Ted Chiang is the author of Stories of Your Life and Others and Exhalation. I interviewed Ted in 2010 and his words are still vibrant as freshly burnished copper.

Avi: Could you introduce yourself?

Ted: My name is Ted Chiang. I’m a science fiction short story writer.

Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy

Avi: Were there any formative experiences that led you to become a science fiction writer?

Ted: Probably the most formative experience was reading the Foundation Trilogy when I was about twelve years old. That wasn’t the first science fiction I had ever read but it’s something that stands out in my memory as having had a big impact on me. Reading Asimov and then Arthur C. Clarke when I was twelve definitely put me on the road to being a science fiction writer.

‘Tower of Babylon’ by Ted Chiang

Avi: When did you decide to go pro?

Ted: It depends on what you mean by going pro. I started submitting stories for publication when I was about 15, but it was many years before I sold anything. I don’t make my living writing science fiction so in that sense I’m still not a pro. Writing for publication was always my goal, but making a living writing science fiction wasn’t. When I was a kid I figured I would be a physicist when I grew up and then I would write science fiction on the side. The physicist thing didn’t pan out, but writing science fiction on the side did.

Avi: How has being a technical writer affected your fiction writing?

Ted: I can’t recommend technical writing as a day job for fiction writers, because it’s going to be hard to write all day and then come home and write fiction. Nowadays I work as a freelance writer, so I usually do contract technical writing part of the year and then I take time off and do fiction writing the rest of the year. It’s too difficult for me to do technical writing at the same time as fiction writing — they draw on the same parts of my brain. So I can’t say it’s a good day job in that sense, but it’s a way to make money.

‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ by Ted Chiang

Avi: Could you give a walk-through of your writing process?

Ted: In general, if there’s an idea I’m interested in, I usually think about that for a long time and write down my speculations or just ideas about how it could become a story, but I don’t actually start writing the story itself until I know how the story ends. Typically the first part of the story that I write is the very ending, either the last paragraph of the story or a paragraph near the end. Once I have the destination in mind then I can build the rest of the story around that or build the rest of the story in such a way as to lead up to that. Usually the second thing I write is the opening of the story and then I write the rest of the story in almost random order. I just keep writing scenes until I’ve connected the beginning and the end. I write the key scenes or what I think of as the landmark scenes first, and then I just fill in backwards and forwards.

Hai Ebn Yokdhan

Avi: How do you classify your writing? It’s a kind of philosophical fiction, because it’s actually making people think, waking them up and making them wonder about things.

Ted: That’s one of the things that science fiction is particularly good at, that’s one of the reasons I like science fiction. Science fiction is very well suited to asking philosophical questions; questions about the nature of reality, what it means to be human, how do we know the things that we think we know. When philosophers propose thought experiments as a way of analyzing certain questions, their thought experiments often sound a lot like science fiction. I think that there’s a very good fit between the two.

‘Exhalation’ by Ted Chiang

Avi: Religion plays a very important role in your work.

Ted: I do think that religion is a very interesting phenomenon; obviously it affects many people very profoundly. There is a similarity between science and religion in that they’re both attempts to understand the universe, and there was a time in the past when science and religion were not seen as incompatible, when it made perfect sense to be both a scientist and a religious person. Nowadays there is much more of an attitude that the two are incompatible. I think that’s sort of a 20th century phenomenon.

Golem Comic

Avi: You have very specific views on the difference between magic and science. Can you talk about that?

Ted: Sure. Science fiction and fantasy are very closely related genres, and a lot of people say that the genres are so close that there’s actually no meaningful distinction to be made between the two. But I think that there does exist an useful distinction to be made between magic and science. One way to look at it is in terms of whether a given phenomenon can be mass-produced. If you posit some impossibility in a story, like turning lead into gold, I think it makes sense to ask how many people in the world of the story are able to do this. Is it just a few people or is it something available to everybody? If it’s just a handful of special people who can turn lead into gold, that implies different things than a story in which there are giant factories churning out gold from lead, in which gold is so cheap it can be used for fishing weights or radiation shielding. In either case there’s the same basic phenomenon, but these two depictions point to different views of the universe. In a story where only a handful of characters are able to turn lead into gold, there’s the implication that there’s something special about those individuals. The laws of the universe take into account some special property that only certain individuals have. By contrast, if you have a story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process, something that can be done on a mass scale and can be done cheaply, then you’re implying that the laws of the universe apply equally to everybody; they work the same even for machines in unmanned factories. In one case I’d say the phenomenon is magic, while in the other I’d say it’s science. Another way to think about these two depictions is to ask whether the universe of the story recognizes the existence of persons. I think magic is an indication that the universe recognizes certain people as individuals, as having special properties as an individual, whereas a story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process is describing a completely impersonal universe. That type of impersonal universe is how science views the universe; it’s how we currently understand our universe to work. The difference between magic and science is at some level a difference between the universe responding to you in a personal way, and the universe being entirely impersonal.

