Monday, November 21, 2016

Ted Chiang: the author behind 'Arrival'

Many reviewers didn't get 'Arrival'. Film reviewer Camilla Long, in the Sunday Times, wrote (about the heroine, Louise Banks):
"And what sort of a character is Banks, beyond a lightly concerned librarian type who is right-on enough to ask: “Am I the only person not having trouble with saying ‘aliens’”? Since we desperately need a second act, she is also given a dead child. So she is not a brilliant and calm intellectual, but the sad mother of a deceased daughter, the fate of so many too-clever women in films (see also: Sandra Bullock’s Dr Ryan Stone in Gravity). Banks is doomed not only to moping and grief, but to the grim attentions of Donnelly, a peerlessly one-dimensional nobody."
If she had read Ted Chiang's short story, "Story of Your Life", she would have realised what was really going on, why the daughter is so central to the plot.

"Story of Your Life" is better than the film. It's tighter, more austere, and more enigmatic. There's a science-based foundation to the plot (the Calculus of Variations has a starring role) which you can see wouldn't have made it out of the script review.

Here are some facts about Ted Chiang (from Wikipedia):
"Chiang was born in Port Jefferson, New York. He graduated from Brown University with a computer science degree and in 1989 graduated from the Clarion Writers Workshop. He currently works as a technical writer in the software industry and resides in Bellevue, Washington, near Seattle.

"Although not a prolific author, having published only 15 short stories, novelettes, and novellas as of 2015, Chiang had to that date won a string of prestigious speculative fiction awards for his works:

  • a Nebula Award for "Tower of Babylon" (1990); 
  • the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1992; 
  • a Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Award for "Story of Your Life" (1998); 
  • a Sidewise Award for "Seventy-Two Letters" (2000); 
  • a Nebula Award, Locus Award, and Hugo Award for his novelette "Hell Is the Absence of God" (2002); 
  • a Nebula and Hugo Award for his novelette "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" (2007); 
  • a British Science Fiction Association Award, a Locus Award, and the Hugo Award for Best Short Story for "Exhalation" (2009); 
  • a Hugo Award and Locus Award for his novella "The Lifecycle of Software Objects" (2010).
I've now read a few of his stories: some are very good - "Understand" and "Story of Your Life" particularly impressed, although the former was a little too long.

Ted Chiang's work might remind people of Greg Egan, although his science is post-graduate rather than post-doctoral 😊.

His writing is quintessential INTP: calm, detached and observational. A lack of strong characterisation leads to longueurs in his more elaborated pieces; I found myself skipping towards the end of "The Lifecycle of Software Objects", filled though it is with interesting and insightful extrapolations.

How do science-fiction authors pay the bills - especially those who don't publish much (and whose published work is mostly available free online)? I guess the film rights helped but I wonder how many software executives who deal with Mr Chiang, technical writer, are aware of his alter ego?

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