Ted Chiang

Alfred A. Knopf

People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they’re like the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments. Which is why, even when we’ve experienced the same events as other individuals, we never constructed identical narratives…Each of us noticed the details that caught our attention and remembered what was important to us, and the narratives we built shaped our personalities in turn.

                          from Exhalation



Stories that stretch the mind

Reading a Ted Chiang story can be the intellectual equivalent of staring up into a starry night sky: One is overcome by the vastness, mystery and majesty of existence.

His stories are considered “speculative fiction,” which is often equated with science fiction; but the category is broader, involving tales that are highly imaginative, usually futuristic, frequently set in other worlds, or a variation of our own, where the implausible becomes plausible. (Margaret Atwood called it science fiction without Martians.)

Chiang is a master of this genre and has won multiple Hugo, Nebula and Locus (science fiction and fantasy) awards. His novella, “The Story of Your Life,” was the basis for the 2016 Academy Award-nominated film, Arrival.

In his stories, technology and human consciousness meet and mesh, often with startling results. In one story, a popular device—imagine a new app for your Smartphone—predicts everything you’re going to do before you do it. The amusement fades as people realize what it means. It “spreads like a cognitive plague…the disabling thought is one that we’ve all encountered: the idea that free will doesn’t exist. It just wasn’t harmful until you believed it.”

In another story, a lifelogging software (“Remem”) captures every moment of one’s life. This “memory prosthesis” is integrated into one’s thought processes (think police body-cameras in your brain.)--“We will be replacing our malleable organic memories with perfect digital archives.” The result is that people become “cognitive cyborgs, effectively incapable of misremembering anything; digital video stored on error-corrected silicon will take over the role once filled by our fallible temporal lobes. What might it be like to have a perfect memory?” Or, Chiang wonders, will it be the end of memory?

The implications of his ideas can be funny, sad, frightening, or enlightening, such as in the story where people have lives in parallel worlds, resulting in “a man obsessively worried that his paraself was having more fun than he was, a woman trapped in a spiral of doubt because her paraself voted for a different candidate than she did.” Think about it: What if, in a parallel world, “you” voted for the other guy in 2016!          

Chiang ends the title story with a valediction that is worthy of all his work: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.”


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (July 15-August 15, 2019.) Reprinted with permission.