Thursday, November 11, 2010

Let the Healing Begin

While reading Stories of your life and Others Nanga Fakir was reminded of Greg Egan and in particular, of the story collection Luminous. This is tall praise indeed for the remarkable Ted Chiang who's admitted to being inspired by Egan. (For the uninitiated, Greg Egan is probably among the most brilliant talents in the contemporary science fiction world. In particular, the short story Reasons to be Cheerful by Egan is one of the best short stories NF has ever read - all genres, all time periods, all langugages included.)

Ted Chiang is not what you'd call a prolific writer. In over twenty years of writing career, he's written only a handful of short stories, but nearly all of them have met with overwhelming critical acclaim and have been showered with literary prizes left, right and center. Indeed, a small body of output need not detract from the artistic merit of the creator in any way. Examples of Indian Ocean, Rohinton Mistry, Andrei Tarkovsky, William H Gass, Terence Mallick come almost immediately to mind.

Science Fiction can be of many varieties. Look for example at William Gibson. His stories are terse, prose somewhat minimalistic and themes mostly sociological - how science/technology permeates societies, how the street finds its own uses for things, about the evolution of the common sphere where technology and human society intersect and the evolution of artificial intelligence and how the aforementioned process parallels human evolution. Another example is Neal Stephenson who writes sprawling, interminable novels (both Cryptonomicon and Anathem are close to a thousand pages with the former being his magnum opus and the latter a not-so-satisfying experience) which deal with his preoccupation with overly grandiose themes - philosophy, mathematics, technology and economics with complex storylines that integrate these disparate thematic influences into one unified whole. Philip K Dick focused on metaphysical themes and his not very lit and sometimes outright pulpy literary output was characterized by simple but thought provoking plotlines, twist endings, druggy atmospherics and obsession with pop culture, advertising and paranoia. Asimov and his cohorts were technological utopians - J G Ballard - the exact opposite.

Ted Chiang's fiction however, is not grandiose, or with a hidden agenda of its own. It is in fact deceptive in its utter, utter simplicity and straightforwardness. His best stories are nothing but thought experiments - not very clever or convoluted or look-at-me-how-smart-I-am type. And his stories have a component that is very, very rare in science fiction - indeed in most genre fiction (which is why even mediocre, run-of-the-mill literary fiction writers turn up their noses at genre fiction) - that of a lively, throbbing, understated but readily identifiable human connection in its simple, unobtrusive, unassuming, even self-effacing, turning-attention-away-from-itself prose.

The best stories in his collection are Hell is the absence of God, Liking what you see: A documentary and the eponymous Story of your Life. There are some very deep issues explored in these stories from a remarkably fresh, wonderfully new perspective. NF is tempted to include blurbish introduction to these stories but realizes the spoiler potential of this exercise and so decides to refrain from the same. Nevertheless, he recommends all and sundry to indulge in this edification program and follow the writer; and to those who're not shy from trying their own hand at writing science fiction, there's probably no other writer whose stories will make you think harder and from whom you'll learn more fruitfully than Chiang.

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