Let’s Rank Every Ted Chiang Story Ever Published

It has recently come to my attention that, to date, there does not exist a clear online ranking of every Ted Chiang story ever written.

You’ll find the occasional partially-ordered tier list, of course, or the passing Top 5 list, and some might even come close but no list that includes every story he has published, and orders them completely. Not only are currently existing rankings incomplete, but worse—many of them are (in my opinion) wildly incorrect. This seems, to me, a massive gap in the collective knowledge of humanity—and I’ve taken it upon myself to fill that gap. What follows, then, is the definitive ranked list of all of Ted Chiang’s stories, according to me.

 

Methodology

To maintain a (false) air of objectivity here, I will rate each piece according to three criteria, on a 1-5 scale, and add these three scores together to determine their final placement on the list. In the likely event that two or more stories, at some point, are tied, then I will drop this veneer of objectivity entirely, and use baldly qualitative judgements to distinguish between them. The three criteria to be used are as follows:

Emotional Impact: To what extent does this make the reader (aka me, projecting my own emotions onto everyone else) feel things, for the characters, about life, etc.

Intellectual Impact: How often does “the reader” (again, just me) think about this story after reading it? Does this have the potential to subtly or not-so-subtly shift the way that someone views the universe?

Public Impact: How popular is it? Has it wormed its way into the public consciousness? Has it won/been nominated for any awards? Has there, for example, been a movie based on this particular story?

Note that these ratings will be relative to other Ted Chiang stories. So, while being simply nominated for, but not winning, a single award, means a story is more critically acclaimed than anything I’ve ever written, it will likely only qualify a story for two stars in the PI category (given how regularly Chiang’s work attracts award-related attention).

Note: attempts will be made to make the list vaguely spoiler-free, alluding only to themes, and perhaps basic premises. These attempts will become more rigorous as the stories become increasingly praiseworthy, working our way toward the top of the list.

We’ll begin ranking…now:

 

18. “What’s Expected of Us”

Emotional Impact: *
Intellectual Impact: **
Public Impact: *
Total Score: 4/15

Something had to be last. While not a bad story by any means, this one is extremely brief (one of four stories here to roughly qualify as flash fiction) and the issues it discusses—free will with determinism, and thoughts that are hazardous to the thinker—are issues more deeply explored in other entries on this list.

The constraints of the shorter format clearly seem to hold Chiang back here, as it feels like there are nuances to these issues that are flattened out and rolled over out of necessity, due to the length. Perhaps if this had been a longer work, the author could have more robustly and thoughtfully examined the reactions people would have to learning there’s no free will—arguably, in fact, he has already done just that in a couple of works further up this list.

 

17. “The Evolution of Human Science” (or “Catching Crumbs from the Table”)

Emotional Impact: *
Intellectual Impact: ***
Public Impact: *
Total Score: 5/15

This is a story that’s perfectly fine for what it is. Regardless, due to the cutthroat nature of the ranked list format, I’m going to mercilessly criticize it for not being something else: I think that this flash fiction piece, published in a venue that requires less than 950 words, containing no characters whatsoever, is inferior to Chiang’s fully developed novellas. I know you didn’t come into here expecting such hot takes, but I’m not going to pull punches.

Honestly, the idea expressed here is relatively unique and fascinating, reflected in the high II score I gave it. However, the lack of any and all emotional stakes means that this reads as more of a thought experiment than a story.

 

16. “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny”

Emotional Impact: **
Intellectual Impact: **
Public Impact: *
Total Score: 5/15

This story has an interesting concept going for it—but one that’s arguably less interesting than the core concept of most other Ted Chiang stories. Some of the entries on this list are good precisely because they derive some surprising, unexpected conclusions from the concepts they examine, often conclusions that go against the average person’s initial intuitions. The moral of this story, however, seems to roughly be, “using robots to raise babies is a bad idea.” This is a maxim that any given reader would likely agree with before reading this story, making it one of the less memorable entries on this list.

