Stories of Your Life and Others
Ted Chiang, 2002

This is actually a collection of short stories, so there's no single premise. What most of the stories have in common is that they explore what it would be like if a certain scientific principle were different: what if the universe really were geocentric, what if arithmetic were proven inconsistent, what if people could "remember" the future, what if preformationist biology were actually correct, and so forth. In short, this is science fiction whose claim to the word "science" is based on more than the mere fact of being set in the future.

This is an example of a type of fiction I do not like, but done sufficiently well that I enjoyed it anyway. People who do like this sort of thing probably think this dude is incredibly awesome. Why do I say it is a type of fiction that I do not like? Read on...

This book was sent to me by someone who has brought me in as a writer on a big project. One of the most interesting aspects of this project has been witnessing how other writers go about the business of coming up with stories and having my own practices analyzed by people who know whereof they speak.

Some of this metadiscussion has involved some Myers-Briggs terminology. I can already hear Stephen Bond retching, but some of the Myers-Briggs axes are useful in talking about differences between people. One is introversion vs. extroversion. (I am a classic introvert: interacting with other humans quickly drains my energy and I must go off by myself to recharge.) Another axis is judging vs. perceiving, which are dumb names but do form a useful distinction once you know what each category means. (I am way out at the far J end of the scale, meaning that I would much rather have things settled and decided than up in the air. Example: I am in the market for a new computer. I thought I knew which kind I would get, only to discover that it did not have the screen resolution I thought it had. Having my choice of computer back in flux was excruciating! I did research fairly obsessively until I finally decided on an alternative.)

I'll be really amused if it turns out that this is actually from North Korea and is about Kim Il Sung vs. Kim Jong Il
Then you have thinking vs. feeling. For most of my adult life, I have scored as an INXJ, at the exact midpoint of the T/F axis. There are a few ways of thinking about how T vs. F applies to writing. One has to do with process. Do you carefully plan out your story, discussing the pros and cons of various narrative choices — what segments of the audience will this alienate? should this sequence of events be reordered in order to convey information more efficiently? what would be a good piece of symbolism here? — or do you just... know what happens? I have always used the latter method. Yes, I do outline things before plunging in, but that's making a map of the territory after it has already coalesced; I don't consciously interfere with the plate tectonics. One thing about working on a project that multiple people are shaping is that while I'm perfectly happy to roll with someone else's changes, I can't be a useful contributor again until I've had some time to internalize the new version of the story. I can't just understand what happens intellectually — I have to be there.

But thinking vs. feeling also applies to content. A perfect example is the novel Contact and the movie that was made of it. The book was a T story: "So, if aliens did want to send a signal to Earth, it'd have to be something that could not be mistaken for a natural phenomenon, but which would also be meaningful throughout the universe... perhaps a series of pulses counting out prime numbers..." But the movie was an F story. It was about a girl hugging her knees to her chest and looking at the sky. That's one of the reasons I preferred it.

I'm all for literature that expects the reader to think. Most of my favorite books are fairly cerebral. Many of my current projects have political and philosophical themes. I've been known to play around with narratological conventions. But when I write, none of that stuff comes into play until I've got a grip on the core of the story. And the core of the story is character work. Exchanges between people. Girls having emotions. I'm thinking about all the stuff that I have in various stages of development, and when I finally felt like I had the pieces that gave me a grip on each story, and they're all like this: the look on the face of a girl in a dark blue winter coat as she stares into a window, the sound of a girl's breath as she gleefully whispers something into another girl's ear, the sound of a girl's shoes as she trudges up a half-melted street in a desert suburb. The stories grew out of those moments, F moments. I find it unlikely that I will ever write, as Chiang does in the afterword of this book, that "This story grew out of my interest in the variational principles of physics."

And this guy is apparently considered one of the giants of "humanist SF"! Yes, it's true that his stories are about how these scientific principles affect the lives of particular ordinary characters, and even involve (gasp) relationships, but... it's just so very clear that Chiang is coming at this entirely from a T place. One aspect of Chiang's writing that is very T is the way he tends to summarize rather than depict. "A young couple strolls by, the adoration of one bouncing off the tolerance of the other." Really? Show me. "Instead of sympathy, what Neil got from Sarah's parents was blame for her death." Oh? Show me. Let me feel it. Don't just tell me. Now, you can say that the short story format doesn't give Chiang time to turn these sentences into scenes, and that doing so would detract from the story he's trying to tell... but, man, fleshing out these sorts of moments is what storytelling is all about. Or, rather, it's what's F storytelling is all about. But the fact that it took me a moment to distinguish between the two suggests that perhaps I have a complete MBTI type after all.

And hey, it's the one that says I'm just like Gandhi! AWESOME

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