Ted Chiang on Writing

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Avi: Could you introduce yourself?

Ted: My name is Ted Chiang. I'm a science fiction short story writer.

Were there any formative experiences that led you to become a
science fiction writer?

Probably the most formative experience was reading the Foundation
Trilogy when I was about twelve years old. That wasn't the first science
fiction I had ever read but it's something that stands out in my memory
as having had a big impact on me. Reading Asimov and then Arthur C.
Clarke when I was twelve definitely put me on the road to being a
science fiction writer.

When did you actually decide to go pro?

It depends on what you mean by going pro. I started submitting
stories for publication when I was about 15, but it was many years
before I sold anything. I don't make my living writing science fiction
so in that sense I'm still not a pro. Writing for publication was always
my goal, but making a living writing science fiction wasn't. When I was
a kid I figured I would be a physicist when I grew up and then I would
write science fiction on the side. The physicist thing didn't pan out,
but writing science fiction on the side did.

How has being a technical writer affected your fiction writing?

I can't recommend technical writing as a day job for fiction
writers, because it's going to be hard to write all day and then come
home and write fiction. Nowadays I work as a freelance writer, so I
usually do contract technical writing part of the year and then I take
time off and do fiction writing the rest of the year. It's too difficult
for me to do technical writing at the same time as fiction writing -
they draw on the same parts of my brain. So I can't say it's a good day
job in that sense, but it's a way to make money.

Could you give a walk-through of your writing process?

In general, if there's an idea I'm interested in, I usually think
about that for a long time and write down my speculations or just ideas
about how it could become a story, but I don't actually start writing
the story itself until I know how the story ends. Typically the first
part of the story that I write is the very ending, either the last
paragraph of the story or a paragraph near the end. Once I have the
destination in mind then I can build the rest of the story around that
or build the rest of the story in such a way as to lead up to that.
Usually the second thing I write is the opening of the story and then I
write the rest of the story in almost random order. I just keep writing
scenes until I've connected the beginning and the end. I write the key
scenes or what I think of as the landmark scenes first, and then I just
fill in backwards and forwards.

How do you classify your writing? I feel like it's a kind of
philosophical fiction, because it's actually making people think, waking
them up and making them wonder about things.

That's one of the things that science fiction is particularly good
at, that's one of the reasons I like science fiction. Science fiction is
very well suited to asking philosophical questions; questions about the
nature of reality, what it means to be human, how do we know the things
that we think we know. When philosophers propose thought experiments as
a way of analyzing certain questions, their thought experiments often
sound a lot like science fiction. I think that there's a very good fit
between the two.

I also think religion plays a very important role in your work.

I do think that religion is a very interesting phenomenon;
obviously it affects many people very profoundly. There is a similarity
between science and religion in that they're both attempts to understand
the universe, and there was a time in the past when science and religion
were not seen as incompatible, when it made perfect sense to be both a
scientist and a religious person. Nowadays there is much more of an
attitude that the two are incompatible. I think that's sort of a 20th
century phenomenon.

You have very specific views on the difference between magic and
science. Can you talk about that?

Sure. Science fiction and fantasy are very closely related genres,
and a lot of people say that the genres are so close that there's
actually no meaningful distinction to be made between the two. But I
think that there does exist an useful distinction to be made between
magic and science. One way to look at it is in terms of whether a given
phenomenon can be mass-produced. If you posit some impossibility in a
story, like turning lead into gold, I think it makes sense to ask how
many people in the world of the story are able to do this. Is it just a
few people or is it something available to everybody? If it's just a
handful of special people who can turn lead into gold, that implies
different things than a story in which there are giant factories
churning out gold from lead, in which gold is so cheap it can be used
for fishing weights or radiation shielding.

In either case there's the same basic phenomenon, but these two
depictions point to different views of the universe. In a story where
only a handful of characters are able to turn lead into gold, there's
the implication that there's something special about those individuals.
The laws of the universe take into account some special property that
only certain individuals have. By contrast, if you have a story in which
turning lead into gold is an industrial process, something that can be
done on a mass scale and can be done cheaply, then you're implying that
the laws of the universe apply equally to everybody; they work the same
even for machines in unmanned factories. In one case I'd say the
phenomenon is magic, while in the other I'd say it's science.

Another way to think about these two depictions is to ask whether the
universe of the story recognizes the existence of persons. I think magic
is an indication that the universe recognizes certain people as
individuals, as having special properties as an individual, whereas a
story in which turning lead into gold is an industrial process is
describing a completely impersonal universe. That type of impersonal
universe is how science views the universe; it's how we currently
understand our universe to work. The difference between magic and
science is at some level a difference between the universe responding to
you in a personal way, and the universe being entirely impersonal.

