An Interview with Ted Chiang
“I write short stories at very long intervals,” Ted Chiang stresses to me, thrice, during our initial conversation. “That is no way to make a living as a writer.” Despite this, the fifty-two-year-old author does in fact make a living writing such stories in such spans of time, crafting remarkably poignant, thoughtful science fiction that, at times, resembles Borges filtered through Black Mirror, but with a thrilling sense of revelation, hope, and beauty that is all his own. “He would tell them about the shape of the world,” Chiang writes in one story, a line that could serve as a kind of personal directive. Readers have been listening. Despite having published only two story collections’ worth of fiction—2002’s majestic Stories of Your Life and Others and 2019’s celebrated Exhalation—Chiang has won nearly every major award science fiction has to offer: four Nebulas, four Hugos, four Locus Awards—twenty-seven wins out of a whopping fifty-six nominations. Even his non-wins are noteworthy: there is a story passed among Chiang-heads about how he once turned down a Hugo nomination because he considered the work unfinished.
Chiang was born in 1967 in Port Jefferson, New York, an hour’s train ride from Midtown Manhattan. The eldest son of college-educated Chinese immigrants from Taiwan—his father is an engineering professor, his mother was a librarian—he attended the famed Clarion Workshop in 1989 to study science fiction, which he described to me as “a life-changing event.” Not long after, he published his debut story, “Tower of Babylon,” an extraordinary reimagining of the Tower of Babel myth that follows a group of Elamite miners hired to crack the Vault of Heaven. Described occasionally as a science fiction writer’s science fiction writer, Chiang had his biggest breakthrough in 2016, when “The Story of Your Life,” originally published in 1998, was adapted into the acclaimed Denis Villeneuve–directed film Arrival. The story centers on a linguist tasked with communicating with an ominous group of cephalopod-ish alien visitors. Chiang’s renown continues to grow. Barack Obama included Exhalation on his 2019 summer reading list, hailing it as “the best kind of science fiction.”
I met Ted Chiang in January 2019 at a sushi restaurant outside Seattle, where he has lived since taking a job at Microsoft to write technical manuals, an occupation he has freelanced until recently, and one, he tells me, to which he still expects to return. That winter afternoon, I arrived to find him already there, hands folded behind his back as he observed the lily-padded waterfront in calm reverie. The venue had been his suggestion: it would be quieter for conversation than his preferred restaurant, a bustling local ramen joint. For this meeting he had tied his silver-and-black hair into a ponytail; he wore a black trench coat, a dark zippered fleece, and black slacks and shoes, in a precise, practical fashion sense that I found in keeping with his work. Chiang’s stories could be compared to sleek machines—
meticulously and elegantly designed, with no visible seams or extraneous parts, although that description risks selling short their emotional and philosophical merits, which are vast.
Over the course of our meal, I learned that Chiang doesn’t much enjoy small talk. Paris Review–style queries on writerly particulars such as “What is your writing schedule like?” and “How do you feel about the release of your new book?” almost seem to irritate him. (“Is that really what you want to ask?” he said at one point, smiling and waving his hands in exasperation. “Pass.” ) Neither does he necessarily relish chatting about process or story scaffolding. What Chiang prefers to discuss is the art of science fiction. Technology is a deep interest of his—“I can talk about AI all day long,” he confessed in half apology—but even more so, Chiang is interested in the ways society and culture respond to tech. At the heart of Chiang’s stories are investigations of character motivation and human nature, explorations of the limits of connection and interaction, fate and free will. “I want to know whether my decisions matter!” demands one character. Conveying the rush of understanding in arresting, ever-inventive ways, his stories manage to reveal bracing insights into age-old quandaries.
This interview took place over two conversations: the first at the sushi restaurant, and the second in July 2019, over the phone, two months after his book had come out, to rapturous reviews (“Teasing, tormenting, illuminating, thrilling,” wrote Joyce Carol Oates in The New Yorker). When I mentioned preferring to speak in person, Chiang vigorously agreed. “It’ll be a long time,” he said, “before some technologically mediated interaction will be exactly as rich as face-to-face.” One such rich moment took place in the parking lot of the sushi restaurant. As we were parting, he mentioned that he had googled me because he had been “curious.” There was something touching about his awkward transparency, his humane gesture of reassurance. The move was both surprising and gracious—not unlike his fiction.
