Ted Chiang Uses Science to Illuminate the Human Condition

The stories in "Exhalation" feature AIs, androids, and intelligent parrots, but they're really all about us


A Ted Chiang story collection can be said to resemble a rare meteorological event. A hyperobject. A comet streaking across the sky once, maybe twice in a lifetime. But whenever it lands, wherever it lands, the earthquake’s force is felt in the sternum. Every story, crafted with a watchmaker’s care and a tutelary’s vision, is a jewel.

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In the past, Chiang has written about how first contact with aliens can reshape the very way we communicate, how being able to encounter the beautiful, devastating powers of literal angels can both renew and break us. Here, he tackles time-travel, artificial intelligence, alternate realities, free will, and so much more. No matter the species of a story’s protagonist, no matter the universe that forms the story’s setting, the subject is always us.

Exhalation is his second collection after 2002’s Stories of Your Life and Others, spanning stories published over the course of a decade and a half.

Ted Chiang and I corresponded over email about language, about faith, cynicism, and astonishment.

Tochi Onyebuchi: In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” you write, “Aside from the enormous barrier to entry, raising Xenotherians won’t offer pleasures like the one [Derek] and Ana just got from watching Marco. The rewards will be purely intellectual, and over the long term, will that be enough?” This is in a story about raising digients, learning AIs that are like conscious Tamogotchis; Marco is a human-like digient, and Xenotherians are alien-like. There are these specific scientific notions you address in some of your stories: the Novikov self-consistency principle in “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in “Story of Your Life.” These seem like very specific scientific principles you’ve attached flesh and muscle to. Do these principles occur as you’re writing? Do they precede the drafting? 

Ted Chiang: That’s an interesting quote to use as the springboard for that question. The quoted line is about the effort required to raise a conscious being from infancy to adulthood and whether anyone can do a good job at it without an emotional connection. You’re asking about whether something similar applies when I’m writing a story. For me, the scientific idea is usually the initial impetus for a story, but by itself it’s not enough for me to start writing; I don’t begin drafting until I know the ending, which means knowing the conclusion of the plot and the protagonist’s arc. 

I have occasionally wondered if I should try writing some kind of speculative nonfiction essay as a way of exploring an idea, but right now I don’t have a clear sense of what that would look like. I think fiction is the best vehicle for type of thought experiments I’m engaged in.

TO: To return to “Lifecycle,” Marco and Polo, two of the digients, want to legally become a corporation like Voyl, another digient. And that reminds me of a 2017 BuzzFeed essay you wrote where you spoke on how, when we say our greatest fear about artificial intelligence was that it would turn human, we really mean that our greatest fear about AI is that it would turn into a corporation, some hypercapitalist, completely amoral juggernaut that would bury humanity beneath a field of strawberries. Apocalypse by way of Kant. Could you speak to that idea of AI development?

TC: That story and that essay are approaching the question of AI from opposite directions. One of the questions the story addresses is, if you have a non-human entity that is conscious and capable of suffering, how do you secure it legal protection? There have been attempts to get chimpanzees recognized as legal persons, but so far none have been successful. By contrast, corporations have many rights we normally associate with human beings. While corporate personhood doesn’t provide the exact set of protections that animal-rights advocates are looking for, it might be an avenue for AI-rights advocates to pursue, if we ever wind up developing software that’s conscious. I should say, though, that we have absolutely no idea how to do that, and that’s a good thing, because if we ever do develop such software, I’m sure we will inflict huge amounts of suffering on it. 

The essay is about a different question: if a superintelligent AI comes into being—which I seriously doubt—why do so many people think it would want to take over the universe? To me it seems like a projection of Silicon Valley capitalism: tech entrepreneurs think of themselves as rational, they prioritize growth above all else, so a superintelligent being ought to do the same. This isn’t intrinsic to the idea of a corporation as a legal entity, but right now American society glorifies the pursuit of profit, which often manifests as granting corporations more power and reducing their accountability. The idea that AIs will be cold and unfeeling is a product, I think, of our fear of technology, and one of the reasons we fear technology is the way it’s been deployed against us by capitalism, the ultimate cold and unfeeling machine.

One of the reasons we fear technology is the way it’s been deployed against us by capitalism.

TO: There’s a deep humanism in your stories such that even androids and parrots, in very fundamental ways, resemble us. I’m thinking particularly of the title story where an android develops curiosity regarding the source of its own consciousness. And yet so much of the conflict in those stories stems from the fact that those protagonists aren’t human. They seem to spin against the way they turn, if that makes any sense. And I was wondering if you could speak on that: a story’s narrative propulsion arising from non-humans exhibiting human characteristics.

TC: It all depends on the specific story. It’s impossible to accurately convey a non-human mode of thinking, but some stories try to evoke that. To an extent, “Story of Your Life” tries to do that. But “The Great Silence” is doing something else; while it does include a few facts about parrot behavior, it’s more like a modern fable, and bears the same relationship to parrot cognition as Aesop’s fable does to ant and grasshopper behavior. 

“Exhalation” is doing something entirely different. Describing the narrator as non-human is a little misleading, because that term implies there are humans to use as a point of comparison. But “Exhalation” doesn’t take place in our universe at all, so there aren’t humans like us there; to put it another way, if there are humans in that universe, it’s the race that the narrator is a member of. It’s not accurate to call them robots, because the distinguishing characteristic of robots is that they’re manufactured, and they aren’t. It happens that they’re made of metal, but that’s just a cosmetic trait; they have the same standing in their universe that we do in ours. That’s why they sound like us.