Abraham Abulafia

Avi: One can look upon language as a connecting link between magic and science, so potentially a scientist could be led back to the world of magic by the very fact that he is using language. Maybe if he “overclocks” his language use, that might lead him to some kind of magical experience.

Ted: When you say he has a magical experience, are there effects in the external world?

Avi: No, there might be effects on his body, somatic effects, but not on the external world.

Ted: Ah, okay. It’s probably worth making a distinction between subjective magic and objective magic, or between spiritual magic and practical magic.

Avi: Or between white magic and black magic.

Ted: Right. In practical magic, the goal is to affect the external world. That’s the kind of magic I meant when I was talking about turning lead into gold. In spiritual magic, the only goal is to affect the internal state of the practitioner. It sounds like you’re talking about spiritual magic as opposed than practical magic.

Fred Hoyle: Stellar Nucleosynthesis

Avi: Yes, let me give you an example. So, Fred Hoyle came up with the mechanics of how stars produce heavier elements that end up in us being here. And Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell describes an ecstatic experience he had on the way back to the Earth from the Moon. He had a very intense bodily experience of that fact, that the matter in his body was made in an older generation of stars. It was a kind of revelatory experience, and it was based on a piece of scientific knowledge.

Ted: Okay. I don’t think his experience was fundamentally different from the ecstatic experiences that religious people have had for millenia, whether they achieve it through prayer, or meditation or some other type of practice, they achieve an epiphany or some kind of revelation. It sounds like you’re talking about a similar type of experience that scientists might have.

Avi: Yes, he did say that when he got back to Earth, he researched the experience he had, and it matched something called “savikalpa samadhi” in a yogic Sanskrit text, but he didn’t know about that beforehand, and his experience was based on a fact of physics. So can scientific knowledge lead to new kinds of experience, or are they just religious experiences in a different form?

Ted: I don’t think that there’s anything that requires that what the person was thinking about actually be true, for that person to have this experience. The fact that we’re made of elements that were born in the heart of stars, that happens to be true, and that contributed to this astronaut’s experience, but someone could have the exact same experience contemplating something which is not true; for instance, that we are all children of God or whatever, any religious claim you want to use. I don’t think the truth of the statement is actually necessary for that ecstatic experience.


Avi: So it doesn’t have any impact on the validity of the experience?

Ted: I’m not convinced that it does. For example, I recently heard this ethnobotanist, Dennis McKenna, on the radio, talking about his experience taking a powerful hallucinogen. He could see photosynthesis actually happening; he could see water molecules actually being processed in the chloroplasts of plant cells. He also felt this incredible sense of oneness, a feeling that humanity was part of this planetary organism. I’m sure this was a very profound experience for him, but I don’t take it as evidence of the truth of photosynthesis. He himself admitted that he already knew how photosynthesis works, and I think the fact that he knew this contributed to his hallucinatory experience. Other people who don’t know about photosynthesis have different hallucinatory experiences, and most of these experiences do not reflect scientific truth. People will have incompatible experiences, and they can’t all be true. So I don’t think that this powerful ecstatic or hallucinatory experience is an indicator of truth. I think it can accompany an accurate insight about the world, but it doesn’t have to. It can accompany someone thinking about the nucleosynthesis of heavy elements in stars, but it could also accompany someone thinking about the need to excoriate one’s flesh to make the Lord happy.

“Understand” is what “Limitless” should have been

Avi: Your story Understand relates to this. It came before the fad of going to Peru and taking Ayahuasca, but it’s about a similar experience, making all these connections, perceiving things in a more intense way.

Ted: Yes, I suppose it is. I remember when some friends of mine read Understand, they were certain that I must have taken hallucinogens at some point, but I have not. I wasn’t attempting to describe someone hallucinating, but I was attempting to describe the experience of having a revelation, an incredibly deep and profound revelation about the nature of the universe. I guess it so happens that most people’s experience of that occurs when they’re taking hallucinogens, but the hallucinogen aspect was not my intent.

Avi: Rick Strassman’s book The Spirit Molecule, about the psychedelic drug DMT and the effects it’s had on people, connects with Understand. I feel like many things connect with your story, in retrospect!

Ted: I think that’s one of the things that happens when you are thinking about a given idea a lot; you start seeing resonances to that idea everywhere, in the things that you read, the things that you see.


Avi: I read Hell is the Absence of God while living in Jerusalem at the height of the suicide bombing campaign, so that was my association: the angel as a suicide bomber.

Ted: That’s an interesting association; I hadn’t really thought about that, but I can see the resemblance.

