Sci-Fi Doesn’t Have to Be Dystopian

In Ted Chiang’s new collection of stories, technology can be a force for human — and robotic — good.

When Henry James remarked, in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, that “the house of fiction has . . . not one window, but a million,” he could not have anticipated the genre of fiction to which we have given the inexact term “science fiction.” Still less could he have anticipated the sort of literary-humanist science fiction associated with Ted Chiang, whose début collection, Stories of Your Life and Others (2002), garnered multiple awards in the science-fiction community, and contained the beautifully elegiac novella Story of Your Life, which re-examined the phenomena of time and memory in terms of language (The novella was the basis for the Academy Award-nominated film Arrival).

Other stories in the collection reinterpreted the Biblical Tower of Babel, imagined an industrial era powered by Kabbalistic golems, and revisited the oldest of theological arguments regarding the nature of God. Like such eclectic predecessors as Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree, Jr., Jorge Luis Borges, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, China Miéville, and Kazuo Ishiguro, Chiang has explored conventional tropes of science fiction in highly unconventional ways.

In his new collection, Exhalation (Knopf), his second, Chiang again presents elaborate thought experiments in narrative modes that initially seem familiar. Contemporary issues relating to bioethics, virtual reality, free will and determinism, time travel, and the uses of robotic forms of A.I. are addressed in plain, forthright prose. If Chiang’s stories can strike us as riddles, concerned with asking rather than with answering difficult questions, there is little ambiguity about his language. When an entire story is metaphorical, focussed on a single surreal image, it’s helpful that individual sentences possess the windowpane transparency that George Orwell advocated as a prose ideal.

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