Like a lot of people in Seattle, I heard Ted Chiang's name years before I read my first Ted Chiang story.
See, it happens like this: if you attend enough sci-fi readings in the greater Seattle area, you're likely going to run into some of Seattle's many sci-fi writers. It's a tight-knit group, and they show up for other writers' readings with a commitment and an enthusiasm that would make some of the city's fair-weather poets blush. And for many years now, Seattle's sci-fi community has held Ted Chiang in very, very high esteem.
In fact, I'd say that Chiang was Seattle's best-kept writing secret, except every sci-fi writer in town has been singing his praises to anyone who'll listen for as long as I can remember. Chiang writes short sci-fi stories, and these stories are so clever and deeply felt that they make acolytes of anyone who's deeply versed in the history and culture of science fiction. For many years, the only way to read Chiang's work was to encounter it in a genre magazine, and any magazine that published a new Chiang story instantly became a bestseller in the sci-fi community. They were rabid, always wanting more.
I've never liked the term "writer's writer," but Chiang was perhaps the best living example of the phrase that I've ever known. Sci-fi writers were his most ardent fans. They'd talk about him to each other with loving gleams in their eyes. Chiang could often be found in the back rows of Clarion West events with an adoring crowd of sci-fi nerds surrounding him, soaking in his every word. Writers loved him, and because he had no novels to his name, his talent was not evident to the mainstream. You had to be the kind of hardcore sci-fi fan who kept up on the genre magazines to really know what was up.
But Chiang is certainly not "just" a writer's writer. His first book of short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others, was well-regarded on its release, but collections are a hard sell to the general public. The thing that really turned Chiang from a secret into a celebrity was the adaptation of Stories' title story into a gorgeous and heartbreaking 2016 film called Arrival. Chiang's publisher smartly repackaged Stories under the title Arrival with a movie-tie in cover, and suddenly that mainstream success was at hand.
This year, Chiang has published his second collection: Exhalation: Stories. This time, the world noticed. The book is selling briskly, just based on Chiang's name alone. And it's an even better example of the genius that made Chiang an underground icon among Seattle's sci-fi community for nearly two decades. For many of you out there reading this, Exhalation will likely be your favorite short story collection — of any genre — to be published this year. It's certainly the most enjoyable story collection I've read in recent memory.
Ours is an age in which every sci-fi author is openly encouraged to pad out their ideas into trilogies and prequels and ongoing series of books, in order to exploit an ever-shrinking audience of fanatics. Any one of Chiang's ideas could be stretched out into trilogies of their own, but he's a brilliant miniaturist. Four of Chiang's pages are the equivalent of 400 pages in the hands of typical authors.
I didn't choose four pages lightly — the best, most bewitching story in Exhalation is titled "What's Expected of Us," and in just four pages Chiang delivers a novel thought experiment on the idea of free will. It's a story that builds your expectation in a matter of seconds and then breaks that expectation into gravel in the final paragraphs. "What's Expected of Us" revolves around a new gadget called a Predictor. It's just a button and a light in a little handheld widget. The hitch? "Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button."
Most people say that when they first try it, it feels like they're playing a strange game, one where the goal is to press the button after seeing the flash, and it's easy to play. But when you try to break the rules, you find that you can't. If you try to press the button without having seen a flash, the flash immediately appears, and no matter how fast you move, you never push the button until a second has elapsed. If you wait for the flash, intending to keep from pressing the button afterward, the flash never appears. No matter what you do, the light always precedes the button press. There's no way to fool a Predictor.
It's a perverted twist to one of those faddish app-based games that obsess people for a week or two, only the Predictor discredits the idea of free will. And society begins to suffer for it. By the end of the story — again, just three pages later — the reader will wonder if they're turning pages of their own accord, or if they were always destined to be lost in Chiang's words.
Every one of these stories takes a familiar science fiction concept — time travel, artificial intelligence, human-animal communication, parallel universes — and finds something new to say. But unlike the continual letdown of, say, Black Mirror, where a novel idea often meanders into familiar territory, there is not a single misstep, not a cliche, in all of Exhalation. You can understand why Chiang has been an idol of sci-fi writers for so long, and you're likely to be impressed that he has stayed so consistently brilliant for such a long time.
Make no mistake: Hollywood is very likely to start plumbing the depths of Chiang's stories in exactly the same way it has strip-mined Philip K. Dick's fiction over the last few years. Some of these adaptations, like Arrival, will be stunning. Others will likely be terrible. But we can't let the celebration of Chiang's work obscure his talent. This is a writer who has thrived in obscurity for too long to let a little annoyance like success get in his way.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant