In this case, a friend brought me an interview that is long and filled with great information about science fiction. The friend? Peter Orullian, Tor Books author of The Unremembered. Who did he interview? Ted Chiang, writer of numerous award-winning science fiction short stories and short story anthologies.
The two writers represent very different sub-genres. Ted writes is science fiction; Peter writes epic fantasy. But both possess a passion for the craft of writing and the genre as a whole and, given the chance, will talk about it at length. That’s what is great about this interview. It’s length and conversation.
Read on to learn more about Ted’s work and “the literature of ideas!”
PETER ORULLIAN INTERVIEWS TED CHIANG
I’ve done a number of interviews. They’ve all been fun and enlightening. And usually I’m speaking to writers who are passing through Seattle on a book tour. Not long ago, I realized that I was overlooking an obvious interview with someone local, and a friend of mine, to boot: Ted Chiang.
Most of the interviews I’ve done are of novelists. Ted’s work tends to be much shorter, though some of his fiction is of novella length. And his work—if you don’t know it—has received a great many accolades—deservedly so. To be frank, he uses these shorter forms more effectively than most novelists do their longer, more wordy form.
So, at one of our get-togethers—a few of us do dinner, movie, and after-movie Starbucks-so-we-can-deconstruct-the-movie conversation—I asked Ted if I could interview him. Obviously, he said yes. So, enjoy the conversation below with, in my opinion, one of the best science fiction story writers currently working.
Peter Orullian: Let’s get underway by having you give us a snapshot of your work to set the stage for our conversation: genres you write in, recognitions, etc., publishing vitals, if you will.
Ted Chiang: I write science fiction short stories. I have a collection of my stories, STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS, published by Small Beer Press, and I recently had a novella, THE LIFECYCLE OF SOFTWARE OBJECTS, published as a standalone volume by Subterranean Press. As for recognitions, I guess you mean awards? My work has won four Nebulas, four Hugos, and four Locus awards.
PO: I want to talk about your latest novella, but before we do, let’s start with the science fiction genre itself. It’s sometimes described as the genre of ideas. Whether an accurate or meaningful description anymore, I don’t know, but I’d certainly describe your work as pretty squarely science fiction. And yet, I’d also say your work is about more than ideas. I’m interested in your thoughts on the genre currently, and how you approach it in your own writing.
TC: “The literature of ideas” isn’t a bad description for science fiction if you’re limited to four words, but I don’t think any genre can be accurately characterized in such a brief sentence. If you tried to come up with a four-word description of fantasy or horror, there would certainly be people saying the genre was about more than that. Ideas are an important part of SF, but they aren’t the entirety of it. Not long ago there was a critical volume published called THE SEVEN BEAUTIES OF SCIENCE FICTION (by Istvan Csiscery-Ronay), about seven things SF does well, and “new ideas” is just one of them.
As for the current state of the genre, I’m not sure I have anything original to say beyond what everyone says: sub-genres are sprouting, genre boundaries are dissolving, the field is growing larger and more amorphous. But even though the genre is changing, I’d agree that my work remains close to traditional notions of science fiction. I like performing thought experiments, working through the implications of a speculative idea, and I think that’s something science fiction is particularly well suited for. And there’s another reason I feel my work is SF, and it has to do with the idea that a genre is a kind of conversation that takes place between books and authors over a period of years. You’re writing within a genre when you’re participating in that conversation and your work is in dialogue with earlier work in that genre, and in that sense, I definitely think I’m part of the science fiction genre. It’s a conversation I am happy to be a part of.
PO: I really like this last piece, Ted. It articulates something I’ve felt myself relative to genres I’m writing in. So, let me ask you: What are some of the books and authors you’d say are part of your own conversation with the science fiction genre?