I. LIFE CYCLES
THE BELIEVER: In your story “Seventy-Two Letters,” you write of “the content and the vessel, an echo in a self-sustaining reverberation.” How important is it to you to satisfactorily arrive at the content and vessel for a story?
TED CHIANG: Well, I do spend a fair amount of time thinking about what is the best way to tell any given story. I can’t claim to be super experimental in terms of form. Formally, there’s some variety in my stories, but nothing really off the beaten track or super challenging to readers. But within the scope of conventional narrative techniques, I do look around for a structure or kind of scaffolding that I think would best suit the story I’m trying to tell.
BLVR: “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is a story about virtual pets that engages with the idea that it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to, as you say, “make a useful person.” The story uses progressions in time—“it’s a year later,” “another two months go by,” and so on—as a kind of road map and vehicle. It’s also the longest story you’ve written to date, at 110 pages. What were the formal considerations for this particular story?
TC: You know, this movie hadn’t come out at the time I was writing the story, but there’s that Richard Linklater film Boyhood. The things that make Boyhood unusual as a film have to do with the nature of its production, of having a cast of actors [who age progressively over the course of the twelve-year period in which it was filmed]. But I guess there is maybe a similarity in that if you want to convey a story about the maturation of someone from youth to near adulthood, you could spend a long time—a novel, or a few novels—doing that.
BLVR: As Knausgaard has done.
TC: [Laughs] Yes, yes. But if you’re doing it in a shorter work, you’re trying to evoke the passage of time, but there’s this difference in scale; you’re trying to convey a long story in a short space. One way to do that is to jump forward in time to significant moments.
BLVR: The world of the virtual pets is slowly disintegrating. There are fewer updates, fewer pets and users. It’s a story about maturation, but it’s also about dealing with loss, yes?
TC: Yes. One of the ideas I wanted to explore in the story is the difference in time scale between raising a person, or even owning a pet, and the rapid technological obsolescence that we’ve grown accustomed to: people getting a new smartphone every couple of years; having forced operating system upgrades because the software you want can’t run on the old OS anymore. There are a lot of different reasons for why that happens, but nothing lasts very long in the current software landscape that we live in. There’s this very sharp contrast between that and the projects of raising a pet or raising a child or any sort of long-term emotional relationship. Apple has released ten versions of the iPhone in the time that my cat has been alive. If your pet actually lived on an iPhone, you’d be in big trouble. Obviously, Siri is not conscious, it has no feelings or anything, but even if some company were to create a version of Siri that was actually your own personal copy that you could develop a friendship with, that’s something that could not last very long in our current world of software.
We have this model of software as a subscription to a service, and it’s something that, by design, you have no real ownership of. It’s a license that can be taken away from you at any time; the company can change the terms whenever they want; they can stop supporting it whenever they want. Companies could still sell you software that you own, but they don’t want to; the subscription service just works better with their business model. They want brand loyalty, but they don’t want you to become so attached to a specific iteration of a program that you never want it upgraded or rebooted. There are people who still love the original iPods and buy them off eBay because Apple won’t sell them anymore. The scenario depicted in “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is another manifestation of this underlying issue.
II. THE SCHOOL OF ESCALATION
BLVR: I have a few more questions about form. “Understand” and “Tower of Babylon” could both be considered escalation stories: you could describe “Understand” as a person leveling up in terms of intelligence, education, and skills, and in “Tower of Babylon,” there’s the literal climb of miners as they ascend a tower. At the risk of being dogmatic, I want to ask: How essential would you say escalation is to storytelling?
TC: [Laughs] That’s interesting. I hadn’t really made the connection between those two stories, but I see what you mean. I wouldn’t say that escalation is an essential part of storytelling as a whole, but I think there is a specific mode of science fiction storytelling in which extrapolation is a key part: taking an idea as far as it will go, trying to imagine what comes next, to the limit of your imagination.
