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Books

The Perfectionist

Ted Chiang’s science fiction wins piles of awards. When he publishes, which is hardly ever.

Ted Chiang is frozen in thought. A bright-orange clementine sits half-peeled in his hands. My tape recorder, parked on the dining-room table of his home in a quiet, woodsy suburb of Seattle, vacuums up five seconds of silence, now ten, now 15. To have a conversation with Chiang, I’m finding, is to speak with a man who weighs every word as carefully as a jeweler, and who isn’t afraid to pause until he’s found the right one.

So perhaps it’s appropriate that Chiang is currently pondering the question of why he isn’t a more prolific writer. In fact, over a career that spans a quarter century, he has published just 14 short stories — one every two years, give or take.

“I don’t get that many ideas that I know how to turn into stories,” he explains at last, smiling affably. At 47, Chiang still has the unlined face of a 20-something; the gray streaks in his black ponytail offer the only visible evidence of his age. Another ten seconds pass in silence. The failing autumnal light outside seems to grow a shade dimmer. “And writing is very hard for me. When I do get an idea that I know how to turn into a story, it still takes me a long time to actually do it.”

Your local bookstore probably doesn’t carry Chiang’s only story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, and the average fan of cyberpunk or Battlestar Galactica likely has no clue who he is. Yet despite his anonymity among the mainstream science-fiction crowd, Chiang has quietly dominated the genre’s highest awards for two decades: At last count, he has netted four Nebulas, four Hugos, one Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and four Locus awards, among many others — all with an oeuvre that wouldn’t even strain the covers of one mid-size book.

More remarkable still, Chiang has been able to pull this off not by leaning on sci-fi staples like talking spaceships and interstellar war, but by crafting carefully considered, deeply researched parables that use scientific concepts to illuminate the human condition. One story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” employs the Novikov self-consistency principle — which holds that a time traveler could never change the events of the past or future — to explore how we deal with regret; another, “Exhalation,” is an inventive meditation on death that Chiang describes as “a story about entropy.” They’re entertaining, imaginative tales that leave you feeling smarter by the time you reach the last line.

“Sometimes, people who read my work tell me, ‘I like it, but it’s not really science fiction, is it?’” he says. “And I always feel like, no, actually, my work is exactly science fiction.” After Star Wars forever made the genre synonymous with what Chiang calls “adventure stories dressed up with lasers,” people forgot that science fiction includes the word “science” for a reason: It is supposed to be largely about exploring the boundaries of knowledge, he says. “All the things I do in my work — engaging in thought experiments, investigating philosophical questions — those are all things that science fiction does.”

Growing up on Long Island, where his father was an engineering professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, Chiang fell in love with sci-fi and began submitting his stories to magazines at 15. He doggedly produced new ones all through his college years at Brown University, but not a single publication bit.

Demoralized by his growing stack of rejection slips, Chiang considered abandoning fiction entirely after graduation, when he moved to Seattle to take a job as a technical writer at Microsoft. A short stint at the sci-fi- and fantasy-focused Clarion Writers’ Workshop convinced him to keep at it, however, and soon enough, his persistence paid off: In 1990, Omni published his story “Tower of Babylon.” That part, at least, was gratifying. What Chiang was less prepared for was the ensuing avalanche of glory dumped upon him, including his first Nebula Award.

“It was a surreal experience,” he says, tucking his hands into the opposite sleeve openings of his pale-blue cardigan, Obi-Wan Kenobi–style, and sinking into another long Chiang-ian pause. “I don’t want to say that winning a Nebula was a bad thing or that I wish I hadn’t. But it definitely threw me for a loop.”

Anxiety about how he would follow up his debut paralyzed Chiang for years; throughout the early ’90s, he pecked out a furtive sentence every now and then but primarily focused on his work at Microsoft, writing reference materials for computer programmers. What finally broke him out of this creative malaise was an idea for a story about a woman tasked with deciphering an alien language — one so radically different from ours that it alters the way she perceives the world.

“When I initially had that idea, I realized not only that I had to learn a lot of linguistics for it but also that I wasn’t technically good enough to write the story I had in mind,” he says. So for more than four years, Chiang studied linguistics, honed his writing, and planned out every detail of his story. “I should tell you, I’m not recommending this approach to anyone,” he laughs. “That’s just how it happened.”

The result of this long gestation was 1998’s “Story of Your Life,” a mind-bending meditation on physics, free will, language, and motherhood. The novella went on to win an armful of major sci-fi awards, and Chiang soon settled into a writing routine. He now spends half his time on his technical-writing work, which he says he enjoys because he likes explaining things, and devotes the other half to fiction — a system that has the added advantage of freeing him from the economic pressure that other writers face, thereby allowing him to work on whatever he wants, for as long as he wants.

Nearly 20 years after its publication, “Story of Your Life” is now set to bring Chiang more potentially unnerving attention than that first award did: Early this year, the director Denis Villeneuve is scheduled to begin filming a $50 million adaptation of the story, with Amy Adams as the lead. Hollywood, of course, has left legions of authors disappointed with how their work was translated to film, few of them as exacting as Chiang — a man who once declined a Hugo nomination because the story hadn’t turned out how he wished. Yet if anything, he seems bemused by the prospect.

“Before they came to me, I wouldn’t have said it was even possible to make ‘Story of Your Life’ into a movie,” he says. “It’s not something that really made sense to me, so that means I’m not as invested in it as I would be if I had always been dreaming about this movie.”

Once again, Chiang pauses. Ten seconds pass. He pushes his rimless glasses up his nose. Fifteen seconds. I begin to wonder if he’s mulling some deeply esoteric point about the nature of film adaptation or dreams or the quantum physics of narrative. Twenty seconds. Chiang smiles.

“I hope it gets made,” he says. “I hope it’s good.”