TC: It depends on the particular story. I’d say my story “Understand” is in dialogue with a number of stories about increasing intelligence: Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” is the classic, of course, but I also had Thomas Disch’s CAMP CONCENTRATION and Larry Niven’s PROTECTOR in mind when I was writing it. Similarly, “Story of Your Life” is in dialogue with other SF dealing with linguistics, like Samuel Delany’s BABEL-17, Suzette Haden Elgin’s NATIVE TONGUE, and Ian Watson’s THE EMBEDDING. More generally, a lot of my stories deal with the idea of a “conceptual breakthrough,” a term coined by Peter Nicholls in his SCIENCE FICTION ENCYCLOPEDIA: a discovery that fundamentally changes the characters’ understanding of their universe. This is one of the central storylines of science fiction; some classic examples are Robert Heinlein’s “Universe,” whose characters discover that they’re actually living on a generation starship, and James Blish’s “Surface Tension,” whose microscopic characters discover the world beyond the puddle they’ve always lived in.
PO: A very good list of books. And now, in this same vein, are there other writers currently working whose work you read and admire? And I’m thinking both in and outside the science fiction genre.
TC: I find things to admire in a lot of what I read, but to pick out a few names: Greg Egan is an SF writer whose work really clicks for me; I can’t think of anyone else who can extrapolate from a premise as rigorously as he does. A couple of writers who have written within the genre, but more often write outside of it these days, are John Crowley and Karen Joy Fowler, while a writer who seems to be moving closer to the genre is Michael Chabon; they’re all very different, but they all have a gift for language that I can only dream about having.
PO: You and I were in a book group together for a time. I remember at a few of the gatherings this question was asked: Is this the book that will save science fiction? To be honest, I’m not sure it was a real or genuine question, but I’d love your thoughts on why such a thing would even be asked rhetorically.
TC: That question was prompted by a review of one of the first novels we discussed in the book group, COUNTING HEADS by David Marusek. It was reviewed in the New York Times by Dave Itzkoff, which was noteworthy because the NYT hadn’t reviewed SF with any regularity in years (Gerald Jonas used to have an occasional column reviewing SF, but that ended some time ago). Itzkoff’s review prompted some discussion online, because in it he was pretty critical of contemporary SF; he said, “I cannot [recommend SF novels to friends] in good conscience because if you were to immerse yourself in most of the sci-fi being published these days, you would probably enjoy it as much as one enjoys reading a biology textbook or a stereo manual. And you would very likely come away wondering, as I do from time to time, whether science fiction has strayed so far from the fiction category as a whole that, though the two share common ancestors, they now seem to have as much to do with each other as a whale has to do with a platypus.” (His review is available here:
PO: Yes, that’s right, it wasn’t that folks necessarily felt science fiction needed saving; but I still find the asking of the question at all very interesting, at least in part because fans of SF are aware of quality fiction that goes unnoticed since the genre is often taken together as the literary equivalent of popcorn. But that’s my take. And it leads me to my next question.
I know that media tie-in work isn’t always first-rate. Franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars have their own set of fans that just want more of those worlds. But I’ve wondered if there’s an opportunity for the genre to use that interest to draw readers into the worlds of other SF writers, or if they’re different enough beasts that they really do belong on different shelves and never the ‘twain should meet. Do you have any thoughts here?
TC: One theory that I’ve heard goes like this: back in the 70s and early 80s, Star Trek fans would often move on to regular SF novels after they’d read all the Star Trek novels, but nowadays, there’s such a steady supply of media tie-in titles that fans are more likely to alternate between various franchises than they are to try a novel set in an original universe. That sounds plausible to me, although I don’t know if there’s any hard data one way or the other. The publishing scene has changed in so many ways since the 80s that it might be impossible to isolate the effect that tie-ins have had on the sales of regular SF.
I haven’t read any media tie-in fiction, but I don’t doubt that there’s good work being done there. My main reservations with media tie-in fiction have to do with the vast disparity in power between the writer and the production companies that owns the movie or TV series. Media tie-in authors generally don’t retain copyright on what they’ve written — any characters or settings they invent become property of the rights holder — and this isn’t good for writers. Even apart from media tie-ins, there’s been a trend toward the corporatization of publishing, which requires treating books as product; because a consistent product is easier to sell, homogeneity in fiction becomes a goal. I think media tie-ins take the “books as product” idea even further by encouraging people to view prose fiction as just one more merchandising opportunity for a franchise.
