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.)
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.
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
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
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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