Tuesday, September 23, 2014

ArmadilloCon 2014 interview with Ted Chiang

Jayme Lynn Blaschke interviewed Ted Chiang, one of the two ArmadilloCon 2014 writer Guests of Honor. They talked about linguistics and time travel, story length and starting from the end, and obsolete scientific theories as story material. Here is a condensed version of the interview.

Why, despite the plans to make "The Story Of Your Life" into a movie, Ted Chiang does not consider himself a Hollywood bigshot.

Until the cameras start rolling, there is no guarantee that the movie will get made: many movies had been canceled at the last minute.

About the process of writing "The Story of Your Life"

Originally Ted Chiang wanted to write a story about someone who knew the future, but was unable to change it. What sort of emotions that person might experience, knowing that both good things and bad things were going to happen, and not able to do anything about it? Linguistics came into the story later, as Ted Chiang tried to figure out how to grant this protagonist ability to know the future. Meditation or mind-altering drugs didn't seem very interesting possibilities. Then he remembered Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language determines our perception of the world. The notion of being able to know the future by learning an alien language seemed very interesting, and only then the story became about linguistics.

At that time he didn't know a lot about linguistics, so he spend the next several years reading books about it and working on his writing, so as to become a good enough writer to tackle this story.

More about his writing process

He first comes up with the ending for a story, and works backward from there to determine what needs to happen. That way the stories don't "get away" from him like they do for many other writers who work without a plan.

About story length, and the [un]likelihood of writing a novel

Though he turned down a Hugo award for the story "Liking What You See" because it was too rushed (under the publisher's deadline he could not expand that story into the length he originally wanted it to be), Ted Chiang is content with how it turned out, and has no plans to rewrite it. He doesn't write novels, because each of his stories takes up only as much length as is required to develop the idea of the story. That's not to say he wouldn't write a novel if he ever got a novel-length idea; it just hasn't happened.

And while some audience members thanked Ted Chiang for "resurrecting" short story, he doesn't think short story is on the way to become a commercially viable art form. Though e-readers enable people to read in short bursts, they haven't lead to short story renaissance.

Ted Chiang (left) and Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Ted Chiang (left) and Jayme Lynn Blaschke. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2014 are in my photo gallery.

About Ted Chiang's early writing days

His first story, written at the age 15, was an disaster-in-space story about an attempted rescue of astronauts in a spaceship. Even so, the adventure stories he wrote were science-based. One of them involved research the wavelength of gamma ray emitted when electrons collided with positrons. In other words, as Jayme Lynn Blaschke pointed out, he was writing for Analog.

What influences helped his transition from adventure stories to more philosophical ones?

John Crowley, Gene Wolf, and Ed Bryant. Ted Chiang highly praised Ed Bryant as a currently forgotten author who won a couple of Nebula awards in the 80s for his science fiction short stories. He especially recommended Bryant's story collection "Particle Theory". Ted Chiang credits him for opening his eyes to the ways you could use science as a metaphor for human experience.

Ted Chiang's story "72 Letters" where the concept of preformation, meaning that all living beings contain microscopic, but fully-formed versions of their future children, happens to be true. What appeal do obsolete, discredited scientific theories hold for Ted Chiang, at least as story potential?

People believed in those ideas because they were not self-evidently false: it required some experimental results for them to be discredited. So you could imagine a universe where they were true. As far as preformation goes, a human being or any organism is incredibly complicated, so it's not obvious that it could come from a single cell like an ovum. We still don't completely understand the details of how a fertilized egg becomes a human being. So a theory that we are fully formed on a scale too small to see is not unreasonable; though if you take it to its logical conclusion, that Adam and Eve's sperm and ova contained the entire human race in them, it starts to seem less plausible. In any case, you have to perform the right kinds of experiments to determine that it's wrong.

Ted Chiang is also interested in what are the things we take for granted now, not knowing that they are based on an incorrect scientific theory.