The Author Behind ‘Arrival’, the Sci-Fi Movie of the Year
Ted Chiang is about to invade your mind.
Image: Paramount Pictures
This weekend's—and arguably year's—must-see movie is Arrival, a new sci-fi drama starring Amy Adams that has been nearly universally adored by critics. The movie follows a linguist called upon by the army to help communicate with the first known alien visitors to Earth, who have suddenly appeared hovering over various parts of the globe in beautiful, somewhat ominous, pebble-looking spacecraft. Naturally, the appearance of said aliens causes a global furor.
A much smaller commotion broke out at the 2007 World Science Fiction Convention in Yokohama, Japan. It was first time in 68 years that the esteemed sci-fi conference took place in Asia, and among the genre luminaries in attendance was Ted Chiang, the American author of Story of Your Life, the 1998 sci-fi short story upon which Arrival would later be based.
As Chiang toured the Pacifico Yokohoma Convention Center, dressed comfortably with his hair tied behind his head, he walked between the booths and various panels and soon started to attract a crowd, one that swarmed at the margins while collectively whispering in hushed tones, "There's Ted Chiang!"
Considering his accolades—four Nebulas, four Hugos, a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and four Locus awards over his 20-year-plus-long career—this reverential scene might not be surprising. But the masses that followed Chiang were indeed rare, especially since Chiang is still hardly known outside the sci-fi literary world.
"Ted has gone under the radar here in America, and he didn't even know beforehand that he had a huge readership anywhere, especially in Japan," said Karen Joy Fowler, another sci-fi author who related this anecdote when I spoke with her earlier this month about Chiang's work.
But now Chiang is finally ready to break through into the mainstream. Aside from Arrival, there are options out on three of his other stories (Understand, Life Cycle of Software Objects, and Hell is the Absence of God). His recent piece, The Great Silence, written for e-flux Journal in a collaborative project with the artists Allora & Calzadilla, was anthologized in the recent volumes of both the Best American Sci-Fi Short Stories and Best American Short Stories.
"Ted has gone under the radar here in America, and he didn't even know beforehand that he had a huge readership anywhere..."
"One would hope the floodgates are about to open," said Kirby Kim, Chiang's literary agent. "Maybe this is his moment, just like Philip Dick has every story of his made into a movie. This is someone who is something of a god in one world, but so unknown here amongst general readership."
Chiang seemed nonplussed when I asked him about Arrival's script via email, mostly reserving praise for Eric Heisserer, who adapted Story of Your Life for the silver screen: "It was clear pretty early on that Eric's intention wasn't to make a conventional Hollywood science-fiction film… so mostly I was just interested to see what he would come up with."
Chiang's path to the forefront of what Kim refers to as "grounded science fiction" has certainly been winding. The son of a professor of engineering at Stony Brook University and a retired librarian, Chiang didn't grow up in a household that read much science fiction.
Science, though, was of the utmost importance to him as a child, particularly the non-fiction works of Isaac Asimov, including his Guide to Science. "I can still remember its explanations of how Eratosthenes estimated the size of the Earth by measuring shadows at noon," Chiang wrote, "and how Cavendish estimated the mass of the Earth by using weights suspended by a thread."
By the time he enrolled at Brown University, with a plan to either major in physics or computer science, Chiang was a sci-fi obsessive, devouring all of Asimov's works (The Last Question was one particular inspiration) and those of Arthur C. Clarke's, like Rendezvous with Rama. He had also begun to write his own short stories, submitting them to science fiction magazines and, according to Chiang, "collecting rejection slips throughout college." He didn't even try to send his works to any of Brown's publications as "it was clear that they wouldn't be receptive to science fiction."
Chiang quickly realized that he wasn't cut out for either a life in physics or academia. "I was a 'B' Student in physics, and you can't get into a physics grad school with grades like that," he wrote."I actually hated academia, so I wouldn't want to go to grad school even if I could."