 

15. “It’s 2059, and the Rich Kids are Still Winning”

Emotional Impact: **
Intellectual Impact: ***
Public Impact: *
Total Score: 6/15

The third flash fiction piece to appear on this list, this is probably the most politically charged work Ted Chiang has ever published. That’s not necessarily a high bar to clear: this isn’t polemical by any means, and it’s still predominantly concerned with being a thought experiment, rather than a political critique. It does, however, serve relatively effectively as both, and the political relevance it brings to the table is what elevates its emotional stakes past those of the other flash fiction pieces seen thus far.

 

14. “Division By Zero”

Emotional Impact: **
Intellectual Impact: ****
Public Impact: *
Total Score: 7/15

I know for a fact that this is more than a few people’s favorite, and those people will likely not be pleased with this placement. “But it’s such a cool idea! Don’t you understand?” they will cry—futilely, for the list is already made. To those fans, I say: yes, it is a really cool idea. That’s why I gave it four stars in the II category, the category roughly analogous to “coolness of ideas.” But cool ideas alone do not a good story make.

Not to say this story isn’t good: it’s just officially (according to me) less good than all but four other Ted Chiang stories. I do think there is a decent attempt to tie emotional stakes to the underlying idea, mirroring the main character’s mathematics-induced despair with her romantic life. But it functions more as a vague analogue, and just isn’t as successful an emotional tie-in as others that Chiang has made.

 

13. “Understand”

Emotional Impact: **
Intellectual Impact: ***
Public Impact: **
Total Score: 7/15

While not the first story he published, this is the first published story Chiang produced, and the writing seems to reflect that. It is noticeably less polished than his other works, particularly in the beginning scenes. Again, that doesn’t mean it’s bad by any means, however: It’s still the most thought-provoking treatment of the ‘drug-makes-person-really-really-smart’ trope that I’ve ever seen (although perhaps not the best treatment, full stop; that honor would likely go to Flowers for Algernon). “Understand” goes places with this trope that almost wouldn’t work in any medium other than written word, given how esoteric and bizarre it becomes.

This story is also marred, unfortunately, by a strange moment in which the main character inexplicably assumes another character’s gender without any relevant knowledge, and ends up guessing correctly. This is never explained, via superintelligence or otherwise, and has always bothered me a lot. Thankfully, it’s the only story on this list in which I’ve found such a plot point.

 

12. “Omphalos”

Emotional Impact: **
Intellectual Impact: ***
Public Impact: **
Total Score: 7/15

Interestingly, I ended up giving this story the same rating in every category as the last one. I decided to rank this one above “Understand” due to the novelty of its premise: it’s told through the prayers of a scientist in an alternate world where creationism is correct and scientifically proven.

This is the first treatment of religious themes to appear on this list, but certainly not the last. It demonstrates Chiang’s signature clear, scientific style of writing about these matters, but doesn’t reach the same heights (figuratively or, in one case, literally) as some of his other works exploring similar themes.

 

11. “Seventy-Two Letters”

Emotional Impact: **
Intellectual Impact: ***
Public Impact: ***
Total Score: 8/15

On second thought, forget what I said above: this story, actually, is probably the most politically-charged work Ted Chiang has ever published. The politics of it are much more removed from those of our own world than “It’s 2059”, but it frequently touches on themes of worker rights vs. capital, as well as reproductive rights and eugenics. As in every other Chiang story, however, the politics inevitably take a backseat to the exploration of the core ideas.

This is another example of a story set in a world with wildly different metaphysics from our own, and could even be classified as a fantasy story, rather than science fiction, if not for the relentlessly science-minded approach Chiang (and the characters within) take to analyzing this world. In a way, this is a more complete counterpart to “Omphalos”: both involve the main character experiencing a shocking revelation intimately tied to the metaphysics of the world that they inhabit, and having to deal with that revelation. However, in “Omphalos,” the ultimate extent of the main character’s reaction to this is simply to journal for a bit, while in this story, the protagonist takes an active, engaged, and surprisingly action-packed role in reacting to this life-changing revelation.

