Archives » Ted Chiang

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (i)

My contribution this week to Reader in the Wilderness’s Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times meme. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

These are some of my hardback SF and Fantasy books. I didn’t buy many hardbacks back in the day (except second hand) so most of these are fairly modern SF and some are review copies.

Science Fiction Hardbacks (i)

Above note some J G Ballard (his Empire of the Sun ought not really be shelved here but it keeps his books together,) Iain M Banks, Eric Brown, Alan Campbell, Ted Chiang, the wonderful Michael G Coney, the excellent Richard Cowper, Hal Duncan and Matthew Fitt’s amazing But n Ben A-Go-Go, an SF novel written entirely in Scots.

The next shelf still has some of its adornments in front:-

Science Fiction Hardbacks (ii)

Stand-outs here are Mary Gentle, the all-but indescribable R A Lafferty, the sublime Ursula Le Guin, Stanisław Lem, Graham Dunstan Martin, Ian R MacLeod, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald.

You’ll also see the proof copy of a novel titled A Son of the Rock perched above the books at the right hand end on row 2.

2020 Hugo Awards Shortlists

The shortlists for this year’s Hugo Awards have been announced. Amazingly I have actually read some of these (the ones in bold the one also in italics as an extract only, in the BSFA Awards 2019 booklet) – partly due to Interzone, but also becasue I read Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalation towards the end of last year.

Since the Worldcon (at which these awards are presented) which was to take place in New Zealand has been cancelled for attendees I assume the ceremony will now have to be virtual, as will the con itself.

The nominations are:-

Best Novel

The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK)
A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK)
Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)

Best Novella

“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, by Ted Chiang (Exhalation (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf; Picador))
The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga Press/Gallery)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Saga Press; Jo Fletcher Books)
To Be Taught, If Fortunate, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager; Hodder & Stoughton)

Best Novelette

“The Archronology of Love”, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed, April 2019)
“Away With the Wolves”, by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny Magazine: Disabled People Destroy Fantasy Special Issue, September/October 2019)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine, July-August 2019)
Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin (Forward Collection (Amazon))
“For He Can Creep”, by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, 10 July 2019)
“Omphalos”, by Ted Chiang (Exhalation (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf; Picador))

Best Short Story

“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, by Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons, 9 September 2019)
“As the Last I May Know”, by S.L. Huang (Tor.com, 23 October 2019)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, by Rivers Solomon (Tor.com, 24 July 2019)
“A Catalog of Storms”, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny Magazine, January/February 2019)
“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, by Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 2019)
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine, May 2019)

Best Series

The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
InCryptid, by Seanan McGuire (DAW)
Luna, by Ian McDonald (Tor; Gollancz)
Planetfall series, by Emma Newman (Ace; Gollancz)
Winternight Trilogy, by Katherine Arden (Del Rey; Del Rey UK)
The Wormwood Trilogy, by Tade Thompson (Orbit US; Orbit UK)

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Picador, 2019, 359 p.