PO: Let’s move on to your most recent work: The Lifecycle of Software Objects. One of its central explorations deals with artificial intelligence, familiar terrain in science fiction. In light of some of our “definition of science fiction” discussion, I’m interested to have you talk to us about how you approached the implications of this speculative idea. Did you have certain notions you wanted to explore in advance? Did your take on AI evolve through the writing? Etc…
TC: First, it’s worth clarifying what we mean by “artificial intelligence.” When people working in the software industry talk about artificial intelligence, they’re usually referring to stuff like algorithms for scheduling airport traffic more efficiently. No one’s seriously working toward the type of AI you typically see in science fiction: some form of conscious software that you can have a conversation with. However, there is a research avenue that seems promising to me, involving autonomous, embodied agents — i.e. robots — that can sense their environment and learn how to navigate it. I think an approach like that could eventually lead to conscious software, but the AI would have to learn everything the way a human does; you couldn’t just download Wikipedia into its brain.
Realistically speaking, I don’t know if we’ll pursue that research avenue far enough to develop conscious software. But as a thought experiment, I tried to reconcile the type of conversation-capable AI you see in SF with what I see in the actual software industry. And it seemed to me that the most plausible business case for AIs is not selling them as a productivity application, but as a kind of pet. Using a virtual body in a virtual environment will probably be a better option than manufacturing a physical body, because processing power keeps getting cheaper. Having the AIs inhabit a massively-multiplayer online world would offer them a much richer and more social environment, which will prompt more interesting behavior from them. And of course, you have to make the AIs cute and fun if you want people to buy them. So that’s basically the scenario in my novella.
Then I tried to explore some of the consequences of that situation. One of the notable attributes of high tech is that everything becomes obsolete pretty quickly. A lot of people replace their cell phones every eighteen months, which is less time than it takes to raise a guide dog for the blind. If you’re training something that’s as smart as, say, a chimpanzee, and it’s running on a modern technology platform, you are going to face obsolescence issues long before you’re done. And so my novella describes people dealing with those problems.
PO: On the notion of conscious software, I sometime struggle with this idea, but perhaps it’s a semantic issue with me. To say “conscious” would, by definition, mean self-aware, but the word also connotes self-awareness with regards to sensation and feelings¬, at least it does in my dictionary. I can suspend disbelief for a story’s sake, but in the real world, I find it hard to believe software could make the leap beyond simply being aware it existed. Learning to navigate an environment is one thing, but feeling anger or sadness or happiness or pain . . . it seems to me that these represent the challenge (in the real world) of a true manifestation of the kind of AI we see so often in SF. Would love your thoughts.
TC: One way to look at this issue is to ask, are animals conscious? People used to think that animals were little more than automatons, but I absolutely believe that animals experience some form of anger, sadness, happiness, etc. (I also think that the more closely related the animal is to humans, the more closely their experience resembles human experience, so a chimpanzee’s emotions are closer to ours than a mouse’s.) Even after we account for the human tendency toward anthropomorphic projection, I think the simplest explanation for the behavior we see in animals is that they are actually conscious. And if a computer program were able to demonstrate behavior fully as complex as an animal’s, I think the same thing would be true.
One of the counterarguments is that software merely simulates consciousness, and a simulation is not the real thing. An analogy I’ve read is that mistaking a computer simulation of consciousness for actual consciousness is like expecting a computer simulation of a magnet to attract physical iron filings. My response is, suppose I create a physical object that I call a “fake magnet,” but it attracts iron filings just like a real magnet. Suppose it passes every single test you can come up with. What’s the point of calling it a fake magnet then? Now, suppose we have a computer program which behaves like a conscious being in every respect. There’s no behavioral test that it fails. In what sense is it useful to say that it’s not actually conscious? Sure, it might not have a brain made out of jelly like animals do, but dissecting the brains of animals wasn’t the basis for our thinking that animals are conscious, it was their behavior. (Assuming you think animals have some form of consciousness.) Why should our criteria for computers be so much more stringent that the ones we apply to animals?