I feel that one can look upon language as a connecting link
between magic and science, so potentially a scientist could be led back
to the world of magic by the very fact that he is using language. Maybe
if he overuses it, or "overclocks" his language use, that might lead him
to some kind of magical experience.

When you say he has a magical experience, are there effects in the
external world?

No, there might be effects on his body, somatic effects, but not
on the external world.

Ah, okay. It's probably worth making a distinction between
subjective magic and objective magic, or between spiritual magic and
practical magic.

Or between white magic and black magic.

Right. In practical magic, the goal is to affect the external
world. That's the kind of magic I meant when I was talking about turning
lead into gold. In spiritual magic, the only goal is to affect the
internal state of the practitioner. It sounds like you're talking about
spiritual magic as opposed than practical magic.

Yes, let me give you an example. So, Fred Hoyle came up with the
mechanics of how stars produce heavier elements that end up in us being
here. There was an Apollo 14 astronaut, Edgar Mitchell; I listened to
one of his interviews, and he was describing an ecstatic experience he
had on the way back to the Earth from the Moon. He had a very intense
bodily experience of that fact, that the matter in his body was made in
an older generation of stars. It was a kind of revelatory experience,
and it was based on a piece of scientific knowledge.

Okay. I don't think his experience was fundamentally different from
the ecstatic experiences that religious people have had for millenia,
whether they achieve it through prayer, or meditation or some other type
of practice, they achieve an epiphany or some kind of revelation. It
sounds like you're talking about a similar type of experience that
scientists might have.

Yes, he did say that when he got back to Earth, he researched the
experience he had, and it matched something called savikalpa samadhi in
a yogic Sanskrit text, but he didn't know about that beforehand, and his
experience was based on a fact of physics. So my question is, can
scientific knowledge lead to new kinds of experience, or are they just
religious experiences in a different form?

I don't think that there's anything that requires that what the
person was thinking about actually be true, for that person to have this
experience. The fact that we're made of elements that were born in the
heart of stars, that happens to be true, and that contributed to this
astronaut's experience, but someone could have the exact same experience
contemplating something which is not true; for instance, that we are all
children of God or whatever, any religious claim you want to use. I
don't think the truth of the statement is actually necessary for that
ecstatic experience.

So it doesn't have any impact on the validity of the experience?

I'm not convinced that it does. For example, I recently heard this
ethnobotanist, Dennis McKenna, on the radio, talking about his
experience taking a powerful hallucinogen. He could see photosynthesis
actually happening; he could see water molecules actually being
processed in the chloroplasts of plant cells. He also felt this
incredible sense of oneness, a feeling that humanity was part of this
planetary organism. I'm sure this was a very profound experience for
him, but I don't take it as evidence of the truth of photosynthesis. He
himself admitted that he already knew how photosynthesis works, and I
think the fact that he knew this contributed to his hallucinatory
experience. Other people who don't know about photosynthesis have
different hallucinatory experiences, and most of these experiences do
not reflect scientific truth. People will have incompatible experiences,
and they can't all be true. So I don't think that this powerful ecstatic
or hallucinatory experience is an indicator of truth. I think it can
accompany an accurate insight about the world, but it doesn't have to.
It can accompany someone thinking about the nucleosynthesis of heavy
elements in stars, but it could also accompany someone thinking about
the need to excoriate one's flesh to make the Lord happy.

Your story 'Understand' relates to this. I think it came before
the fad of going to Peru and taking Ayahuasca, but it's about a similar
experience, making all these connections, perceiving things in a more
intense way.

Yes, I suppose it is. I remember when some friends of mine read
'Understand', they were certain that I must have taken hallucinogens at
some point, but I have not. I wasn't attempting to describe someone
hallucinating, but I was attempting to describe the experience of
having a revelation, an incredibly deep and profound revelation about
the nature of the universe. I guess it so happens that most people's
experience of that occurs when they're taking hallucinogens, but the
hallucinogen aspect was not my intent.

I recently read Rick Strassman's book 'The Spirit Molecule', about
the psychedelic drug DMT and the effects it's had on people, and I felt
that it connected with 'Understand'. I feel like many things connect
with your story, in retrospect.

I think that's one of the things that happens when you are thinking
about a given idea a lot; you start seeing resonances to that idea
everywhere, in the things that you read, the things that you see.

I'll give you another example. I read 'Hell is the Absence of God'
while living in Jerusalem at the height of the suicide bombing campaign,
so that was my association: the angel as a suicide bomber.

That's an interesting association; I hadn't really thought about
that, but I can see the resemblance.

