Ted Chiang is perhaps best-known outside science fiction circles as the writer of the short story on which the 2016 film Arrival was based. Inside those circles, he’s the much-praised winner of a dozen sci fi writing awards – an incredibly high hit rate for a guy who’s only published seventeen short stories. This, his second collection, compiles his noughties-teens output and two originals in a single thought-provoking volume.
The deeply imaginative worlds Chiang creates within, philosophical questions he explores and his commitment to the teasing out of conundrums both moral and scientific have drawn comparisons to Borges and Calvino; given this, it would be tempting to say that these stories are in danger of “transcending science fiction”. But that would be to play down the fact that each of them revels in the genre. They are, unapologetically, part of that canon; the title story is effectively a meditation on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, while references to tech innovation, alien worlds and near-futures abound.
In this way, it’s doubly impressive that Chiang’s use of oft-trodden genre tropes yields such new and innovating results, ones that feel extremely pertinent to the present day – at times, terrifyingly so. It helps that he is, in an unflashy way, a master craftsman. His chameleonic style alters cleverly to service the needs of each story – our narrators are variously un-humanoid beings with recognisably human feelings of existential angst, fabric merchants from ancient Iraq, and an omniscient, unaffected third person narrator, recounting a truly distressing tale of Frankensteinien neglect and anonymous cruelty.
His ability to build suspense, meanwhile, is subtle and brilliant. In Exhalation our mysterious non-human storyteller’s perfectly plausible withholding of information as it tells its tale fuels our curiosity, its peculiar world introduced to us piece by piece. Reading The Lifecycle of Software Objects, meanwhile, is like watching a small child slowly crawl closer and closer to a cliff-edge. There’re shades of Michael Haneke in its blending of creeping dread and apparent mundanity, as well as in its dispassionate depictions of awful brutality; but it’s his ability to steadily crank up the unease well before any actual unpleasantness arrives that’s hugely impressive. And, because it’s fantastic sci-fi, it also takes place in an immersive world of just-on-the-horizon technological speculation (techulation?), feeling all the more grimly-plausible for that.
All-in-all, this is a collection that deserves to reach well outside of the sci-fi sphere – even if the stories themselves work inside it so adeptly.