BLVR: Is there a platonic ideal of these science fiction escalation stories that you might point to?
TC: A couple of examples come to mind. One from the golden era of science fiction would be “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon. Then, more recently, the science fiction writer Greg Egan wrote a short story called “Dust” that he later expanded into a novel called Permutation City.1 In that novel, he’s taking an idea as far as it can go.
BLVR: I feel like this idea of escalation got into my head from a George Saunders essay about Donald Barthelme’s “The School.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that story. It’s about a cursed school: everything in it dies. The school gets these plants and they die, it gets a hamster and it dies, it gets a Korean orphan and the kid dies. Saunders describes it as an escalation story, where even the escalation starts to escalate. By the end, the children are talking about “fundamental datums” and the meaning of life. I’m also thinking of the classic story structure, Freytag’s Triangle, in which the action rises until it reaches a climax and then falls.
TC: OK, OK, I think I better understand what you’re talking about. There’s this sort of traditional plot structure of rising tension, and obviously that is a very common type of plot. There are a lot of ways in which you can think about escalation. There’s raising the emotional stakes; in screwball comedy, the situation for the protagonist usually gets worse and worse, so there’s a doubling of the complications that Cary Grant has to juggle. Those are all different ways to implement rising tension. The particular mode of science fiction I was talking about before features escalation on more of a cognitive level than an emotional one. There are some stories that become harder to read as you progress in them, because the writer is engaged in the escalation of the complexity of the ideas. Greg Egan’s stories become harder to understand because he often winds up pursuing ideas to a level of abstraction that most readers probably can’t follow. It’s like taking a class or listening to a lecture and the lecture builds on its initial ideas, so you’re following along but it becomes more taxing, and eventually it reaches a point where you sort of fall by the wayside and only a few people can understand what the lecturer is saying all the way up till the end.
BLVR: You recently published an “op-ed from the future” in The New York Times, and it’s been noted that your fiction takes essayistic forms from time to time. What is it about the essay that makes it an interesting form to you for science-fictional purposes?
TC: I’m not sure I’m super interested in the essay for science-fictional purposes. The New York Times started this series of op-eds from the future, so that basically means writing a science fiction story in under a thousand words that also has to look like an op-ed. A couple other times I’ve written short-short pieces that appeared in Nature—“What’s Expected of Us” and “The Evolution of Human Science.” I guess I’m not comfortable trying to write a more conventional piece of fiction in under a thousand words; I don’t really know how to do flash fiction. I think an essay framework offers a way to tell a story in under a thousand words in a way that I can manage.
BLVR: Are there any new forms you’ve been wanting to explore or employ in your work?
TC: I don’t know about new forms, but I have for a long time been curious about stories written around formal conceits. I haven’t been successful at coming up with a story that’s entirely based around a formal conceit. I’ve never been able to start with a structure and format and actually write a story from it, so I don’t think my writing mind actually works that way. But it’s certainly something that I have been interested in for a long time.
Just as an example, I liked the idea of Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars. Do you know that book? It’s a novel told in the form of fictional encyclopedia entries. It’s organized alphabetically, and there are all these little entries about this imaginary culture, and there’s a story that unfolds as you read them. The novel didn’t work as well as I had hoped, but I liked that idea. J. G. Ballard has a short story that was written in the form of an index. I thought that was a really cool idea, but I guess I like the idea of the story more than the story itself.
BLVR: Are you saying that the act of reading it would have been more pleasurable if it was more conventional?
TC: Those forms—an encyclopedia and an index—run very counter to conventional narrative. I don’t know if it’s possible to write something that makes sense as an encyclopedia, or as an index, and that also works as a narrative, because maybe the incompatibility is just too great.
[At this point in our phone conversation, I heard loud meowing in the background, followed by rustling sounds, then silence.]
BLVR: I hear another presence in the room. Perhaps several, even.
TC: So far, just one. I think it has reached a level where I have to take some action.
BLVR: May I ask what the being’s name is?
BLVR: My dog’s been here, sleeping, mostly. How old is Sasha?
