The Absence of God
an interview with
All science fiction is fundamentally post-religious
literature. For those whose minds are shaped by science and technology,
the universe is fundamentally
knowable. Faith dissolves, replaced by a sense of wonder at the complexity
This is the perspective explored in Ted Chiang's
first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others (Tor, 2002).
Born in 1967 in Port Jefferson, New York, Chiang has published eight
breathtakingly good stories in the past twelve years. He has yet to
publish -- or even try to write -- a novel. Despite his limited number
of publications, however, Chiang has exerted a quiet influence in the
genre. A five-time Hugo nominee, Chiang has won nearly every major science
fiction award, including the Nebula (twice in 1990 and 1999), John W.
Campbell Award (1992); Asimov's Reader's Choice Award (1992); and the
Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award (1999). Most recently, Chiang won the
2001 Sidewise Award for "Seventy-Two Letters," and the Locus Award for
"Hell is the Absence of God," which has also been nominated for a Hugo
Chiang's primary method is to change underlying
natural laws or symbolic systems, creating worlds and situations that
are fantastic to us but utterly rational to the characters that must
live with them. In the beautiful "Story of Your Life," learning an alien
language allows a linguist to experience past, present and future simultaneously,
while the mathematician in "Division by Zero" manages to prove that
any two numbers are equal to each other and that mathematics itself
is inconsistent. In "Tower of Babylon," a group of miners climb until
they reach the vault of heaven, hoping to find God on the other side
of the carapace of granite that enfolds their world. "Hell is the Absence
of God" tells the tale of one Neil Fisk, whose wife is killed in a visitation
by the angel Nathanael to a downtown shopping district. In Neil's thoroughly
contemporary world, God exists beyond a doubt. Angels behave like weather
phenomena, the miracle of their appearances tracked, quantified, and
reported on the nightly news. Stories of Your Life and Others includes
all of Chiang's major published fiction, along with an original story,
the superb "Liking What You See: A Documentary."
Ted Chiang graduated from Brown University
in Rhode Island in 1989 with a degree in Computer Science. Today he
freelances as a technical writer in the computer industry, living in
the state of Washington with his girlfriend, Marcia Glover. This interview
was conducted in July 2002, on the release of Stories of Your Life
and Others in North America. Over the phone, Chiang answered questions
thoughtfully and tentatively, often seeming to doubt his words even
as he said them. Chiang did not leave any doubt as to his belief in
the ideas behind his stories, however. In his own way, Chiang is clearly
a partisan of the scientific worldview portrayed in them.
Why don't you publish more stories?
Because I don't get that many ideas for stories. If I had more ideas,
I would write them, but unfortunately they only come at long intervals.
I'm probably best described as an occasional writer.
And yet you've been very successful, earning awards
and recognition. That usually encourages occasional writers to become
I don't think I'm far enough along in my development as a writer to
do that. When I've tried to force myself to write more, it hasn't worked.
I would have to reach a new level of proficiency to become more prolific.
That'd be great if it happened, but as of yet it hasn't.
Has an editor ever approached you about expanding
one of your stories into a novel?
An editor? No. Sometimes that's been suggested to me by a friend, but
I don't think any of my stories would really work as a novel. There's
a saying that you should leave your audience wanting more, and I fear
that if I expanded one of my short stories into a novel, I would leave
them wanting less.
What do like about using short-form fiction as
vehicles for your ideas?
Well, I started out writing short stories for the same reason that
most writers do: they're seen as the place to start before you move
on to novels. Of course, some writers are natural novelists, so this
strategy doesn't work out for them. Everything they write wants to be
longer and longer. But so far I've been comfortable working at shorter
lengths. I suppose it's because I'm most interested in writing about
characters experiencing a moment of comprehension. Sometimes it's a
conceptual breakthrough, sometimes it's just a flash of recognition.
For that type of story, short fiction is a good fit.
You're considered by some readers and critics
to be one of the genre's best short-form writers. Are there other short
story writers whose work you admire? Are there any you feel are particularly
innovative right now, in either form or content, or both?
I admire Greg Egan's work a great deal. In each story he examines a
question very deeply, exploring all its implications. He's especially
good at dramatizing the implications of the materialist view of consciousness.
Obviously a lot of his work deals with that. But even with other theoretical
questions, he can be very ingenious in coming up with real-life consequences.
