction would be anti-calli, and so I put a lot of thought into making the case for calli. Because who doesn’t like looking at a pretty face? And we all want to believe that our judgment is not impaired by that, that we are still able to judge people on their merits. But there’s a lot of data that shows that that is not the case. And yet most people instinctively feel that they don’t need such a device, and don’t want to consider the possibility that their instinctive reactions may be unjust. It makes total sense to me that people would oppose the use of calli and would not be interested in trying it …

BH: Because they see the proposal to use calli as an accusation of their inability to be fair. To agree to its use would be to acknowledge that their judgments are impaired.

TC: It’s definitely an odd thing to ask people to think about, because this is something that very few people give much thought to. Yet it’s been a subject of interest to me for a long time.

BH: So are you more swayed by one position?

TC: Well, I’m sincere in my arguments for the use of calli. I sympathize with all the characters in the story that make an argument for calli. I feel the way they feel and identify with all of them. And I do think that lookism—discrimination based on attractiveness—exists and is a legitimate issue, a locus of actual injustice in the same way that sexism and racism are. But no one ever talks about lookism that way. It is a form of prejudice that we’re all happy with. We have a preference for attractive people over unattractive people and we are unashamed to admit it. People would be very reluctant to admit a preference for one race over another, but no one has any compunction about saying that they prefer attractive people to unattractive people. It seems like the most natural thing in the world. We can’t help it, and we don’t even want to help it. But I think it is an injustice. We all agree that racism and sexism are something we need to work against, but hardly anyone takes up lookism.

BH: Perhaps a distinction between racism and lookism is that the prevailing understanding of racism is that it is learned, whereas lookism is, as you put it, more instinctual. Our racial hierarchies are social constructed and our racial prejudices are learned through that social system. The same could be said of sexism too.  But beauty – you seem to suggest that our responses to beauty are not learned, but instinctual. Positive reactions to beauty—which studies have shown to be defined in terms of symmetry and proportions—are not socially indoctrinated. Rather, it’s something we’re hardwired for.

TC: Yes.

BH: And so it feels egregious to tamper with the hardwiring?

TC: Yes. To the extent that racism is socially constructed, we feel that the cure ought to be social as well. By comparison, our preference for attractive people has a stronger biological basis than racism, but there is definitely a social component to it too. Every culture in the world has a preference for beauty, but the degree of preference and the emphasis on it vary quite a lot. America worships beauty in a way that most other countries do not, and that is definitely socially constructed. The media environment we live in shapes our attitudes beyond our hardwiring. Once I had a conversation with a Cuban writer about her reaction to “Liking What You See.” She had spent much of her life in Cuba, but she now lives in the U.S. She said that after some time in the U.S., she became much more conscious of her appearance than she was when she lived in Cuba.

This is similar to a story I once saw on 60 Minutes about two friends from Cuba who moved to the U.S. One is white, the other black. When they were in Cuba, the racial difference wasn’t an obstacle to their friendship. But after living in the U.S. for a while, they found it hard to remain friends because race is a much bigger issue here than it is in Cuba. Likewise, beauty is a bigger issue here than it is in Cuba. We have a socially constructed lookism which Cuba does not have. In that respect, there is definitely a social component to lookism, which should be correctable through purely social means rather than through neurological alterations.

BH: And yet, despite so much evidence to the fact that lookism is prevalent, even the women in my classes who are open to trying calli equivocate because they feel that they are going against some kind of sacrosanct belief in our culture …

TC: Certainly in our country, we don’t want anyone infringing on our personal autonomy.

BH: That is still the reigning ideology.

TC: Yes. America is a very individualistic society. Our entire culture is built on individualism.

BH: This is a good way into the other open-ended story, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, which is about, among other things, the autonomy of the titular “software objects.”

What are the seeds of it? I read elsewhere that you have been unhappy with the way artificial intelligence is represented in popular media.

TC: I’ve had a longstanding dissatisfaction with depictions of artificial intelligence in science fiction, because they are usually depicted as very easy and convenient to create and use.  You just flip a switch and you have an absolutely loyal and competent butler at your service.  But based on what we know about intelligence, we’re pretty sure that’s never going to happen.

