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Ted Chiang Interview

Ted Chiang Interview

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Published by enneagon
Ted Chiang Interview
Ted Chiang Interview

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Published by: enneagon on Dec 05, 2008
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11/07/2012

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applying far that class. new to that
universe,
but because those breakthroughs are more familiar"My first publications weren't science fiction.
When
was in college in ourufiverse. that makes theirs seem more similar toours,
even
if onlyI wrote articles for
a
small computer magazine called
Profiles.
Softwarein
a
metaphorical
sense.
reviews and programming tutorials, that
sorl
of thing. Those articles
"One
of the things I sometimes try to do in my stories is
USE
sciencewere what ultimately led me to a
caner
in technical writing. By a funny
as
a
metaphor,
an
analogy. This is not necessarily exclusive to sciencecoincidence, Robert Sawya used to write for that very same magazine. fiction, hut scicnce fiction writers tend to have more respect for sci-When his novels first started appearing. I thought. 'Hey, I know that
ence,
so
when they try to
ose
it for metaphor. I think they do
s
betterguy.' I only met him recently, at the World Fantasy Con in Monbal. job.
For
mainstream writers, science functions solely
as
metaphor.We minis& about the days of %bit CP/M computers. wbereas science fiction writers canuseit both
as
metaphor and in a"Some people ask me if I consider 'Seventy-Two Letters' sciencemore literal context. For example. Karen lay Fowler has this storyfiction
ar
fantasy. While it obviously has elemcnts of both, the imagi- 'Lieseri', which uses Einstein's Theory of Relati"ity to metaphoricallynary science in it behaves. to my mind, more like a real sclenn thnn illustrate Einstein's emotional life. In 'Story of Your Life'. I tried tolike magic. One of the things that occurred to me, when 1 was thinkinguse this sspcct of physics
-
vnrintional principlca
-
o illuminate a ccr-about the differences between science and magic, is lhat magic is al- lain aspect of human expcricnce; that was its genesis. The linguisticsways esoteric, whereas science and technology
are
fundamentally egali-all came later.tarian. Magic's something for the fcw. the sclcct, the anointed,
or
some- "I wasn't conscious of
n
remrring theme in my stories when I waronewho has a gift, but science is ultimately amenable to mass produc- writing them, but if I lwk for
one.
I suppose what comes to mind is thetion,
so
we can all enjoy the benefits of science and technology. When notion of an ideal language, the language in which thoughts can be
ar-
something can be mass-produced. I think of it
as
being more techno- ticulated perfectly and things can be described perfectly. Umbeno
Eco
logical than magical. In his keynote address at last year's ICFA,
John
wmte a book called The Search
for
a
Perfeet Language in which heCrowley talked about Couliano's idea of magic as intersubjectivity, an talks about the many ways in which people have sought this, in oneinteraction between twoconsciousnesscs. That's related lo what I was form
or
another. They've tried
to
mnsmct the original language be-saying about mass pmduction, because real magic always requires the fore the Tower of Babel,
or
the
anguage Adam spoke in
Ulc
Oardcn ofconsciousness of the prsctitioner, but if an effect can be created through
Eden;
then have
been
attempts
to
discover the language spoken by an-purely automated means, then obviously gels. the language that perfectly namesthere's
no
conreiousness involved. That's things. Another way people have sought itpan of the definition of a scientific result:is in mathematics or some other logicalthat it's reproducible bymyone. It doesn't
[MJagic is always esoteric,
framcwork.They'vetried to findsomemath-relyona specific individual's presence orematicsl representation which will perfectlyparticipation.lfitdoes, youdiscard thedam
whereas science and technol-
describe everything
-
not like the Unifiedas spurious. The science of nomenclature
ogy
are
fundamentally egali-
Field Thcary, hut more broadly, a theoreti-in
'Seventy-TwoLetter~'daem't
ely
on
the cal framework that will perfectly organizeconsciausnessafan~ ractitioner.Itdoesn't
tarian. Magic's something for
all thought. Another idea was that graphicrelyantheir will
or