The story resonated for me because it explores the issues that
many of us were forced to grapple with at that time, because we knew we
could die any day. I mean that's always true, but it's more obvious when
there are bombs going off.

It really makes you conscious of the fact that you could die at any
moment. It probably makes you think, have you made your peace?

And how fast can you make your peace!

Which is one of the arguments that religious people make: you don't
know how long you have, so you'd better make your peace now because you
might die at any time. That is an argument that some characters in the
story 'Hell is the Absence of God' make, citing it as one of the reasons
God orders these angelic visitations: it's a way to remind people that
they don't have much time, or that they don't know how much time they have.

One of the characters in your story makes his peace regardless of
the fact that God has created upheavals in his life; he makes a moral
choice that's not dependent upon God's actions.

I think it's a hard thing to achieve. You can describe a character
achieving it, but I can't say that I have achieved that myself.
Accepting all the terrible things that happen in the world, making your
peace with that, trying to make sense of that is one of the fundamental
problems of religion.

In your story 'Seventy-Two Letters' you draw parallels between
Jewish Kabbalah, computer programming and bio-informatics. Do you see
any similarities between these, given that they are all reliant on
manipulating a base code? What are the differences in your view?

Well, I think one can draw metaphorical connections between them
for a science-fiction story, but I don't think they have a lot to do
with each other in reality. Computer programming is a rational practice
while Kabbalah is a mystical practice, and DNA is different from
computer code, and I wouldn't want anyone confusing one with another.

At a metaphorical level, they all provide ways of thinking about the
relationship between language and reality, which is a topic I find
interesting. There's this old idea in magic that there's a language
where the symbols have a tight relationship with what's being signified,
so by manipulating those symbols, you could manipulate reality itself.
That's a form of practical magic, according to the distinction we
talked about earlier. And that certainly bears a resemblance to
computer programming, where code is translated into actions by a
computer. And in turn that bears a resemblance to DNA, where code is
translated into the bodies of living organisms. So I think it's fun to
imagine a connection between all three of these, so long as we're
talking about fiction. I wouldn't want anyone to take this too literally.

Many of your stories play with the implications of knowing the
future. What fascinates you about the nature of Time?

The question of free will. I think free will is what underlies most
everything interesting about time travel. And when I say time travel,
I'm including receiving information from the future, because that's
essentially equivalent to someone traveling from the future. The idea
that you can create a paradox assumes that you have free will; even the
idea of multiple timelines assumes it, because it assumes that you can
make choices. There have always been philosophical arguments about
whether we have free will or not, but they're usually kind of abstract.
Time travel, or knowing the future, makes the question very concrete.
If you know what's going to happen, can you keep it from happening?
Even when a story says that you can't, the emotional impact arises from
the feeling that you should be able to.

I gather you have a large fan base in Japan. How do you account
for it?

I can't; I was completely surprised when I found out. It did
prompt me to think about what might make some works more suitable for
translation than others. I'm sure there are stories that are very
rooted in aspects of a particular culture, which require familiarity
with that culture to fully appreciate, and those stories probably don't
translate well. To the extent that my work is philosophical fiction,
it's not enormously reliant on American culture, and that might make it
a good candidate for translation. That could explain why my work got
translated into Japanese, although it wouldn't explain why it's more
popular there than here. I gather that Greg Egan is considered a god of
science fiction in Japan, while most of his work is out of print in the
United States; some people compare my work to his, which I consider a
great compliment, and which would support the idea that Japanese
science-fiction readers have very different tastes than American ones.

What prompted you to write your newest novella 'The Lifecycle of
Software Objects'?

It's primarily a response to how Artificial Intelligence has been
depicted in most science fiction. The typical science-fiction depiction
of AI is this loyal, obedient butler; you simply flip a switch, turn it
on and it's ready to do your bidding. I feel like there's a huge story
being glossed over, having to do with the creation of that AI. I don't
mean the technical details of developing software that's as smart as a
human brain; most science fiction posits a miraculous technological
development, and there's no need to explain it. It's just that with AI,
I feel like there's a second miracle assumed, which is that someone was
able to take this software as smart as a human brain and make it as
useful as a butler. Current computers are still light-years away from
being as capable as the brain of a newborn baby, but even after you've
reached that point, you're still only halfway to having a useful butler.

For example, in Arthur C. Clarke's 2010, supposedly the first thing that
HAL 9000 said when he was activated is "Good morning Dr. Chandra, I'm
ready for my first lesson". That is not something a newborn baby says.
There is implicitly a lifetime of experience underlying that simple
statement. Where did that experience come from? If it could be
programmed in, HAL wouldn't need to have any lessons at all. How did he
learn to speak English? How does he know what it means to be ready for a
lesson?

