Ted Chiang Explains the Disaster Novel We All Suddenly Live In

The esteemed science fiction author on how we may never go "back to normal"—and why that might be a good thing

Photo by Siyan Ren

More than two weeks into self-isolation, I am starting to wonder whether I will ever be able to come out. I don’t mean whether I’ll be legally allowed to come out—I wonder who the person that comes out will be. Stiller, more quiet maybe. More appreciative of the simple pleasures of everyday life, I hope. Even if I manage to keep my job, and my loved ones survive, even if I am among the fortunate few whose life returns basically to normal, will I continue to cook my meals at home, and Facetime with my parents multiple times a week? How long will it take before I’m eating out and stretching the time between phone calls? How long before I’m complaining about the subway and having too many plans and generally taking my freedom for granted? 

The question of what will change applies to everything from the mundanity of everyday to the very shape of history. Will we ever elect a careless an incompetent leader again, knowing what is at stake? Will we continue to systematically disadvantage the most vulnerable among us, and to degrade facts and science and statistics? And as for the positive changes being made or discussed—bipartisanship, direct governmental aid, paid sick leave—what will stick, and what will be forgotten? 

To answer these questions, I turned, as I often do, to books and the people who write them. And since I’m speculating, this time I turned to a master of speculative fiction, Ted Chiang. I’ve heard Ted Chiang speak exactly twice, and both times I’ve quoted him, or maybe misquoted him, for subsequent years. He generously agreed to correspond with me over email.

Halimah Marcus: Earlier this week, I shared a recollection of a Brooklyn Book Festival panel you did with Mark Doten and N.K. Jemisin. Your idea, as I recall it, was that in conservative narratives, there’s a disaster/problem/war. It’s resolved, and everything returns to normal. In progressive narratives, there’s a disaster, it’s resolved, and nothing is the same. Can you expand on that? It seems to me we are in a progressive narrative, and that this pandemic will fundamentally change our society. 

In real science fiction stories, the world starts out familiar, a new discovery or invention disrupts everything, and the world is forever changed.

Ted Chiang: On the panel, I said that traditional “good vs. evil” stories follow a certain pattern: the world starts out as a good place, evil intrudes, good defeats evil, and the world goes back to being a good place. These stories are all about restoring the status quo, so they are implicitly conservative. Real science fiction stories follow a different pattern: the world starts out as a familiar place, a new discovery or invention disrupts everything, and the world is forever changed. These stories show the status quo being overturned, so they are implicitly progressive. (This observation is not original to me; it’s something that scholars of science fiction have long noted.) This was in the context of a discussion about the role of dystopias in science fiction. I said that while some dystopian stories suggest that doom is unavoidable, other ones are intended as cautionary tales, which implies we can do something to avoid the undesirable outcome.

HM: What’s the relationship between disruption and doom? Would “the disruption is resolved and nothing is ever the same” qualify as a doom narrative? Or is doom a third kind of story, in which the disruption is never resolved?

TC: A lot of dystopian stories posit variations on a Mad Max world where marauders roam the wasteland. That’s a kind of change no one wants to see. I think those qualify as doom. What I mean by disruption is not the end of civilization, but the end of a particular way of life. Aristocrats might have thought the world was ending when feudalism was abolished during the French Revolution, but the world didn’t end; the world changed. (The critic John Clute has said that the French Revolution was one of the things that gave rise to science fiction.)

HM: For people who consider themselves politically progressive, it’s hard to shake the idea that a narrative with inherent progressivism must also be in some way a more enlightened story. But many of us are clinging to the idea that we’ll return to the status quo—that’s the story we’re telling ourselves, even as it’s clear that in retrospect that will not be the story of this time. Is there something inherently comforting about the narratives you describe as implicitly conservative? And should we be challenging ourselves to reject that comfort?

The people who are the happiest with the status quo are the ones who benefit most from it.

TC: The familiar is always comfortable, but we need to make a distinction between what is actually desirable and what is simply what we’re accustomed to; sometimes those are the same, and sometimes they are not. The people who are the happiest with the status quo are the ones who benefit most from it, which is why the wealthy are usually conservative; the existing order works to their advantage. For example, right now there’s a discussion taking place about canceling student debt, and a related discussion about why there is such a difference in the type of financial relief available to individuals as opposed to giant corporations. The people who will be happiest to return to our existing system of debt are the ones who benefit from it, and making them uncomfortable might be a good idea.

HM: Do you see aspects of science fiction (your own work or others) in the coronavirus pandemic? In how it is being handled, or how it has spread?

TC: While there has been plenty of fiction written about pandemics, I think the biggest difference between those scenarios and our reality is how poorly our government has handled it. If your goal is to dramatize the threat posed by an unknown virus, there’s no advantage in depicting the officials responding as incompetent, because that minimizes the threat; it leads the reader to conclude that the virus wouldn’t be dangerous if competent people were on the job. A pandemic story like that would be similar to what’s known as an “idiot plot,” a plot that would be resolved very quickly if your protagonist weren’t an idiot. What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also—and perhaps mostly—a grotesque political satire.

What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also—and perhaps mostly—a grotesque political satire.

HM: This pandemic isn’t science fiction, but it does feel like a dystopia. How can we understand the coronavirus as a cautionary tale? How can we combat our own personal inclinations toward the good/evil narrative, and the subsequent expectation that everything will return to normal?

TC: We need to be specific about what we mean when we talk about things returning to normal. We all want not to be quarantined, to be able to go to work and socialize and travel. But we don’t want everything to go back to business as usual, because business as usual is what led us to this crisis. COVID-19 has demonstrated how much we need federally mandated paid sick leave and universal health care, so we don’t want to return to a status quo that lacks those things. The current administration’s response ought to serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of electing demagogues instead of real leaders, although there’s no guarantee that voters will heed it. We’re at a point where things could go in some very different ways, depending on what we learn from this experience.

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