 Exhalation cover

Despite never having written a novel (well, he certainly hasn’t published one) Ted Chiang has made a huge reputation for himself in the SF world. This is his second collection (after Stories of Your Life and Others.) Many of the ones here are thought experiments, intriguing and impeccably worked out. All are very well written.
The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate take its form and inspiration from The Arabian Nights. The titular merchant is telling his tales (within his tale) to the Caliph of Baghdad. His encounter with a man calling himself an alchemist leads to his travelling through a Gate of Years – in essence a time machine resembling an MRI scanner in appearance. Constraints apply but paradoxes are excluded. Well told but the “Arabic” voice wavered a little.
Exhalation won the BSFA Award in 2009. Looking back at my comments all those years ago I find I was very harsh. In this reading it was more a brilliant allegorical evocation of entropy and relativity wherein a difference in air pressure rather than energy as such is the universe’s driving force.
What’s Expected of Us describes a device in which a light flashes one second before its activating button is pushed – no matter how much the operator tries to trick it – and the implications that fact has for free will. The premise here is very like an unpublished story of mine yet is on the other hand entirely different.
By far the longest story in the book, The Life Cycle of Software Objects, is almost beyond novella length and follows the development of digients, software simulations of animals designed to behave as glorified digital pets, taught to speak and grow, able to interact with humans and have their consciousnesses transferred to robot bodies in the real world.
Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny is the story of a mechanical device constructed in order to minimise the failures of human upbringing of children and its ramifications for three generations of the inventor’s family. It gives a nod to the legendary Thackery T Lambshead.
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’s narrator contrasts the introduction of a new technology whereby memory is set to become outsourced to digitalisation (and possibly deleteriously divorced from emotion) with the impact writing had on a tribal, oral tradition.
The story The Great Silence is actually the text from an Art Installation (also called The Great Silence) for which Chiang was asked to provide a narrative but absolutely works as a standalone story. It concerns the Fermi Paradox and humans’ inability to understand other creatures. It’s narrated by a(n endangered) parrot.
On the Earth depicted in Omphalos, essentially ours but with subtle place name spelling changes, there is direct evidence – ancient wood lacking tree rings at its centre, navelless mummified human bodies, abalone shells without early growth layers – that God created the universe in its entirety a few thousand years ago. Our narrator is an archaeologist whose faith is disturbed by astronomical observations which appear to show a different planet from his, is at its centre.
Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom delves into the ramifications of using a device called a prism (Plaga interworld signalling mechanism) each of which enables communication with a parallel world which branched off at the exact moment it was activated.
Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a resumption of direct speech (x2,) “It’s been more thirty years since I read that” (… more than thirty years … .)

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Tor, 2004, 333p.

 Stories of Your Life and Others cover

Chiang has won a slew of awards in the SF field but his output is small and restricted to stories short of novel length. His short story Exhalation won the BSFA Award in 2009. This is his only collection so far published.

Tower of Babylon is set in ancient Babylon where a group of miners is called in to ascend the eponymous tower and mine into the vault surrounding the world. The tower is so high it takes them four months to reach the top before they can begin the task. The cosmology of this Earth seems at first to be Ptolemaic – they pass the moon and the sun on the way up (not to mention stars) but in the end is even weirder.

In Understand a brain-damaged man has been given a drug called Hormone K to take him out of a coma. Tests reveal his memory and brain-processing power to be enhanced. This is reminiscent of Flowers For Algernon but Chiang takes the story arc in a different direction.

Division by Zero has a mathematician discover a proof that threatens to undermine the reality of maths. The story is structured in numbered sections 1, 1a, 1b, 2, 2a, 2b, etc in which the first in each subsection is always a description of a theorem from the history of maths.

Story of Your Life. A linguist is employed to understand the language(s) of heptapodal aliens newly arrived to Earth. Their written and spoken languages differ radically as their worldview turns out to be non-sequential. The turning point in her discovery comes through the use of diagrams (reproduced in the text) showing the refraction of light. The story’s narration – as if to the linguist’s daughter – reflects non-sequentiality, employing usages such as “you will say” and “your father is about to.” This story is an example of the type of speculative narrative which can only be achieved through the medium of Science Fiction.

Seventy Two Letters is a kind of steampunk story (but not quite) set in a Victorian type society where sexual reproduction is different from in our world (both sperm and eggs contain homunculi which have to merge before a fœtus can form) and automata can be activated by sliding names into slots. It turns out that naming – or at least its encoding – is very important in this universe. The story draws on a wide variety of fields for its inspiration and is admirably worked out. But the characters are wooden.

The Evolution of Human Science. In a world featuring metahumans utilising digital neurotransfer the story is couched as a scientific report commenting on the differences and similarities between ordinary and meta-humans. Diverting but no more.

Hell is the Absence of God. Angels manifest themselves on Earth, each visitation accompanied by devastation of some sort. Hell is visible through brief transparent openings and there is visible evidence of souls ascending to Heaven when people die. Neil Fisk’s wife dies as a result of a visitation. He spends the rest of the story trying to love God.

Liking What You See: A Documentary. The narrative is couched as transcripts of interviews and video clips from a documentary about the use of calliagnosia, a procedure whereby its recipients no longer react to the beauty (or ugliness) of people’s appearance.

Chiang’s stories are always well delineated, thoughtful, thought provoking and frequently impressive. Intellectual even. They do however have a tendency to be told rather than unfolded. There is a dryness to the delivery, a distancing. Readers looking for engagement may be disappointed.

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