It takes years to turn a human being into a useful employee. In fact,
the more useful you want the employee to be, the longer it takes to get
there. You might not have to repeat the process for each and every AI
you want to use; once you've got one trained, it's possible that you
could just make copies of it. But someone still needs to do it for the
first one, and that's going to be difficult, and really time-consuming.
Most depictions of AI assume that this step is unnecessary, or that it
will be easy, which I think assumes an entirely separate miracle from
the technical one.

How optimistic are you about the practical realization of these
two miracles of AI?

In practical terms, I'm pretty skeptical about AI. I don't think
it's impossible, but I think it's so difficult that I'm not sure why
anyone would bother. Right now Google is enormously useful, but it's
not remotely conscious, and it's not moving in that direction. If anyone
tried describing a computer as useful as Google in a science-fiction
story fifty years ago, they probably depicted it as having consciousness
of some sort. But it turns out that a computer doesn't need to be
conscious to be useful; ordinary software serves our purposes just fine.
I expect that will remain true; we will have software of ever increasing
usefulness without it ever "waking up".

On the other hand, there is one form of rudimentary AI software that has
turned out to be surprisingly popular, and that's virtual pets. The Sims
was the best-selling PC game of all time, and who would have predicted
that? It turns out that having a kind of emotional relationship with
software can be very appealing to people. So I tend to think that the
most likely reason for us to develop conscious software would be because
it's fun, rather than because it's useful. It will all depend on
whether software that's actually conscious is more fun than software
that simply mimics conscious organisms, like The Sims. If it is, then
that might actually motivate people to put in the time needed to train
an AI to be useful.

The AIs in your story have virtual bodies. How important is having
a body for consciousness to come into being? Is there a difference
between having a "real" physical body and a virtual body?

A lot of researchers believe that AI needs to be embodied and
situated, meaning that it has to have some kind of physical body and
exist within some kind of physical environment. The general idea is that
we learn by doing; our understanding of the world comes from moving our
body around, pushing solid objects against each other. I suppose it's
possible that there are modes of cognition that could exist without
these things, but I think they'd be so foreign to us as to be
incomprehensible.

A virtual body and a virtual environment ought to work just as well as
physical ones, assuming the simulation is detailed enough. However, a
program like The Sims isn't actually simulating physical bodies to any
significant degree. There are other video games, like first-person
shooters, that do some physics simulation when it comes to destructible
environments, but they don't actually do a detailed physics simulation
for the character avatars. That's why their feet often pass through
objects they're walking over. You'd have to design a far more detailed
physics simulation to provide a sense of embodiment for an AI, but it
should certainly be possible.

Your novella made me look at my own experience raising two young
kids in a fresh light, which is one of the indicators that the story
served it's purpose, in my book. The sense of touch is essential for the
emotional health of kids. Could you elaborate on the role of touch in
the world of the AIs in your story?

The AIs enjoy being touched, but that's a deliberate decision on
the part of their designers; it's a way to make them appealing to their
owners. There are some autistic children who don't like being touched,
and that's hard for their parents, because parents like hugging their
kids. And given the choice between a pet that enjoys being touched and
one that doesn't, most people would choose one that enjoys it. Touch is
important to people, so if you want to encourage an emotional bond
between humans and AIs, if you want people to want to spend time with
them, you should make touch important to AIs too.

In 'A Primate's Memoir' Robert Sapolsky details his highly
emotional connections with the troop of African baboons he studied. Did
you read any primatological works while preparing your novella?

I didn't read about primates in the wild, but I did read about the
chimpanzees who'd been taught sign language. They were famous for a
while, but you don't usually hear about what happened to them after the
language studies were over. Some were sent to medical labs for
experimental use. The case I was most interested in was a chimpanzee
named Lucy; the humans who'd been teaching her couldn't find a chimp
sanctuary that would take her, so they decided to send her to Africa,
even though she'd lived her entire life among humans and never seen the
jungle before. A grad student named Janis Carter went with her to help
her adjust to life in the wild. Janis Carter was supposed to stay there
just a few weeks, but pretty quickly she realized that that wasn't going
to be enough. She spent years teaching Lucy how to live outdoors and
forage for food. Ultimately Lucy died because she wasn't able to adapt
to the wild, but I was really struck by Janis Carter's commitment; here
was someone who didn't even like camping, and she changed her entire
life in order to help Lucy. How many people would be willing to do that
for someone who isn't a human being?

Finally, are you planning on printing 'Exhalation' on copper sheets?

Ha! I suppose it could be done. That would be a very cool art
object or an interesting limited edition. I don't think I'm famous
enough to warrant such an expensive endeavor, but I would be thrilled if
someone did it.

Thank you

You're welcome.

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