 

10. “The Great Silence”

Emotional Impact: ****
Intellectual Impact: ***
Public Impact: **
Total Score: 9/15

This is the best flash fiction piece Ted Chiang has written. It was originally written as part of a mixed media art piece, and I imagine it’s even better experienced in its intended form. It is sad, and beautiful, and made me want to get a pet parrot, until I looked further into any of the numerous complexities involved with doing that, and just resorted to watching multiple hours of YouTube videos posted by people with their own pet parrots instead.

 

9. “Tower of Babylon”

Emotional Impact: **
Intellectual Impact: ***
Public Impact: ****
Total Score: 9/15

This is the first piece Chiang published, and it still holds up to this day. It’s not his best story, as evidenced by the fact that 9 ≠ 1 (sorry again, “Division By Zero” fans), but it is significantly less flawed than several of the stories ranked higher on this list: it’s perfectly self-contained, and tells exactly and precisely the story it wants to tell. While it doesn’t necessarily reach the same heady heights as other stories on this list (I mean that exclusively figuratively, here), it is an incredibly well-polished piece of fiction, particularly considering how early into his career it was written.

 

8. “Exhalation”

Emotional Impact: ***
Intellectual Impact: **
Public Impact: *****
Total Score: 10/15

This is the piece that Chiang chose as the title of his second story collection, so clearly he thinks it’s hot stuff. And the critics seem to agree, judging by the number of awards it’s won. I think it’s…nice. I would even go so far as to call it “very nice.” It’s undeniably well-written, and there’s some beautiful prose in there: “the universe began as an enormous breath being held” is just a wonderful image.

This story artfully explores an idea previously explored by many others before: the inevitable onward march of entropy, and what happens at the end of the world. It could be said (and is being said, by me, right now) that this is a more grounded, human version of Asimov’s “The Last Question”—ironic, as it is the only one of the two that features zero humans.

Unfortunately, according to this list, both Chiang and the critics are incorrect: while good, it is not that good compared to some of his other work, and its placement even this high on the list makes me resent the ranking criteria that I myself invented. In fact, there are many other, better stories coming up on this list, some of which would have served as more fitting namesakes for his second collection (I personally would have recommended naming it after entry #4.) Speaking of better stories…

 

7. “Liking What You See: A Documentary”

Emotional Impact: ***
Intellectual Impact: *****
Public Impact: **
Total Score: 10/15

Chiang actually declined to accept a Hugo nomination for this story, on account of his view that it didn’t represent his best writing. If only he had somehow read this list beforehand, he would have realized that it’s actually better than “Exhalation” and not done so. He would have also been somewhat confused, and perhaps awestruck, seeing as several stories on this list, including “Exhalation,” had not yet been written at the time.

There is a decent argument to be made that this story’s prose isn’t his best (although it’s perfectly serviceable), and that the ending is a bit rushed. However, the main concepts it examines—in terms of “lookism” and the perception of physical beauty—are so fascinating and legitimately relevant to the world as it exists right now, and the perspectives expressed in the story so varied and independently plausible, that it more than makes up for any minor shortcomings.

(As a side note, this is probably the most politically-charged work Ted Chiang has ever published. Forget what I said those two times above.)

 

6. “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom”

Emotional Impact: ***
Intellectual Impact: *****
Public Impact: ***
Total Score: 11/15

It has long been noted that most time-travel and time-travel-adjacent fiction can be sorted into two camps: those which split the world into multiple parallel timelines whenever a reality-altering decision is made, and those in which there is a single, self-consistent timeline.

All of Ted Chiang’s other works in this genre fit solidly into the latter of these categories; this is his first story which explores the implications of the former. It does this in such a systematic and precise way that it reveals major plot holes in virtually every work like it, other than itself. This story essentially argues that, in Back to the Future, whether or not Marty McFly’s mother successfully seduces him is irrelevant to his eventual birth: the instant Marty sets foot in 1955, he is all but guaranteeing that he, and everyone else conceived after that time, will never exist. It is a rare story that is so good it makes every other story like it retrospectively worse by comparison: that’s why this story is so high on this list.