If we’re talking about an artificial being that is actually conscious, all evidence indicates that it would have to be taught the way an infant is taught. It’ll have to learn how to talk, how to walk.  It’ll have to learn that objects fall when you drop them, the way an infant learns. Not necessarily the exact same way, but it’ll have to go from a state of knowing nothing to gradually gaining the everyday knowledge that we have. Teaching an artificial intelligence all of this is going to take years, and those will be years of hard work. Who would put that much effort to do this? Why would anyone spend that much time teaching an A.I. how to walk and talk? What’s the business case for doing that? It would be extraordinarily expensive to pay someone to spend years teaching an A.I. what parents teach their children, and it’d be an enormous risk if you have no guarantee that the results will be useful. And the first time around, you won’t have any guarantee.

BH: So why do people like Derek and Ana do it?

TC: Well, if a business could get people to do that work for free, then it might make more fiscal sense. For that to happen, the A.I.s would have to be cute, like virtual pets. People spend a lot of time with Tamagotchis and Nintendogs or the Sims—software that is cute but not conscious at all. If a company makes its A.I.s sufficiently cute, people will want to spend time training them. They might even pay the company for the opportunity to do so.

A company that sells Nintendogs or Tamagotchis wants its customers to form attachments with the products. Virtual pets are designed to make you feel guilty if you neglect them. But as long as the virtual pets aren’t conscious, that sense of guilt or obligation is an illusion. Once you have a virtual pet that’s conscious, your obligation is real. I would say you have an ethical duty to it, in the same way that you have an ethical duty to a cat or dog you adopt. And that will inevitably complicate the situation for all the reasons described in the story.

Because the digients—the A.I. virtual pets in the story—are completely artificial, many people will feel free to treat them as purely disposable and deserving of no protection at all.  Their being artificial also means that you’re going to run into problems like technological obsolescence and platform migration—issues that don’t arise with cats or dogs. And if you have an ethical obligation and an emotional attachment to something that is platform dependent, then you’ll be faced with some tough decisions.

BH: A way to overcome the platform dependency is for the digients to be housed permanently in a robotic carapace.  I can’t recall why it was impossible for them to be permanently downloaded into one of those…

TC: It wasn’t impossible, but unsatisfactory. They couldn’t go around unattended, and their options are actually more limited than if they were in a virtual environment where they could play, go anywhere and do what they wanted.  In a robot body, they can’t really leave the house, and none of their friends are there.

BH: So, in a sense, for them to permanently inhabit the real world in a robot body would be the equivalent of exchanging a life with more freedom and ease in the virtual environment for a life of a handicapped child that needs constant parental supervision.

TC: Yes, because our world is not their natural environment. Their primary existence is in a virtual world and they’re always going to be at a disadvantage in the physical world. A physical body is expensive and it’s easy to damage, and our world is not set up for autonomous robots to run around unsupervised.

BH: I’m also thinking about Marco and Polo, the digients who at the end of the story decide to take the offer of Binary Desire, a company that makes virtual and physical sex dolls, as a gesture toward determining their own fates, versus Jax, who was not given that opportunity by his guardian, parent, owner—I’m not sure what to call their human caretakers.

TC: Yes, Ana decides not to let him.  It’s not so much up to the digients as it is up to the humans who own them. Ana makes one decision and Derek makes another. Derek lets Marco and Polo choose, but he’s the one who gives them that choice. He decides that they are mature enough for it.  Ana decides that Jax is not. So the difference is not so much between Jax and Marco and Polo, but between Ana and Derek. I don’t know that Marco and Polo are more mature than Jax.

BH: Do you still remain suspended between Ana’s and Derek’s viewpoints?

TC: Well, I hope I’ve made a case for both sides. The scenario in the story is really unexplored territory in terms of human experience. We have no precedents for what to do in that situation, we don’t know what is ethical or what constitutes good parenting for an artificial intelligence.

BH: You’d have to know the capacities of your “child”…

TC: Yes, and the thing is, the first time we do it, we’ll have no idea what their capacities are. If people continue to raise artificial intelligences later on, they’ll know more about the potential capabilities of the artificial intelligence. Based on that, they could make more informed decisions. But in the absence of any of that information, what do we have to go on? For the first generation, people will just have to go on their gut. And that’s what Ana and Derek do.


Read Part Two here!


China Miéville, “Wonderboy: China Miéville revels in Ted Chiang’s high-concept collection, Stories of Your Life.”  1 May 2013.  The Guardian, 23 April 2004.

One thought on “Interview: Ted Chiang

  1. Pingback: TED CHIANG Stories of Your Life and Others (2002) |