Avi: The story resonated for me because it explores the issues that many of us were forced to grapple with at that time, because we knew we could die any day. That’s always true, but it’s more obvious when there are bombs going off.

Ted: It really makes you conscious of the fact that you could die at any moment. It probably makes you think, have you made your peace?

Avi: And how fast can you make your peace!

Ted: Which is one of the arguments that religious people make: you don’t know how long you have, so you’d better make your peace now because you might die at any time. That is an argument that some characters in the story Hell is the Absence of God make, citing it as one of the reasons God orders these angelic visitations: it’s a way to remind people that they don’t have much time, or that they don’t know how much time they have.

Avi: One of the characters in your story makes his peace regardless of the fact that God has created upheavals in his life; he makes a moral choice that’s not dependent upon God’s actions.

Ted: I think it’s a hard thing to achieve. You can describe a character achieving it, but I can’t say that I have achieved that myself. Accepting all the terrible things that happen in the world, making your peace with that, trying to make sense of that is one of the fundamental problems of religion.

Abulafia’s Circles

Avi: In your story Seventy-Two Letters you draw parallels between Jewish Kabbalah, computer programming and bio-informatics. Do you see any similarities between these, given that they are all reliant on manipulating a base code? What are the differences in your view?

Ted: Well, I think one can draw metaphorical connections between them for a science-fiction story, but I don’t think they have a lot to do with each other in reality. Computer programming is a rational practice while Kabbalah is a mystical practice, and DNA is different from computer code, and I wouldn’t want anyone confusing one with another. At a metaphorical level, they all provide ways of thinking about the relationship between language and reality, which is a topic I find interesting. There’s this old idea in magic that there’s a language where the symbols have a tight relationship with what’s being signified, so by manipulating those symbols, you could manipulate reality itself. That’s a form of practical magic, according to the distinction we talked about earlier. And that certainly bears a resemblance to computer programming, where code is translated into actions by a computer. And in turn that bears a resemblance to DNA, where code is translated into the bodies of living organisms. So I think it’s fun to imagine a connection between all three of these, so long as we’re talking about fiction. I wouldn’t want anyone to take this too literally.

‘What’s Expected of Us’ by Ted Chiang

Avi: Many of your stories, of which ‘Story of your Life’ is an spectacular exemplar, play with the implications of knowing the future. What fascinates you about the nature of Time?

Ted: The question of free will. I think free will is what underlies most everything interesting about time travel. And when I say time travel, I’m including receiving information from the future, because that’s essentially equivalent to someone traveling from the future. The idea that you can create a paradox assumes that you have free will; even the idea of multiple timelines assumes it, because it assumes that you can make choices. There have always been philosophical arguments about whether we have free will or not, but they’re usually kind of abstract. Time travel, or knowing the future, makes the question very concrete. If you know what’s going to happen, can you keep it from happening? Even when a story says that you can’t, the emotional impact arises from the feeling that you should be able to.

‘Story of your Life’ by Ted Chiang

Avi: You have a large fan base in Japan. How do you account for it?

Ted: I can’t; I was completely surprised when I found out. It did prompt me to think about what might make some works more suitable for translation than others. I’m sure there are stories that are very rooted in aspects of a particular culture, which require familiarity with that culture to fully appreciate, and those stories probably don’t translate well. To the extent that my work is philosophical fiction, it’s not enormously reliant on American culture, and that might make it a good candidate for translation. That could explain why my work got translated into Japanese, although it wouldn’t explain why it’s more popular there than here. I gather that Greg Egan is considered a god of science fiction in Japan, while most of his work is out of print in the United States; some people compare my work to his, which I consider a great compliment, and which would support the idea that Japanese science-fiction readers have very different tastes than American ones.

‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ by Ted Chiang

Avi: What prompted you to write your novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects?

Ted: It’s primarily a response to how Artificial Intelligence has been depicted in most science fiction. The typical science-fiction depiction of AI is this loyal, obedient butler; you simply flip a switch, turn it on and it’s ready to do your bidding. I feel like there’s a huge story being glossed over, having to do with the creation of that AI. I don’t mean the technical details of developing software that’s as smart as a human brain; most science fiction posits a miraculous technological development, and there’s no need to explain it. It’s just that with AI, I feel like there’s a second miracle assumed, which is that someone was able to take this software as smart as a human brain and make it as useful as a butler. Current computers are still light-years away from being as capable as the brain of a newborn baby, but even after you’ve reached that point, you’re still only halfway to having a useful butler. For example, in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010, supposedly the first thing that HAL 9000 said when he was activated is “Good morning Dr. Chandra, I’m ready for my first lesson”. That is not something a newborn baby says. There is implicitly a lifetime of experience underlying that simple statement. Where did that experience come from? If it could be programmed in, HAL wouldn’t need to have any lessons at all. How did he learn to speak English? How does he know what it means to be ready for a lesson? It takes years to turn a human being into a useful employee. In fact, the more useful you want the employee to be, the longer it takes to get there. You might not have to repeat the process for each and every AI you want to use; once you’ve got one trained, it’s possible that you could just make copies of it. But someone still needs to do it for the first one, and that’s going to be difficult, and really time-consuming. Most depictions of AI assume that this step is unnecessary, or that it will be easy, which I think assumes an entirely separate miracle from the technical one.