concentration, purityimages might be the basis for a perfect lan-ofheart, intention,orany ofthat. 1t.spurely
the few, the select, the anoint-
guage, hecause
once
thought thatmechanical, and that's why I think of it as
ed, or someone who has a gift,
Emtian hieroglyphics
M
Chinese charac-being more like science and less intrinsi-ters conveyed ideas directly. Nowadays acaHy magical.
but science is ultimately ame-
perfect ~anguage s warded
n,
impossible.
"When
I was devising the science of
no-
nable to
mass
production,
so
because
pa" oflhec"mntdefinitionof 'tan-menclature. I hied to limit thenumterof
rral
guage' is that there's an arbitrary relatian-
physicallawsthstitwouldviolate.Itdaesn't
We can all enjoy the benefits
ship between the symbol and the thing be-defy gravity
or
violale conservation of massing signified. But I'm still fascinated by thc
or
energy
or
momentum.
Pretty
much all it
science
and
technOiOg~.
idea of some system of representation indoes is violate the second law of thermady-whichthe relationship is not merely arbitrarynamics: using nomenclature dmases en-but inbinsic. This would, in a sense, maptropy. It's interesting to
see
how much you can do just with that.
A
onto both the physical universe and the universe
of
thought. I can seesystem of magic that violates laws of conservation would make me won-that a number
of
my stories are different
Llkcr
on
this same question
...
der. What would keep
s
universe like that from filling up with stuff,
or
in a vague
sofi
of way. (That's just the kind of guy I
am:
it's always aovefieating? I don't know. 1 think a lot of systems of magic have
some
qualified 'yes,' a definite 'maybe.')notion of a cost being associated with every benefit, but I'm not sure."The only foreign language
I've
studied at any length is Latin; givenI'm not that familiar with the fantasy genre. That idea probably
arises
the choices available in our high school, lhat was the most intenstingout of the fact that the real world does have conservation laws.option. My parents are fmm China, and when I was very young
I
spoke"Everyone refers to science fiction's ability
to
evoke a sense of won-Chinese but my parents
-
much to their regret- did not make a point ofder. That is definitely a goal of mine, because I remember thc sense ofinsisting we speak it, so 1 lost it as I gnw up. My parents did make mewonder I experienced when Iread science fiction when I was young". Ianend Chinese school on Saturday mornings, but that was
s
hopelesswould like to be able
to
evoke that
in
other people. 'Tower of Babylon'crercisc. So my interest
in
languages is largely theoretical rather thanand 'Seventy-Two Letters' both seem to
lake
piacc in a fantasy
uni-
practical.verse, yet they ultimately refer to scientific principles in our world. I"A friend
of
mine described 'Hell Is the Absenw
of
Gd
r a horndidn't specifically set out to achieve this effect, but
I
suspect readersstory. l quite liked that description.
Even
though 1 hadn't set out
to
writewho like those stories like them
because
the characters achieve
an
in-a horrm story, it pleased me to think
of
it in that sense. I think of it as asight at the end of the story. They basically discover far themselvesfantasy.
A
science fiction univmc behaves according to mlcs and notvientific concepts that we're all familiar with in our world, but in thisaccording to a consciousness. When you amibutc consciousness
or
willfantasy universe these concepts
an
novel. It mtessome of the feel ofor volition to the natural world
-
whether it be elemenlal forces, or spir-the
sense
of wonder associated with the thrill of discovery
-
ne whichits of any type, or a single God
-
hat is intrinsically a fanmy universe.is harder
to
achieve in a story set in
our
universe, where these scientific
because
there's a mind involved. In this
case,
it's not that of
a
practitio-principles are
so
familiar. John Cmwlcy has said one of the things thener of magic; it's a consciousness the practitioner is in some
sense
nter-'Aegypt' books
m
about is limes when the world changes. The insightsacting with, commanding
or
appeasing or trying to get on the good sideachieved by the characters in 'Tower of Babylon' and 'Seventy-Twoof. It assumes that there is someone out thm whocan rrspond to you inLetters'anlikewise
insightsthatwillchangcthc
worldviewafthepeoplesome fashion. The protagonist in 'Hell' does approach things from ain those worlds. They're making conceptual breakthroughs which are
Continued
on
page
75
LOCUS
August
2002
'

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