Currently we aren’t able to create the equivalent of an ant’s consciousness in a computer, so we’re a long ways off from creating the equivalent of mouse or chimpanzee or human consciousness, but I don’t see why it should be impossible in principle. And it might even happen in a sequence like that: first we develop ant-level AI, and we work our way up from there. SF usually skips right to the human-level AI, which I think contributes to AI seeming impossible, but if you imagine it happening over a long series of tiny steps, I think it becomes much more believable.
PO: Should be fun to watch the progression. I’m skeptical, but I blame bad science fiction movies. Let’s shift gears a little. You and I had an interesting conversation years ago over the notion of “semantic contagion.” This followed a rather bizarre story about an individual who responded to an ad that (and I’m paraphrasing) asked someone over for dinner, literally. Meaning, the person who responded to the ad was eaten. We spent some time discussing the notion that some ideas should not enter into the public consciousness, as they would give some individuals ideas that they would act upon and thus cause general harm to society. I wonder, in light of this, how you think about the exploration (or not) of certain topics in fiction. Like, just because you could chose to write from the POV of a rather reprehensible person and attempt to make them sympathetic, should you? I can imagine some behaviors that one might write about that would be rather untenable. For you, are there some things you actively chose not to write about because of this kind of sensibility? Or is it all “fair game,” as they say?
TC: The notion of semantic contagion was proposed by a philosopher named Ian Hacking; I encountered it in an article in The Atlantic called “A New Way to Be Mad,” about the condition known as apotemnophilia, the desire to have a healthy limb amputated. According to the theory of semantic contagion, the idea of elective amputation might never have occurred to people if they hadn’t read about it, so publicizing the existence of this condition actually facilitates its spread. I’ve since read about another theory about apotemnophilia that suggests it has a neurological basis rather than a psychological one, which might mean that semantic contagion is not actually a factor there. But more generally, I think the idea of semantic contagion is still definitely worth thinking about.
In the context of fiction, I do think that we as authors have to consider the moral dimension of what we write. If you think fiction can have a positive effect on how readers conduct their lives, then you have to acknowledge the possibility of a negative effect, too; I don’t see how you can coherently argue for one without the other. This doesn’t mean that there’s a list of things that are flatly impermissible; writers have to decide for themselves where they draw the line. To me, where a writer draws the line is usually less important than the fact that the writer has thought about the issue. There will inevitably be disagreements about where to draw the line, with some people thinking others have gone too far, and that’s okay; however, that’s different than trying to shock people just for the sake of shocking them, which seems pointless to me.
As for my own work, I can’t recall an instance where I’ve refrained from writing about a subject because of the message I might be sending. If the issue were to arise, I doubt it would take the form of a sympathetic depiction of a reprehensible character. It might come up this way: I have an interest in examining the underlying assumptions we make, and trying to identify which ones have real justifications and which are merely matters of personal preference. It’s possible that, while doing so, I might devise a pretty convincing philosophical argument supporting a position I strenuously oppose. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
PO: Let’s shift gears again. One of the things that’s been on my mind a lot recently is the degree to which there is autobiography in fiction. I don’t mean as an explicit effort on the writer’s part. Rather, in hindsight, I find (for myself anyway), some context for the work from my own life. Do you find that true at all in your own fiction? Is there a sense in which you would find your work at all autobiographical?
TC: Not really. Certainly my life experiences inform the fiction I write, but I’ve never had the experience of revisiting stories of mine and saying, “Now I see how that reflects what was going on in my life at the time.” I obviously can’t rule out the possibility of my realizing that in the future, but so far it hasn’t happened.
PO: Fair enough. Let’s return to the science fiction genre, for a moment. You mentioned before books from years ago as part of a dialogue. As you look back over the last, say, twenty years of science fiction, how would you say the genre has changed or evolved?
TC: Probably the biggest change is in the way speculative or fantastic elements are used. Many people have noted that the border between genre fiction and mainstream fiction has been breaking down in recent years. One way that this manifests, I think, is that writers feel free to use speculative or fantastic elements without making the entire story revolve around them. For example, in the past writers might mention a ghost at one point in a novel, even one that wasn’t primarily a ghost story. The idea of ghosts was commonplace enough that suggesting the presence of one didn’t automatically turn a novel into a piece of horror or fantasy fiction. However, in the past writers wouldn’t have included a vampire in a novel; vampires were too weird to include in a novel that wasn’t
PO: I remember thinking the same thing after reading a short story in the New Yorker some time ago. And for the most part, I like the change in approach. Let me ask you, are there any trends in science fiction today that you don’t find particularly healthy for the genre?
