Another in my series of links to things that by rights you’ve seen long ago.
Some science fiction asks “what-if” questions about technology and society. Writers begin by imagining a world where the rich can afford to make themselves immortal, or where perfect surveillance becomes possible. Other works ask a different sort of question: how might an abstract concept manifest as physical reality? How can philosophy, mathematics, psychology, and relationships be shattered into pieces to be swept up and separately remade? If we call it “science” rather than “speculative” fiction, it is only because the author often invokes technology to illustrate an answer.
Ted Chiang is an author of short fiction largely of the second kind. And he’s one of the best. In a rare case of good things getting their deserved praise, his fourteen works have earned four Nebula awards, three Hugo awards, and many other accolades between them. Some of his choice abstractions: recursion, fatalism, entropy, parenthood, exponential growth. These might be shaped by lesser hands into clumsy, facile, or self-indulgent speculative reality. The better authors know that the answer to the “what-if” isn’t the point. Chiang uses the hypothetical more as scaffolding than as skeleton. Rather than take a didactic approach or stake out a side in a debate, he aims to portray nuanced conflict and explore human themes. Well, perhaps it’s faint praise to a non-genre reader, but these things combined with the freedom and imagination of good genre fiction are rare and effective.
I’ve revisited my favorite of his stories several times and felt a different response on each reading: Hell Is the Absence of God (audiobook), which succeeds on all of the above counts, and is additionally weird, dark, and uncomfortable to read.
It also reminds me that my above efforts to ascribe a method to his work mostly diminish it.