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Chiang, Ted

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1967-    ) US author who has produced several stories since he began to publish work of genre interest with "Tower of Babylon" for Omni in November 1990, which won the first of his four Nebula awards to date, for best novelette; he also received the John W Campbell Award for best new writer in 1992. His second Nebula was for "Story of Your Life" (in Starlight 2, anth 1998, ed Patrick Nielsen Hayden), for best novella; the third was for Hell Is the Absence of God (in Starlight 3, anth 2001, ed Patrick Nielsen Hayden; 2002 ebook); and the fourth for The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate (2007 chap). This novella, and Hell Is the Absence of God, also won Hugo awards, and the latter a Nebula and Locus Award as well. These stories – plus his other published work to that point – "Understand" (August 1991 Asimov's) (see Intelligence); "Division by Zero" (in Full Spectrum 3, anth 1991, ed Lou Aronica, Betsy Mitchell and Amy Stout); "Seventy-Two Letters" (in Vanishing Acts, anth 2000, ed Ellen Datlow) (see Golem), "The Evolution of Human Science" (1 June 2000 Nature as "Catching the Crumbs from the Table"; vt in Stories of Your Life and Others, coll 2002) and "Liking What you See: a Documentary" – were assembled as Stories of Your Life and Others (coll 2002), one of the most remarkable single collections to have been published in the sf field. Since its publication, in addition to The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate, further stories have gained awards, including a Hugo and a Locus Award for his elegant Thought Experiment about Entropy, Exhalation (in Eclipse Two, anth 2008, edited by Jonathan Strahan; 2009 ebook), which is set in a cruelly articulate Alternate Cosmos or Pocket Universe. For The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010), see below.

Beyond the immediate pleasures of a style so tight-hewn and lucid that it gives the impression that the truth about complex issues can in fact be told, it is not easy to understand Chiang's power. It may be no more complicated than the fact that his protagonists live in worlds they must strive with all their might to understand, and that the cognitive intensity Chiang allows them, in order to pursue their life goals, has a magnetic effect on the reader. In "Tower of Babylon", for instance, the topological intricacy of a world dominated by the eponymous tower, which is eternally under construction, and whose top penetrates heaven, is plumbed with haunting clarity by a protagonist actually working on its construction: so that the more he works, the more he learns. In the end, his life and the nature of the world seem like one thing. "Story of Your Life" turns on its protagonist's understanding that Fermat's "Principle of Least Time", which requires that Mathematics should focus (like stories) on an end that can be perceived, literally and devastatingly describes the lines of force that shape her world (see Linguistics; Time Out of Sequence); this story was filmed as Arrival (2016). The novella The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate (2007 chap) is an intricately woven Oriental Fantasy involving Time Travel.

For a while it had seemed that Chiang would continue exclusively to work as a story writer, as it was difficult to conceive of a full-length novel sustaining the intense unremitting focus of his best work. The Lifecycle of Software Objects (2010), however, which has won the Hugo and Locus Award for best novella, is a long and intensely information-rich novella in which two humans – one not incidentally fresh from employment in a Zoo – are tasked with supervising and interacting with "digients" (digital entities), AIs manufactured to serve as high-level pets in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (see also Toy Game). As the years pass, and fashion obsoletes the "toys" – whose grasp of the cognitive Pocket Universe they are intended to inhabit soon endangers their equilibrium – an inescapable tragedy is cogently and movingly unfolded. All three of these major tales – The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate; Exhalation and The Lifecycle of Software Objects – have been reassembled with added later stories as Exhalation (omni 2019); this includes the new story "Omphalos", which won a Locus Award as best novelette, while Exhalation as a whole won the same award as best collection.

Each Chiang story is an exercise, sometimes profound, in the art of paying attention. In all his work, the reader is in the hands of a writer whose attention is fixed upon the real world of the twenty-first century, and who does not turn away. [JC]

see also: BSFA Award; Drugs; Seiun Award; Sidewise Award; Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.

Ted Chiang

born Port Jefferson, New York: 1967



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