For example, in his story "Luminous," I thought it was great how he
had characters fleeing for their lives as a result of an inconsistency
I also really admire Karen Joy Fowler's work. Her stories are very
wise, and sly, and poignant. I have no idea how she does what she does.
Another writer I like is George Saunders, some of whose work would be
considered science fiction if it weren't published in magazines like
The New Yorker. He writes bitterly humorous stories, describing
the lives of miserable people in a way that's both funny and sympathetic.
What writers have most influenced your own writing?
When I was younger, I imprinted on Asimov and Clarke. Those were the
writers whom I really enjoyed when I was 12, 13, 14. When I was in college
I discovered Gene Wolfe and John Crowley. Both of them made a big impression
on me. I can't say that my work is anything like theirs -- I wish it
were -- but previously my sense of wonder in reading science fiction
had primarily come from the ideas described. With their work, I also
felt wonder at their skill in writing, in constructing and telling their
A lot of your stories demonstrate a deep knowledge
of mathematics and linguistics, especially "Story of Your Life" and
"Division by Zero." In preparing for this interview, I came across websites
for academics whose writers were thrilled that you accurately described
their disciplines as well as the inner and outer lives of linguists
It's nice to know that I didn't make them roll their eyes, because
I'm neither a mathematician nor a linguist. My degree is in computer
science, and I took some classes in other subject areas when I was in
college, but that's the extent my training in these fields. What knowledge
I have in linguistics is mostly acquired on my own. I knew really very
little about it before I started doing research for "Story of Your Life."
In the author's notes to "Story of Your Life,"
you mention Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Was that novel
a direct inspiration, or did you notice the similarity later, after
using variational principles in physics to write the story? Both stories
use this idea of being "unstuck in time" as a way of expressing a deep
fatalism, a sadness about the inevitability of loss.
I actually hadn't read Vonnegut's novel at the time I wrote my story.
To me there's a big difference in the two works. I think of Slaughterhouse-Five
as being really bleak in its outlook, while I don't think of my story
that way at all. My story ends on a note that, to me, is ultimately
life affirming. The story is about choosing to go ahead with life, even
though there will be pain in the future as well as joy. You can say
that the narrator doesn't actually have a choice, and that's true, but
that's not the most important aspect of it. She's not being forced into
it against her will. She's accepting the bad with the good.
In stories like "Division by Zero" and "Story
of Your Life," you describe these very rational, materialist characters
who transcend what they thought were unalterable physical laws, which
disorders their perceptions of time and space. One character even attempts
suicide. So they achieve this kind of transcendence, but then don't
know what to do with it. They are forced to confront themselves. I read
these stories as being about science confronting the problems transcendence
poses to an empirical, materialist worldview.
That's an interesting perspective. I hadn't really thought of either
"Division by Zero" or "Story of Your Life" as dealing with transcendence.
For me, those stories are primarily attempts to use mathematics and
science as metaphors to illuminate certain aspects of human experience.
The characters in those stories internalize their discoveries, in a
sense, because they are deeply engaged in their work. What they learn
becomes a part of them in a more profound way than with most people
just learning something. But I hadn't really thought about transcendence
in those stories.
In addition to using symbolic systems to achieve
certain emotional effects, you also create alternative universes by
altering underlying physical laws, which are fantastic to us but rational
to the characters that must live in them, as in "Seventy-Two Letters,"
"Tower of Babylon," and "Hell is the Absence of God."
Well, I'd put "Tower of Babylon" and "Seventy-Two Letters" in one category,
and "Hell is the Absence of God" in another. Those first two stories
are more science fictional, while "Hell is the Absence of God" is straight
fantasy. Those first two stories are based on certain out-of-date ideas
about the natural world, but they're science fictional because the characters
in them follow a scientific worldview. Whereas the universe in "Hell
is the Absence of God" is not based on a discarded scientific worldview.
It was never scientific, and it hasn't been discarded. It's a view of
the world that many people have now, except that things are explicit
rather than hidden. A lot of people, right now, believe that good and
bad fortune are the result of supernatural intervention, and it's often
based on what you deserve. In the story this intervention is very obvious,
but I don't think that by itself changes a religious universe into a
scientific one. Does that make sense?
It makes sense, although the characters in "Hell
is the Absence of God" still share a worldview shaped by scientific
materialism, despite the presence of angels in their daily lives. They
approach the appearance of angels like weather phenomena -- it gets
reported on the news, and they observe it, and compile statistics, and
through observation try to predict the patterns of their appearances.
