Everything is Illuminated: The Unreality of Ted Chiang

Science-fiction author Ted Chiang

During World War II, President Roosevelt once commissioned “New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive … we can create a fuller and more fruitful life.” The letter was of course addressed to Vannevar Bush, the first director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and would later be published in “Science — The Endless Frontier.”

Easily a mantra worthy of acclaimed science fiction author Ted Chiang, Roosevelt’s missive reminds us that science and technology don’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, scientific endeavors have the power to shift paradigms and thus reverberate into the very core of human life.

This is by and large the premise behind Ted Chiang’s debut collection of short stories “Stories of Your Life and Others”.

Perhaps more a writer of speculative fiction than science fiction, Chiang navigates the philosophical and existential questions prompted by a technology-oriented society. He achieves this somewhat subversively, providing answers that are sometimes troubling, and almost always surprising. The reason for this is because his solutions are often incongruent with the nature or essence of the original problem.

Take for instance Chiang’s opening story “Tower of Babylon” where simple geometry becomes the answer to one of life’s biggest mysteries. Inspired by the biblical city of Babel, the story’s protagonist ascends a spiraling ziggurat which starts to resemble less a tower and more the tree of life with its own ecological niches of human activity.

In a related story “Hell is the Absence of God”, supernatural phenomena are transpired by actual physical events and the consequences are not so much spiritual as they are visceral. This is a world where “seeing is not believing” and the question of faith is pitted against a seemingly irrational God.

It is trademark Chiang to supersede the metaphysical with the empirical: heaven’s vault is a ceiling made of smooth granite, angelic visitations are likened to natural disasters, and the breath of life is encoded into a name.

Even vague constructs like time, language, and telos are left to stark materialism to resolve the gaps. Here, Chiang’s skills as a technical writer serve him well as he patiently unpacks every nut and bolt with the utmost clarity and precision. Intricate mechanisms are similarly treated in kind without venturing into esotericism.

But for all of Chiang’s clever machinations, the heart of his work is a steady state humanism.

Many of Chiang’s stories are framed within a larger consciousness that is driven by quintessential human motivations such as curiosity, desire, and self-preservation.

This is especially true in the novella “Stories of Your Life” on which the Hollywood film “Arrival” was based. Through a series of flashbacks, the narrator speaks to her unborn child after foreseeing a tragedy that prompts not her resistance but her consent.

In this episode, moral dilemma and logical determinism collide to form the nexus of what Chiang refers to as “remembering the future.”

Although the message is a ‘bit more cluttered in “Seventy-Two Letters”, Chiang sets his story in the steampunk era and draws upon the Kabbalistic tradition of nomenclature. Mechanized golems or “automatons” are controlled by different permutations of letters against a backdrop of rebel proletarianism which obscures the looming crisis of human survival and reproduction. Once again, Chiang employs the same rubric where human insolvency is compensated through technology.

In every instance, Chiang seems to argue that the science itself is amoral even when human behavior is not.

In fact, most times it’s not about the science at all but rather how human emotions or social circumstances motivate a kind of cause and effect; the technology simply enables the processes already at hand. In other words, we understand the logical basis of each story’s conclusion but find it unsettling because we are unsure of its value par excellence.

It is this same tension however which gives Chiang’s stories the frisson that we associate with great science fiction.

Towards the end of his book, Chiang has a section where he explains the impetus behind each story.

In it, he addresses the paradox of meta. But the meta that Chiang refers to is neither self-referential nor based on the metanarrative.

Instead, Chiang drills down into a different sort of meta relationship that looks at humans as creators and consequent purveyors of science and technology. In many cases, Chiang posits that humans often struggle with the implications of the same technology they’ve labored to create.

Science then transforms from being a means to an end into becoming the thing itself. And in doing so, humanity is forced to contend with not only their roles as creators but also as destroyers and demolitionists.

In this sense, Ted Chiang simply is classic science fiction and a writer who even Roosevelt or Bush could have looked to as society and technology continue to evolve together past new and perhaps, unexpected horizons.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store