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The Absence of God

an interview with Ted Chiang

by Jeremy Smith


All science fiction is fundamentally post-religious literature. For those whose minds are shaped by science and technology, the universe is Stories of Your Life and Othersfundamentally knowable. Faith dissolves, replaced by a sense of wonder at the complexity of creation.

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 this year.

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 professional writers.

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 in arithmetic.

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 stories.

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 and mathematicians.

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 these contexts?

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 examples.

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 to.

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.

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 have gestating?

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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