So as Chiang began to further hone his sci-fi writing skills, he sold programming tutorials and software reviews to computer magazines to stretch his writing chops (this eventually led to his current part-time gig as a technical writer for Microsoft).
Though he briefly considered dropping this creative pursuit, others saw a genius in waiting: his short story, Tower of Babylon, which he workshopped at the prestigious Clarion Workshop, won a Nebula in 1990, followed by three others (in every Chiang profile—and there aren't many—there is also the tale of how he turned down a Hugo award because he felt an editor had rushed the story). "He came out of the box fully assembled," said Spider Robinson, a fellow writer and one of Chiang's mentors. "It was immediately clear that I had more to learn from him than I had to teach him."
Chiang's writing process has never varied. "He is very careful, very deliberate, and he doesn't need guidance or someone else's input," Fowler said. "It helps that he does not produce lesser works."
Chiang doesn't keep a journal in which to jot down his ideas, and he doesn't dedicate a set time of the day to think. Rather, "the stories I write are usually based on ideas that have been rattling around in my head for years," he said. "I get plenty of ideas that I lose interest in almost immediately. It's only when I keep returning to a particular idea again and again over a long period of time do I know that it's something that might become a story."
He continues, "Writing is very difficult for me, and so I write very slowly." That delay is in part due to Chiang's character development, thinking of how he can blend his stories with the right characters and then bringing together a number of threads.
"Writing is very difficult for me, and so I write very slowly."
According to Robinson, this is not unusual for sci-fi writers—"most of us believe it merely leads to periods where we are not typing"—and it's why Chiang's works are met almost immediately with acclaim. There are no puzzling leaps, or flawed characters, or plots that he could have taken more time to flesh out. "His stories feel like they are birthed whole," Kirby said.
This same quality is what makes his stories so unique in what is a very crowded field. "There is always a very deft kind of personal story involved, but his work also deals with issues that are very big," Fowler said. "When you put down a Ted Chiang story, you have not only read a story about people you wish to follow, there is also a lot to think about."
His characters are capable of existing both on and outside the page, and while Chiang's plots are clearly sci-fi oriented, nothing is unbelievable. "I'm sure there are readers who can't suspend their disbelief when reading my work," he wrote. "But I suppose I'm more interested in exploring philosophical questions, and I don't think fanciful technology helps with that. When philosophers pose thought experiments, I tend to prefer the ones that don't involve really outlandish premises."
"He knows that you don't need to give your reader an extended lecture on the coming revolution in technology," Robinson said. "You can just get on with the story."
Dr. Louise Banks is among Chiang's most complex and fascinating characters. The narrator of Story of Your Life interweaves her interactions with the aliens and with her daughter so seamlessly that the reader doesn't realize the plots aren't in parallel. Chiang's fictional future is always just five minutes ahead, which enables a reader to really focus on what Banks and his other characters are going through without sweating the technicalities.
It's also what makes his works so appealing to Hollywood. "I had an intellectual and visceral reaction to his stories," said Heisserer, who pitched Chiang's works for years without success.
"Every studio passed, telling me they didn't see this as a movie."
"Every studio passed, telling me they didn't see this as a movie," he continued. "That it was too smart, which I began to see as an excuse to pass on something that isn't a franchise movie." Heisserer negotiated for the literary rights for one year, and adapted Story of Your Life on spec until he was finally received the go-ahead in 2010. "It has been a slow crawl to get to where we see the movie released," he said.
But even if Arrival smashes through the box office and awards season—and if advanced reviews are any indication, it will—Chiang doesn't intend to forget his roots. He still has no desire to ever write a novel, which he first made clear in an email to Kim when the two initially spoke several years ago, writing: "I am not writing a novel. Just to let you know, I am a short story writer."
He'll do the red carpets, the premieres, and the award junkets, and then return to his home in a quaint, quiet suburb of Seattle, Washington, and again start turning over ideas in his head for his next story: "I'm quite happy to be working in short fiction, and I don't think I need to leave it in order to find ways to stretch myself."
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.