TC: [Laughs] I think she is thirteen now.
BLVR: Well, I won’t be one of those obnoxious readers who connect the somewhat-advanced age of the cat to the work.
TC: [Laughs] I mean, Sasha was quite young when I was writing “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.” But anyone who has ever had a pet for any period of time has been through the whole life cycle of having a pet.
BLVR: Yeah. My dog, he’s sixteen.
TC: And you’ve had him since he was a puppy.
BLVR: Since he was two months old.
TC: So you’ve seen the whole thing.
BLVR: Well, not all. Thankfully.
TC: Your dog reached maturity fairly quickly compared with a human child. If he were a human child, you’d still be ramping up. Having a child is a long-term project.
BLVR: Are you a parent, Ted?
TC: Oh, no, I’m not a parent. I do not have kids.
BLVR: I was just curious.
TC: Did you want to ask more about that?
BLVR: Well, I was just thinking that I could see you being one, based on the empathy in your writing.
TC: Well, I suppose being a pet owner is the closest I will come to being a parent; I’m not going to claim that it’s all that close. But I guess I am interested in the parent-child relationship because of how profoundly asymmetrical it is. In most other human relationships, the two parties are much closer in standing. But the difference between a parent and a child is enormous. What a parent owes a child is not remotely like what a child owes a parent, which makes it harder to determine what is fair.
III. REASONABLE CAREER PATHS
BLVR: You’ve talked about being interested in “finding ways to make philosophical questions storyable.” How do you go about this, and why do you feel compelled to do so?
TC: A lot of philosophical issues can seem really abstract and remote when philosophers describe them, so that can lead people to think that these questions have no bearing on their lives in any way, shape, or form. But the reason philosophical questions are interesting is that they can actually have relevance to our decision-making; the choices that we make in our daily lives can be reflective of certain philosophical or moral positions. So I think dramatizing these philosophical questions is a way of making their relevance clearer to people. These issues are not purely abstract or intellectual, and science fiction stories offer a way to make you genuinely invested in the outcome of a thought experiment.
BLVR: I was wondering if you could speak a bit about the decision to include story notes at the end of each collection, to let the reader have a look under the hood, as it were.
TC: As a reader, I’ve always enjoyed story notes. They might be more common in science fiction collections than in mainstream collections—The Best American Short Stories and other anthologies sometimes include story notes—but I’m always interested to read what a writer has to say about a story, and I imagine there are other people who like reading those too. Sometimes, when you’re doing an event and there’s a Q&A, people in the audience want to learn more about the story, and the only way they’re able to phrase it is “Where did you get the idea for this story?,” which may or may not be the most interesting thing to ask about the story. A story note can be a way to have that conversation. It may not be the precise response to “How did you get the idea?,” but it’s a way to answer the reader if they knew what the best question to ask was. If there is something interesting to be said about the story, then a story note lets you choose how you’re going to frame it.
BLVR: You’ve also mentioned not wanting to add extratextual elements to your work.
TC: Well, obviously, I write story notes, so it’s not that I’m actively avoiding it. If I were actively avoiding it, I would say nothing. I guess I hope that those extratextual elements are not required in order to make sense of the work.
BLVR: I was wondering if you might be willing to speak more biographically. You haven’t to date written about race or Asian American identity or Asian American culture—not that one has to, of course. In interviews, too, you’ve been reticent in engaging on that. And yet, as someone who has a very similar family background—parents from Taiwan, librarian mother, father in the sciences, sister in medicine—I am curious about your perspective. But it also feels like I’m prying.
TC: Well, OK, do you want to ask, like, “How did my parents feel about me going into a creative field?” Is that what you’re working your way toward?
BLVR: That, and also how they feel now. From personal experience, I can say that my parents weren’t immediately amenable to my deciding that I would study literature. And I suppose a larger thing is that, coming from a marginalized or underrepresented background, there aren’t a lot of role models for people to see. You can feel alone when you’re working at it by yourself. So when there are folks like yourself who are able to really succeed, I think it’s interesting to hear the stories of how they did it.
