'Chiang is one of the great science fiction short story writers of all time' Jo Walton
One of the best parts of my job is getting the opportunity to give a new lease of life to books that might have been forgotten about or are no longer at the forefront of reader's minds. Stories of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang, the glorious, multiple-award-winning first story collection from one of SF's master short story writer's, is one such book. Moreover, Story of Your Life, the titular story of the collection, is now being made into a film!
In May we republished this seminal collection with a stunning new cover look and I took this opportunity to ask Chiang's biggest in-house champion, our Analytics Director James Long, why he rates Chiang, and why we should all read his short stories.
What is it about Ted Chiang’s stories that you find so appealing?
Some authors bless us with a rich and regular delivery of new novels, and others bless us with an exquisite and occasional story. Ted Chiang is the latterest of the latter. Reading him – being a reader awaiting a new story – makes you appreciate what you have. Also, I like that each story is a narrative exploration of what it is to be human, cast in the light of an intriguing scientific idea - they represent a pure, almost old-fashioned, form of science fiction by being – simply, unarguably – fiction about the intersection of science and humanity, which is the foundation of the genre.
What is your favourite story of his and why?
“Story of Your Life” is central to the collection and is about a linguist who has to learn the language of an alien race who have made contact with humanity. In Chiang’s deceptively simple style, the mechanics of linguistics are woven into a story of love and loss. The story is as interesting and challenging as it is moving and delightful. It’s an exploration, through the detailed construction of a posited alien language, of whether a memory is something you have or something you’ve lost (hat tip to Woody Allen).
How did you first come across Ted Chiang?
I heard about him winning the Hugo award for a short story one year, and read more about him. I learned that he writes little and wins many awards. That he is a technical writer by day - a job I’ve done myself, so that stoked my interest. Then that he does a lot of thinking and research to produce a very well-honed story – four years in the case of the “Story of Your Life”. This all painted a picture of a process of creative distillation and I wondered if the finished product was a pure as it promised to be. And so I got hold of the collection (handily available on the shelves of the then Tor UK publisher, Peter Lavery) and got stuck into the stories.
Which story from Stories of Your Life and Others would you recommend to someone who has never read Chiang?
I’d say start with the first in this collection: “Tower of Babylon”. This was Ted Chiang’s first published story. Miners from Elam travel to Babylon to climb the tower and break through the vault of heaven. The story unfolds quickly and elegantly, painting a vivid picture of the architecture of the tower and the life lived upon it. The brilliance of this story is not just in the twist at the end but also in the process of getting there. Process is completely to the fore in the story: the tower comes alive as a possible thing even though your rational mind knows it to be a wonder of the author’s imagination. As the bricklayers and the miners do, you will believe they can break through the vault of heaven.
If you could sum up Chiang’s stories in one word, what would it be?
Rare. Pure. Human.