Ted Chiang has never written a novel, but he’s one of the top writers in science fiction today. He writes short stories and novellas, and he isn’t very prolific with those. He just comes out with a story every year or so that does everything right.
You know how some people are ideas writers, and their ideas are so amazingly brilliant that you don’t care they can’t really write character and plot? Ted Chiang is like that, except that his characters and plots are that good as well. His stories all arise out of astonishing SFnal ideas, they couldn’t happen except in the contexts where they do happen, but they have characters with emotional trajectories that carry them along as well. He always gets the arc of story exactly right, so you know what you need to know when you need to know it and the end comes along in perfect timing and socks you in the jaw. I think Chiang is one of the great science fiction short story writers of all time, along with Varley and Sturgeon and Tiptree.
Usually when I re-read and write about a collection, I talk about themes, because usually reading a whole pile of short work from one author brings their themes forward very visibly. Chiang doesn’t have themes in the sense of obsessions he keeps coming back to. He has a huge range in the kind of thing he writes, the kind of character, the kind of style. What he does a lot of is looking at weird worldviews as if they were real. “Tower of Babylon,” his first story, asks “What would it feel like if the world was the way Babylonian cosmology thought it was?” “Story of Your Life” asks “what would it feel like if you saw future events simultaneously, but lived through them sequentially?” “Seventy Two Letters” asks “What would it feel like if kabbalistic ideas really were how life worked?” It’s not just that he has ideas, it’s that he integrates idea and point of view perfectly.
There tends to be a moment when I’m reading a Chiang story when I realise the layers of what it’s doing. When I re-read them and come to that moment, it’s like a landmark—oh yes, that’s where my head exploded. For instance, there’s a bit in “Tower of Babylon” where they’re climbing the tower of Babel and they get to the bit where they pass the sun. The builders didn’t use bitumen mortar there, of course, it would have melted... of course it would. It’s all so real, and so simultaneously weird. “Story of Your Life” is even weirder, as it replicates what it means to have that happen to your consciousness.
The thing about this head-exploding thing is that it’s what I used to read SF for, when I was young. It’s “sense of wonder.” I remember having this effect with Arthur C. Clarke when I was ten years old, and with Zelazny when I was fourteen. Then I grew up and I kept reading SF because I like planets and aliens and weird worldviews and the odd little glimpses of wonder. I get absorbed in things, I say “Hey, that’s nifty,” but it’s not often these days that I have that “What? What? Wow!” experience. Chiang does it for me practically every time. There’s no wonder he keeps winning awards—he really is just that good.
I generally try not to simply burble incoherently that things are brilliant and you have to read them, but faced with stories this awesome, that’s pretty much all I can do.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.