TC: I would say my career path wasn’t as likely to raise objections with my parents because I have always been a science nerd. When I was a kid, my intention was to become a physicist. That was a perfectly respectable career choice for the son of an engineer. I figured I would be a fiction writer on the side, and that, I think, is perfectly acceptable to Asian parents. They were supportive of my fiction writing as a hobby, and that was what I thought of it as.
In college I switched from physics to computer science; I got a degree in computer science and went to work in the industry. But again, that’s a perfectly reasonable career path as far as Asian parents are concerned. If I had announced that I was going to get a degree in art history or something like that, there probably would’ve been some resistance. But that’s not what happened. At no point did I ever say to them or think to myself, Oh yeah, I’m gonna make a living writing fiction.
BLVR: I’m curious to know how much you feel your parents understand, appreciate, or accept your work now.
TC: I guess it depends on exactly what you mean by that, because on one level you could be asking, Do they read my work and understand it and enjoy it? On another level, you could be asking, Have they accepted that I write fiction as a part of my identity?
BLVR: Both, I guess.
TC: OK, so, well, my mom just passed away a few months ago. But I think she read my work. I wouldn’t say she understood it, but she was supportive of my pursuits. My father, he doesn’t really read fiction, so I don’t think he has read my work, but he is also supportive of me pursuing fiction writing. But, again, my day job for most of my life has been perfectly respectable. My expectation was always that I would write fiction on the side, and that remains my expectation. I write short stories at very long intervals. That is no way to make a living as a writer. I would never say to anyone that writing occasional short stories at long intervals is a good way to make a living. When I talk to writing students, I quote a friend of mine, Andy Duncan, who said: “You can make a life as a writer without making a living as a writer.”
BLVR: How do the students usually respond when you tell them that?
TC: I think the reaction varies, because science fiction is a more commercial genre. There are a lot more people in science fiction whose goal is to make a living from writing fiction by publishing one or more novels a year. And people who enter science fiction generally receive more messaging about fiction writing as a sole source of income than, say, people entering mainstream fiction. The messaging there is different: get an MFA, teach; it’s understood that your teaching position supports your career as a writer. For writers entering science fiction, that’s not really a thing yet. We’re maybe getting there, but the messaging they receive is mostly: Be very prolific.
BLVR: Are you still working as a technical writer on the side?
TC: Right now I am able to take a break from that. But I’m under no illusion that this is a permanent situation.
BLVR: Has the increased interest in adapting your work into film offered more opportunities?
TC: That’s not a reliable source of income. The odds of anything coming from that are just so long.
BLVR: I read that the same screenwriter who worked on Arrival is working on something for your story “Understand” as well.2
TC: There are a lot of announcements of things. But announcements of things don’t mean that anything is actually going to happen. I read about an agent who said that, in his experience, one in thirty things that get optioned eventually get made. And I think he’s probably a pretty high-powered agent, and his odds of having his clients’ work produced are probably significantly higher than most people’s. How many people are going to be able to make a living off that?
IV. “A GOOD EXPLANATION CAN BE A BEAUTIFUL THING.”
BLVR: How crucial is the element of language to your process of writing?
TC: I don’t imagine that my use of language is the main attraction of my work. I wish I could write more beautiful sentences; I can’t, but there are certain writers whose prose I admire, whose sentences I am envious of. I know I’ll never be at their level.
BLVR: Is there a reason you said “certain writers” instead of naming any actual names?
TC: I very much admire the sentences of John Crowley. I wish I could write sentences like his, but I know I’m not going to be able to.
BLVR: You got a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Do you ever see the work of creating a story to be analogous to an engineering process?
TC: I don’t see the two as being that closely aligned. What I would say is that the closest connection between my fiction and my day job of technical writing is that a good explanation can be a beautiful thing. So I am interested in clarity, in helping a reader to understand concepts, in both technical writing and fiction writing. The techniques involved are radically different, but my goals are similar, in that in both cases I’m trying to get an idea across, and I think a lot about what’s the best way to do that.
BLVR: Isaac Asimov was a major early influence for you. You’ve also mentioned admiring Borges. Are there writers that you find yourself returning to regularly now?