It all seems very rational.
Let me talk a bit about how I view the difference between science fiction
and fantasy, and more specifically, the difference between science and
magic. John Crowley gave a talk in which he talked about the Romanian
scholar Ioan Couliano, a scholar of Renaissance history. Couliano said
that real magic is inter-subjective, meaning that real magic is the
influence of one consciousness on another. For example, when one person
casts a spell on another person, to make that person do their bidding.
This was at the heart of a lot of Renaissance magic. What this clarified
for me was the role of consciousness in magic, as opposed to science
and technology. Because in the scientific method, the experimenter's
consciousness has no place. It doesn't depend on the scientist having
the right intentions, or being pure of heart, or concentrating hard
enough, which are very common aspects of magic. And one of the criteria
of a scientific result is reproducibility, that it should work no matter
who does it, whereas magic is almost exactly the opposite. Magic is
highly dependent on the practitioner. Now, in "Seventy-Two Letters"
and "Tower of Babylon," the universe behaves in mechanistic manner,
so the consciousness of the practitioner -- of the scientist -- is not
involved. No one's moral worth has any effect.
In "Hell is the Absence of God," one's moral worth is definitely a
factor. Specifically, there's a relationship between the individual
consciousness and some other consciousness -- that being God. And that
again is characteristic of fantasy, that there are forces which you
treat as conscious entities, which you have to appease or make sacrifices
to. You have to interact with them as though they were a person, and
they respond to you as a person. Which is not how science in our world
works at all. Which is why I classify that story as a fantasy rather
than as science fiction.
Why are you attracted to using these mystical
and religious frameworks? "Tower of Babylon" recalls St. Augustine's
description of God as "a circle whose center is everywhere and whose
circumference is nowhere," and the Renaissance conception of the Rotundum,
a spherical container that encompasses Earth, cosmos, soul. This is
a very Platonic worldview, one that you seem to comment on from an Aristotelian
standpoint. Despite the differences you describe, "Hell is the Absence
of God" also uses a religious framework. What makes you want to take
this scientific materialist approach to reality and then place it in
Well, again, I see them as being different. "Tower of Babylon" is more
science fictional and "Hell is the Absence of God" is more fantasy.
There does seem to be a religious component in "Tower of Babylon" and
in a less conspicuous manner, in "Seventy-Two Letters." The questions
those characters are investigating are issues like the shape of the
universe, or cosmology, and the origins of life, and both of these are
legitimate questions for scientific inquiry, but they're also questions
which have been investigated by religion. So, there is that coincidence
there, in that they are touching on the same questions that religion
tries to answer, but the characters are behaving more as scientific
investigators. Whereas in "Hell is the Absence of God," there really
isn't a scientific question being investigated. The issues are more
purely the domain of religion -- specifically, what is our purpose in
life, what kind of life are we supposed to lead, how do we get to heaven?
Which are not really questions for scientific inquiry.
Do you consciously use this method -- of situating
scientific problems in a seemingly fantastic context -- to generate
a sense of wonder in the reader?
I would certainly like to generate a sense of wonder in the reader,
but I don't know any reliable way of doing so. I simply write about
what interests me, and one of the things that interests me is early
ideas about the natural world. It's easy to ridicule them in hindsight,
but some of them are nontrivial to disprove. For example, preformation,
the idea that there's a fully formed, tiny fetus inside each sperm cell.
Without powerful microscopy, it's actually quite difficult to find an
observation disproving that theory. And so you can pursue the implications
of that for a while, you can imagine a universe in which it's true.
In "Tower of Babylon," you actually ignore the
shift away from the unitary, divine language that humankind supposedly
spoke prior to the fall of the tower of Babel, to a multiplicity of
languages. This is what usually defines the fable in most people's minds.
Why did you consciously exclude that, especially given the interest
in linguistics that we see in "Story of Your Life"? Is a commentary
on language still there, deeply coded?
No, there is nothing in the story about that. There are a number of
reasons. One is that it would constitute unambiguous evidence of divine
intervention. There'd be no possible natural explanation for a bunch
of languages spontaneously appearing. I wanted my story to be set in
a world in which one could imagine a purely mechanistic explanation
for everything. So, that's one very practical reason.