Avi: How optimistic are you about the practical realization of these two miracles of AI?

Ted: In practical terms, I’m pretty skeptical about AI. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I think it’s so difficult that I’m not sure why anyone would bother. Right now Google is enormously useful, but it’s not remotely conscious, and it’s not moving in that direction. If anyone tried describing a computer as useful as Google in a science-fiction story fifty years ago, they probably depicted it as having consciousness of some sort. But it turns out that a computer doesn’t need to be conscious to be useful; ordinary software serves our purposes just fine. I expect that will remain true; we will have software of ever increasing usefulness without it ever “waking up”. On the other hand, there is one form of rudimentary AI software that has turned out to be surprisingly popular, and that’s virtual pets. The Sims was the best-selling PC game of all time, and who would have predicted that? It turns out that having a kind of emotional relationship with software can be very appealing to people. So I tend to think that the most likely reason for us to develop conscious software would be because it’s fun, rather than because it’s useful. It will all depend on whether software that’s actually conscious is more fun than software that simply mimics conscious organisms, like The Sims. If it is, then that might actually motivate people to put in the time needed to train an AI to be useful.

Avi: The AIs in your story have virtual bodies. How important is having a body for consciousness to come into being? Is there a difference between having a “real” physical body and a virtual body?

Ted: A lot of researchers believe that AI needs to be embodied and situated, meaning that it has to have some kind of physical body and exist within some kind of physical environment. The general idea is that we learn by doing; our understanding of the world comes from moving our body around, pushing solid objects against each other. I suppose it’s possible that there are modes of cognition that could exist without these things, but I think they’d be so foreign to us as to be incomprehensible. A virtual body and a virtual environment ought to work just as well as physical ones, assuming the simulation is detailed enough. However, a program like The Sims isn’t actually simulating physical bodies to any significant degree. There are other video games, like first-person shooters, that do some physics simulation when it comes to destructible environments, but they don’t actually do a detailed physics simulation for the character avatars. That’s why their feet often pass through objects they’re walking over. You’d have to design a far more detailed physics simulation to provide a sense of embodiment for an AI, but it should certainly be possible.

Avi: The sense of touch is essential for the emotional health of kids. Could you elaborate on the role of touch in the world of the AIs in your story?

Ted: The AIs enjoy being touched, but that’s a deliberate decision on the part of their designers; it’s a way to make them appealing to their owners. There are some autistic children who don’t like being touched, and that’s hard for their parents, because parents like hugging their kids. And given the choice between a pet that enjoys being touched and one that doesn’t, most people would choose one that enjoys it. Touch is important to people, so if you want to encourage an emotional bond between humans and AIs, if you want people to want to spend time with them, you should make touch important to AIs too.


Avi: In A Primate’s Memoir Robert Sapolsky details his highly emotional connections with the troop of African baboons he studied. Did you read any primatological works while preparing your novella?

Ted: I didn’t read about primates in the wild, but I did read about the chimpanzees who’d been taught sign language. They were famous for a while, but you don’t usually hear about what happened to them after the language studies were over. Some were sent to medical labs for experimental use. The case I was most interested in was a chimpanzee named Lucy; the humans who’d been teaching her couldn’t find a chimp sanctuary that would take her, so they decided to send her to Africa, even though she’d lived her entire life among humans and never seen the jungle before. A grad student named Janis Carter went with her to help her adjust to life in the wild. Janis Carter was supposed to stay there just a few weeks, but pretty quickly she realized that that wasn’t going to be enough. She spent years teaching Lucy how to live outdoors and forage for food. Ultimately Lucy died because she wasn’t able to adapt to the wild, but I was really struck by Janis Carter’s commitment; here was someone who didn’t even like camping, and she changed her entire life in order to help Lucy. How many people would be willing to do that for someone who isn’t a human being?

Qumran Copper Scroll

Avi: Finally, are you planning on printing Exhalation on copper sheets?

Ted: Ha! I suppose it could be done. That would be a very cool art object or an interesting limited edition. I don’t think I’m famous enough to warrant such an expensive endeavor, but I would be thrilled if someone did it.

Avi: Thank you

Ted: You’re welcome.

Learning for Life

Musings on being a perpetual autodidact

Avi Solomon

Written by

Learning for Life

Musings on being a perpetual autodidact

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