TC: Well, I don’t read Asimov anymore, if that’s what you mean.
BLVR: Do you still read Borges?
BLVR: You’ve mentioned being interested in ideas of conceptual breakthroughs. How useful do you find these in propelling a narrative?
TC: OK, so the term conceptual breakthrough is sometimes used in science fiction criticism to describe the moment in the story in which a character’s understanding of their universe changes in some fundamental manner. They are experiencing a sort of paradigm shift about their place in the universe. I think that’s a way of dramatizing the process of scientific discovery. That process is one of the reasons I was interested in reading about science as a kid; I could vicariously experience that thrill. Stories about conceptual breakthrough offer a way to re-create that experience in fiction. In the actual history of science, there are only a handful of really dramatic scientific discoveries, but you can’t keep telling their stories over and over again. Most of the history of science isn’t actually that dramatic. In science fiction, you can have your characters make discoveries that radically expand their view of the world just as much as Galileo’s or Darwin’s discoveries expanded ours.
BLVR: Do you feel that emotional and psychological breakthroughs can be used similarly?
TC: I would categorize those as being something different. Science fiction is known for the sense of wonder it can engender, and I think that sense of wonder is something that is generated by stories of conceptual breakthrough. I don’t know if a sense of wonder is engendered by stories of personal epiphany.
BLVR: In the title story of Exhalation, you write: “Through the collaborative action of your imaginations, my entire civilization lives again,” which could be an apt description for literature itself. I was also reminded of Jimmy Carter’s message to alien civilizations on the Voyager spacecraft: “We are attempting to survive our time so that we may live into yours.” How collaborative, in your view, is the relationship between the writer and reader? Is there a reader you imagine, or that you actually have, who serves as an ideal interlocutor?
TC: I don’t know if this is a direct answer to your questions, but what they make me think of is that many years ago, in 2007, I was in Japan, and I was interviewed at a convention, and someone in the audience asked me what I’d been reading recently. I mentioned this novel called Blindsight by Peter Watts, and I said that I disagreed with almost everything in that novel but I recommended it because it is engaged in ideas; it is trying to make an argument in a way that I find really interesting. So while it might be nice to have a reader who’s completely sold on everything I say in the work, it’s more important to have readers who are engaged with the arguments I’m trying to make, who like thinking about similar ideas, even if they don’t necessarily agree with me or think I’ve succeeded.
BLVR: How important would you say the Clarion Workshop was to your development as a writer?
TC: Clarion was a life-changing event not just because of what I learned about writing, but because it made me believe that I could be a writer. Prior to attending Clarion, I’d been working in complete isolation. I didn’t know anyone else who was trying to write science fiction—I knew barely anyone who read science fiction. So I had no one to really talk to about what felt like the central passion of my life. I’d gotten only form-letter rejections; I didn’t know if I was cut out to be a writer. At Clarion people told me that my stuff was good; that was the first time I had gotten positive reinforcement. But it was also the first time that I found other people who shared my passion. A lot of people say that going to Clarion is like meeting a family you didn’t know you had, and to me it definitely felt that way. Suddenly I was surrounded by people who had read the books I had read and understood the things I was interested in and were trying to do the things I was trying to do. I remember, on maybe the first or second night at Clarion, one of my classmates mentioned the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis3 and then started to explain what it was, and I said, “Oh, I know what that is.” And he said, “You’re the first person I’ve met who’s heard of that before.” That sort of thing happened to us constantly. Going to Clarion was how I found there was a community for writers out there that I could fit into.
BLVR: How important is reading to your work?
TC: I don’t know if this is exactly what you’re asking, but I’ll say this. This has to do with the question of genre, which is often defined in terms of a certain set of tropes or a formula. But there’s this other definition of genre that I find speaks more to me, which is to think of genre as an ongoing conversation. Genre is a conversation between authors, between books, that extends over decades. And one of the reasons I definitely identify as a science fiction writer is because I want to be a participant in the ongoing conversation that is science fiction. My writing is informed by the books I’ve read, so it is a response to what other writers have written. I want to be in conversation with other works of science fiction.