Speaking more broadly, more fundamentally, this story is not about
that issue. In the original fable, the creation of the multitude of
languages was specifically an act of God to place an obstacle in front
of the builders. It's a punishment for defying God. My story is more
about cosmology than mankind's defiance of God. It's more of a science
fiction story because it's about people trying to discover the nature
of their world. The moral aspects were not the focus.
You do something similar in "Seventy-Two Letters,"
where you take the legend of the golem, and then cut it off from the
divine and turn it into a technology that anyone can use.
Yes, and that ties into what I was saying about the difference between
science and magic. In the folklore version of the golem legend, bringing
a clay statue to life is pretty easy, most anyone can do it. My initial
thought was that, from a very practical standpoint, if this actually
worked, the implications would be enormous. Contrast this with the original
rabbinical stories, where it's very difficult to create a golem. It
requires a very holy rabbi, someone who has studied for years to focus
his mind. That type of golem creation is definitely magical because
it is very dependent on the creator, and there are a lot of requirements
regarding that person's consciousness. It's a very esoteric procedure,
and not something that will ever be widely performed. But the folklore
version is much more egalitarian. It could conceivably be adapted to
mass production, and that makes it less like magic and more like technology.
In "Seventy Two Letters," both the working class
and the aristocracy try to manipulate new technology in order to preserve
their position in the economy. It's always seemed to me that writing
about these topics is one of science fiction's essential tasks, to help
formulate cultural responses to the dislocation brought about by technological
change. "Scanners Live in Vain," by Cordwainer Smith is one of the classic
It's certainly a classic form of science fiction. And of course, it's
behind one of the most common idea-generating strategies for SF writers:
given a particular technological advance, figure out who would be hurt
by it. This point fits in with what I was saying about the egalitarian
quality of technology. When a once-expensive item can be mass-produced,
the social and economic consequences can be enormous. And "Seventy-Two
Letters" also deals with reproductive technology, which has always raised
issues about class, because one group inevitably has more control than
another, whether it's men vs. women, or rich vs. poor. And of course
eugenics consistently turns out to be rich vs. poor.
In "Liking What You See: A Documentary," a cheap
and readily available technology called calliagnosia neutralizes aesthetic
reaction to human appearance. The story describes the debate around
making calliagnosia obligatory on one college campus, mimicking contemporary
debates about sexual and racial behavioral codes. How did "Liking What
You See" come about? Does that story represent a kind of wish fulfillment?
Wish fulfillment? Why do you say that?
A great deal of popular science fiction -- Star
Trek, for example -- depends very heavily upon wish fulfillment for
its appeal. You're on the starship Enterprise, and you've always got
a mission that gives meaning to your life, you can teleport anywhere
instantaneously, and you can get any food fully prepared from the replicator
any time. In the more literary tradition of science fiction, a lot of
stories try to imagine what would happen if people got what they wished
for, through technology. What complications would ensue? "Liking What
You See" begins with the wish to live in a world where looks don't matter,
that we can transcend this limitation in our social interactions by
just tweaking a neuron.
Okay, I see what you mean. You're saying that the wish-fulfillment
aspect is that looks don't matter. That's not how most people react
to the story. The initial responses I get have mostly been, "Why on
Earth would anyone want that?" That's the reaction that I'm accustomed
And yet, in our culture, for example in the movie
Shallow Hal, you see a lot of fantasies where people realize
that what matters is what's inside. You see this a lot in Star Trek,
too, now that I think about it. It's a view that's very aggressively
promoted, especially to children, although nobody actually adheres to
It's also the message of the movie Shrek. The problem is that
there are two perspectives involved in the question of appearances:
the person being perceived, and the person doing the perceiving. From
the point of view of being perceived, that's where you encounter the
wish that looks don't matter. That's where it's most relevant, because
we're judged by our appearances and we wish we weren't.
A lot of people have very deep wounds as a result
of feeling judged by their appearance.
Yes, definitely. And then there's the other perspective, that of being
the perceiver. It's from that point of view, I think, that most people
ask me, "why would anyone want calliagnosia?" Because everyone likes
looking at a pretty face. Perhaps it's just a statistical fluke that
most of the reactions I've gotten have been from the perceiver point
of view. But that's why I was surprised to hear you describe the story
as wish fulfillment. You're the first, I think.
There's a dualism there that's hard for most people
to reconcile. Each of us is simultaneously perceiver and perceived,
so we have to accept that both views have validity.