TC: It’s by no means a new trend, but in general I think that when commercial considerations override artistic decisions, it’s not particularly healthy for the genre. As I mentioned earlier, publishing is becoming more corporate: publishers are now subsidiaries of multinational corporations who demand consistent profits. There was a time when editors would make long-term investments in authors, continuing to publish them even if their first three or four novels weren’t successful. Nowadays new authors have to produce a successful novel almost immediately, or they’re dropped in favor of a newer author. There are a lot of famous writers who would never had careers under the current system; John Irving published three not-very-successful novels over ten years before he produced THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, and I doubt he would have been able to do that today.
PO: I think you’re right, where large New York publishing houses are concerned. But it makes me think about the rapidly-growing trend of self-publishing, where writers are going direct to readers. Will this change produce the next John Irving, ¬a writer who can improve and succeed, eventually, at publishing great work¬ even if New York isn’t interested? And is self-publishing something you’d consider for your own work? If not (or at least not entirely), what value do you continue to place on more traditional routes?
TC: The next John Irving may already be trying the self-publishing route, and we might simply be unaware of him or her. It’s been said that the new trend of self-publishing e-books has turned everyone into a slush pile reader. There are things like social media and recommendation engines to help sort through the slush, but it’s not clear that they’ll be as effective as a traditional publishing house at helping readers find the authors they’d like.
As for whether I’d consider self-publishing my own work: I can’t rule it out for the future, but right now I’m happy with more traditional publishing. Part of the reason is that short-story writers are in a different situation than novelists. One of the advantages of self-publishing is that the author gets a bigger percentage of any profits; if you’re a novelist, that could be a significant sum. But short stories don’t offer that promise. And the internet has trained people to expect short fiction to be free and readable on a web page without even the need to download an e-book. As a result, self-publishing short fiction often takes the form of putting a story up for free on your website, because readers are reluctant to pay for it.
Even if there develops a model for selling self-published short fiction, I don’t think my temperament is well suited to doing the promotion that self-publishing requires. As long as the option of traditional publishing remains available to me, where someone else takes care of production and promotion and all I have to do is write the stories, I’ll take it.
PO: All right, since I’m a musician, I’m always interested to know how/if music factors into your writing life. Do you listen to music while you write? Does it give you any particular inspiration?
TC: I don’t listen to music while I write; I find it too distracting. It’s difficult for me to even answer e-mail or surf the web when there’s music playing. Pretty much the only things I can do while listening to music are driving or household chores. I used to listen to music more, but that required me to specifically set aside time that wasn’t used for anything else, and I don’t do that much anymore.
PO: Let me ask, do you have a favorite band and genre of music? Who are you listening to these days, if anyone? And a part two of this question: What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?
TC: I don’t know that I have a favorite band, but the artist who appears most often in my music collection is Michael Nyman, a minimalist composer whose work I sought out after hearing his scores for the films of Peter Greenaway. (He’s probably best known for doing the score for Jane Campion’s THE PIANO.) I haven’t been to a lot of concerts, but the best one was probably a Cyndi Lauper concert back in the late 80s; I still think her album SHE’S SO UNUSUAL is awesome.
PO: Lastly, give us a peek into the future writing life of Ted Chiang. Anything you’re working on you can give us a preview of? Anything we should be watching for from you in the next year or so?
TC: Alas, I don’t have anything in the publication pipeline at the moment. I’m working on a new story, but I can’t talk about it yet.
PO: Thank, Ted. I really appreciate your time. And folks, if you haven’t read any of Ted Chiang’s work, I envy you, because you get to experience it for the first time. And the discovery of such elegant work is rare. You’ll do few things for yourself as rewarding as picking up one of Ted’s books. Really. Do it. You’ll thank me.