Ted Chiang is probably best known for his short story “Story of Your Life”, which was the basis of the film Arrival. He is an American science fiction writer who has won numerous awards including 4 Hugo awards and 4 Nebula awards. He was born in New York in 1967. Both his parents were born in China and during the Chinese Communist Revolution. His work is heavily science-based and uses many ideas taken from the latest advances in science pushed to an extreme. He forces the reader to see the world in a new light, with advances in technology or strange devices used to give a different view of humanity. This work explores such concepts as virtual reality, parallel universes, free will (versus determinism) and time travel.
This is a collection of his latest short stories. The book gets off to a great start with “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”, which is a tale of a door at the back of an antique shop which allows a person to travel in time. The door is not without its restrictions as you are only able to travel is fixed distance into the past or the future, depending on which side of the door you are on. All the characters break one of the most important rules of time travel, as they visit themselves and try to change their future. The story deals with characters trying to escape a fixed fate, which is impossible to avoid no matter how they try!
Another story that caught the imagination was the sprawling ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ which followed a bunch of characters who adopt a virtual pet. These creatures are not fixed in time though and continue to grow and evolve. There are a number of moral dilemmas about the continued existence of these creatures and what rights they have. We are forced to consider are these creatures actually alive and at what point we have to treat them like any other life form.
Another story “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” deals with a device called a prism. This device allows interaction between people in alternate realities. Once the prism is turned on, it causes a divergence between two timelines. In one version the light is red and in the other the light is blue. As time continues there is a divergence between the two-time lines. The story allows the reader to see what could happen due to a variety of simple decisions we make every day.
There are 9 stories in total and each covers some very different ground. At the end of each story, we get an Author’s note from Chiang explaining the concepts he wanted to explore and what was the inspiration of the piece. It is very obvious that Chiang is heavily involved with concepts and ideas. This does come at the expense of character and you don’t feel any real empathy with the characters. They are merely tools which allow the story to explore different concepts. It is always difficult to give characters in story stories any real depth due to their inherent brevity but that is not the aim of these stories. Chiang is fascinated by science and its potential to change the world around us. The moral dilemmas and philosophical debates that these new creations generate are his main point of interest.