TO: My two favorite stories of yours are “Hell is the Absence of God” and “Omphalos,” and I think what I appreciate most about both is that aspects of religion in the first and faith in the latter are dealt with seriously and, dare I say, compassionately. In “Omphalos,” particularly, religious faith serves as not only a compliment to scientific inquiry but an engine for it. Could you speak to the relationship between what we would consider scientific inquiry and other modes of thinking whose operation, some would argue, are premised on the absence of evidence?

TC: Before the word “scientist” was coined, individuals who studied the universe were called natural philosophers, and a lot of them were members of the clergy. They celebrated God’s glory by gaining a greater understanding of the world he created, and when they made a scientific breakthrough, what they experienced was akin to religious awe. Some people feel that wonder is incompatible with comprehension and requires mystery, but there is a long tradition of wonder in scientific research. 

I think science and religion could more peacefully coexist if we could agree that they are trying to answer different questions; science is investigating the question, “how does the universe work?” while religion is investigating the question, “how should I live my life?” To my mind, it should be possible to separate these two. Deciding how to be a good person is not something that should depend on the results of a lab experiment. Of course, I recognize that it’s easy for me to take this position because I’m an atheist. People are always going to disagree about what is the right way to live, but I’d prefer it if they didn’t try to justify their arguments with assertions about the age of the universe or the origin of species.

Science is investigating the question, ‘how does the universe work?’ while religion is investigating the question, ‘how should I live my life?’

TO: In “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” you have this wonderful line: “And words were not just pieces of speaking; they were pieces of thinking.” And this story, more than the others, got me thinking about cognitive processes and how the very act of writing can mold someone’s understanding of the world. Which made me curious as to why you structured “Omphalos” as a prayer-in-parts. The latter story reads a bit like a Trojan horse answer to the question of what storytelling might look like in a pre-literate society. How did the structure of “Omphalos” come to you?

TC: That’s an interesting connection, because I didn’t see those two stories as being related at all. Obviously, “Omphalos” takes place in a literate society, and as far as I know the role of prayer isn’t significantly different in literate and oral societies. “Omphalos” is structured as a private conversation with God, which is a type of prayer, but not the plea or petition that is commonly associated with prayer; it’s more about feeling a connection to the divine in one’s everyday life. As I mentioned in my answer to the previous question, there was a time when the practice of science was entirely compatible with the practice of religion. “Omphalos” takes place in a world where scientists are constantly reminded of God’s existence, so it seemed like a good fit for the narration to take the form of the protagonist addressing her thoughts to God.

TO: A recent development in science fiction is the uptick of translation of works from other languages into the American market. Ken Liu’s work with Chinese short fiction as well as with Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. The stories in the collection Iraq + 100 by Hassan Blasim. What role do you see this increasing availability of stories that did not originate in English playing in the genre’s future?

TC: When Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem first came out in English, I encountered a number of people who said they couldn’t get into it because they thought the translation was bad. I think what they meant was that the novel didn’t read as if [it] had originally been written in English. For example, if you didn’t know Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose was originally written in Italian, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell based on reading William Weaver’s translation. Three-Body Problem isn’t like that. It definitely feels foreign, and I like that it offers a glimpse into a foreign tradition of science fiction. And while I haven’t read Iraq + 100, I did read a review where the reviewer said that a story “which perplexed me in English with its unconventional form and meandering style, made perfect, striking sense if I imagined it in Arabic, shifted it into a different storytelling context.”

In theory, science fiction readers should be interested in different ways of looking at things, and science fiction translated from other languages definitely offers that. It may take a little time for American readers to adjust to foreign styles of storytelling.

Writing isn’t fun for me, but it’s something I have to do.

TO: In her 1989 essay, “Write Till You Drop,” Annie Dillard writes: “You [writers] were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” Would you say this mission statement is a true accounting of you and your work?

TC: When I was a student at the Clarion Workshop, I had an excerpt from that essay taped to the door of my dorm room which included that sentence, and when I speak to writing students nowadays, I always quote that excerpt. That essay is available in Dillard’s book The Writing Life, and I find myself quoting from that book all the time. For example, at another point she writes, “A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ‘Do you think I could be a writer?’ ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?’’’ I make no claims about my capabilities as a prose stylist, but I like sentences. While some writers are driven by images or scenes or characters, it’s when I get a sentence in my head that I feel that there’s a story I need to write. Elsewhere she says, “I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as a dying friend. I hold its hand and hope it will get better. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.” Writing isn’t fun for me, but it’s something I have to do.

TO: Despite the dark edges of human nature your stories explore, a thread of hope runs through them. Is that a natural part of your process or is there an active struggle against cynicism at work? I’m thinking specifically of “What’s Expected of Us” and “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom.”

TC: Back when I was a teenager, I was often accused of being a cynic, and my reply was always that I was a pessimist, not a cynic. The difference being that, while I often expected bad things to happen, I believed people were basically decent, or at least upfront about their motives. Since then, I’ve seen—both from a distance and up close—how often people’s behavior is rooted in malice or hypocrisy, so it’s fair to say that I’m a cynic now. (They say no one is more cynical than a disillusioned idealist.) Many writers draw on such experiences as fuel for their fiction, but my imagination doesn’t seem to work that way. It’s not so much that I have to actively struggle against cynicism in my work as it is that I’m currently less interested in stories that reinforce cynicism.

Science fiction uses science to illuminate the human condition, and that’s what makes it worth reading and writing.

TO: Something that occurred to me while reading “Omphalos” is that they all, your stories, seem to be about scientific breakthrough. But instead of the object of scientific inquiry being a device or any physical aspect of the universe, the object is personhood. Us. If there is any thematic spine connecting your stories, it seems to be this.

TC: Faulkner famously said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” I love science, but if we’re talking about fiction rather than nonfiction, science isn’t enough to sustain a narrative. Science fiction uses science to illuminate the human condition, and that’s what makes it worth reading and writing, in my view.

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