 

5. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”

Emotional Impact: ***
Intellectual Impact: *****
Public Impact: ****
Total Score: 12/15

Chiang’s longest piece, and one of his most intellectually stimulating, this reads as a refutation of many common tropes in AI-centered stories, wherein AIs are often fully-formed, perfectly rational machines from the get-go, and/or disconnected from any type of emotions. Instead, this story deals with AIs through their relationships with the humans that raise them, and in terms of their capacity to grow and learn. While the ending of this story feels very understated, and culminates in less of a grand point than many of Chiang’s other stories, the journey we undertake to get there is fascinating and subversive.

 

4. “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling”

Emotional Impact: *****
Intellectual Impact: *****
Public Impact: **
Total Score: 12/15

Y’all are sleeping on this one. I’m honestly shocked that this story hasn’t, to date, won a single award (although it has been nominated for one). I’m officially declaring this the most underrated Ted Chiang story.

“The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” has a lot going for it: It’s two stories for the price of one, first of all. It’s a persuasive fictional exploration of extended mind theory, and it contains the second-biggest gut punch moment of any story on this list (#2 has the first). In other words, it’s fantastic, and you should absolutely read it if you have not already.

 

3. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”

Emotional Impact: ****
Intellectual Impact: ****
Public Impact: *****
Total Score: 13/15

This might be the most quintessentially Ted Chiang Ted Chiang story. It contains almost all of his most common themes and tropes: free will and determinism, religion treated from a rationalist perspective, uniquely framed narratives, science fiction in traditionally non-SF settings, and romantic relationships that end poorly. Not just that, but it deals with most of these themes better than any other story he’s written. And if the previous entry gets extra points for being two stories in one, this one deserves many more, on account of its interwoven stories-within-a-story structure.

I imagine the single burning question on any reader’s mind at this point is whether or not I’m going to also rank the sub-stories within this story. The answer is yes, obviously; if I didn’t then this whole article would be basically worthless. Here they are, from worst to best:

  • The second story.
  • The first story.
  • The third story.
  • The framing story.

There we go; article saved.

 

2. “Hell Is the Absence of God”

Emotional Impact: *****
Intellectual Impact: ****
Public Impact: *****
Total Score: 14/15

This is the story on this list most likely to make the reader (me) physically recoil while reading. It’s also Chiang’s best treatment of religious themes, and one of the most emotionally raw things I’ve ever read.

There’s been a recurring motif throughout this list, particularly in the lower-ranked entries, of stories with a high II score, but a low EI score. This is generally emblematic of larger trends often noted by critics of science fiction in general, and hard science fiction in particular: great, heady concepts paired with characters and stories that unfortunately leave something to be desired. One of Chiang’s greatest strengths as an author—despite complaints I’ve made elsewhere in this article—is his ability to buck that trend, tying genuine emotional stakes to the ideas being explored in his stories, even with their sometimes technical nature. This story is probably the best demonstration of that particular strength to date.

 

1. “Story of Your Life”

Emotional Impact: *****
Intellectual Impact: *****
Public Impact: *****
Total Score: 15/15

This one was probably going to be easy to predict. I think placing it anywhere else on this list, in fact, might be inviting some level of controversy, and I imagine some readers might have begun reading this list precisely to check and make sure that this was on top, fingers itching to comment angrily if otherwise.

It makes sense that this would be Chiang’s number one story. It’s the only one that’s been made into a movie (so far; others have been optioned), and it likely does the best job out of any of these stories of translating (pun intended) scientific theories into gripping emotional stakes. In fact, any compliment I’ve levelled at any other story on this list can likely be applied to this story as well. It is, simply put, very, very good.

 

End ranking!

Hopefully this list has been both illuminating and enlightening, although I’d settle for one or the other.

The possibility has occurred to me, however unlikely, that some of you might disagree with one or more of the placements in this list. Those people are welcome to air their contrary opinions, or create their own lists, perhaps even in the comment section below—I would be interested in reading them, and the reasoning behind them, however incorrect it may be.

Grant Forbes is an enigma, a mystery, a legend. He writes stories sometimes, but has very little online presence, so you can’t read them. He is said to spend his time reading, playing music, pursuing a PhD in AI and Machine Learning, and incorrectly identifying mushrooms. He has a dog that is cute. Little else is known about him.

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