There's definitely a tension there. We'd like not to be judged on our
appearances, but we all like looking at a pretty face. In a sense, we'd
like everyone else to adopt the technology except for us. You previously
asked about what prompted that story. It was probably more from the
perceiver's point of view that the idea came to me. I was wondering
why my eye is drawn towards certain people. What if we could eliminate
that? In modern society, certainly in our media-saturated culture, beauty
is used as a tool to get our attention. It's working on us as perceivers,
but not necessarily in a way that's helpful.
Beauty is also used to oppress women, as a group.
There's a body of feminist thought that describes beauty as a mechanism
of control. This social structure has evolved over time to achieve certain
effects, and one of them is to keep women in a permanent state of insecurity.
Individual men might not like it, and recently men might have become
more negatively affected by beauty standards, but overall they still
benefit from it. Did that analysis factor into "Liking What You See"
at all? Could this technology, like the Pill or abortion or automation,
contribute to freeing women from social mores that evolved under agricultural
societies and religious modes of thought?
It definitely has that potential, the possibility of freeing women
from trying to meet an impossible standard of beauty. On the other hand,
in some circles it's accepted as given that beauty is an outmoded social
construct, something that we, as enlightened individuals, can do without.
But while that sounds great in theory, it's harder to do in practice.
One of the things I find disquieting about our preference for beauty
is that it appears very deeply ingrained. And when your political ideology
is in conflict with your innate reactions, you've got a problem. When
I was doing research for the story, I came across a quote that said,
"Allowing beautiful women their beauty may turn out to be one of the
most difficult aspects of personal liberation." I thought that was a
very good point.
As a writer, you're not very political at all.
"Liking What You See" is one of your few stories to describe a political
conflict, or that submits itself to a political reading. There's also
something implicit there that is never fully explored, which is that
racism loses its power when you stop judging people by appearances.
It's true that racism is in some ways a matter of judging people by
their appearance. But the specific type of agnosia that I posit in the
story would not actually affect racism, because it doesn't make one
blind to skin color. And there are a lot of other factors that go into
racism, like economic factors, cultural factors, the basic human tendency
to group people into "us" and "them." It's not just a matter of appearances.
Do you deal with this explicitly in the story?
I don't recall.
At one point, the neurologist character talks about an attempt to create
a kind of race blindness, or race agnosia, by trying to disable certain
types of perception and category discrimination in the brain. And he
says that it wasn't successful. While I agree that race blindness is
an interesting idea, I didn't think there was any way to make it even
remotely plausible in neurological terms. Because there are just too
many things that go into racism. It seems to me that to eliminate the
perception of race at a neurological level, you'd have to rewrite the
underpinnings of our social behavior.
In your author's notes in the back of the book,
you say that if this process were to exist, you would give it a try.
So obviously there's a part of you that sees this as desirable, this
kind of transcendence. Would it be desirable to eliminate race as a
category? Would we even want to transcend race, through whatever means?
That's a tough question. Perception of race doesn't provide the pleasure
that beauty does, so there'd be no objection from the perceiver's point
of view. The objection would be from the perceived's point of view,
because for many people their race is closely tied to their sense of
identity, and they wouldn't want to sacrifice any part of that. So can
you retain recognition of race while entirely eliminating prejudice
based on race? I don't know. On the other hand, I think I could more
easily imagine, in a narrow theoretical context, a society in which
racism didn't exist, than one in which there was no preference for beauty.
For example, imagine a world in which beautiful faces of every ethnicity
can be used to sell magazines. Now imagine a world in which plain faces,
everyday ordinary people, can be used to sell magazines. I tend to think
the former is more plausible.
"Liking What You See" also strikes me an excellent
example of merging of form with content. Why did you choose a documentary
format to tell the story?
The documentary format made it easy to include a lot of different perspectives
in less space than a traditional narrative. While the story does keep
returning to one character throughout, it's more an examination of the
issue itself rather than an account of one person's experience. What
I had in mind as a model was a film by Henry Jaglon called Eating,
about women's relationship with food. It wasn't technically a documentary,
but most of it was a series of interviews rather than narrative. I thought
it was fascinating.
What's next for you? What new projects do you
I might do the choreography for Teletubbies on Ice, or I might
write another story. I haven't decided yet.
© Jeremy Smith 2002, 2003
This interview was first published in Interzone
#182, September 2002.
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