Ted Chiang (image: Kate Joyce)

As an intellectually restless high school student in the 1980s, Ted Chiang took a break from the science fiction giants Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke to read, just for tickles, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. It’s not quite right to say the book launched Chiang’s celebrated science fiction writing career. By then, the bookish teenager had already been submitting stories to magazines. But Feynman’s passage on the Principle of Least Action did spark the idea for “Story of Your Life,” the short story that would make him the internationally renowned writer he is today. It would just take him another decade or so to get there. 

Chiang is the author of 14 short stories and two novellas that together have won 27 major writing prizes. His stories are often thought experiments that explore ideas perched at the confluence of scientific disciplines that, at first blush, may seem unrelated: behavioral science and software engineering; linguistics and physics; dendrochronology and cosmology. He holds his pieces together with emotionally rich narratives written with tautness and intentionality. The results linger long after reading. The New Yorker called Chiang, “one of the most influential science writers of his generation.” The New York Journal of Books said, “His writing shows how crucial written fiction still is.” The Washington Post called his stories, “a fusion of pure intellect and molten emotion.” 

In the winter of 2022, Chiang joined the Santa Fe Institute as a Miller Scholar, a position held by highly accomplished creative thinkers. It will be the first period in his writing career that Chiang spends substantial time with scientists. He has never interviewed a scientist for any of his stories despite the fact that, because of their fidelity to scientific ideas, they often read like they were written by one. “My understanding of science comes entirely from the written word,” Chiang says. Just as SFI’s scientists can’t predict what fresh perspective they might glean from conversations with Chiang, Chiang can’t predict whether those conversations will spur him to write new stories. He writes only when inspired. 

Feynman’s Principle of Least Action describes the idea (loosely) that with a specified beginning and an endpoint, physicists can determine all that happened in between. When Chiang read about it, he wanted to represent the Principle through science fiction. But the “bolt of lightning” that actually inspired him to write didn’t arrive until a decade later. By then, Chiang had graduated from Brown with a degree in Computer Science and had moved to Bellevue, Washington, where he was working as a technical writer at Microsoft. One night in Seattle, he attended a solo performance by Paul Linke, the American television actor, called “Time Flies When You’re Alive.” Among other things, it was about Linke’s experience watching his wife die of breast cancer. 

“Brutal,” Chiang recalls. “They both knew how it was going to end.” He conceived of a story that told about confronting the inevitable and questioned how it might feel to know the future but be unable to change it. His main character would be a linguist who develops a different conception of time through her translation of an alien language, and through her new fluency, learns that her yet-to-be-conceived daughter will die young.

Chiang didn’t start writing the story for five more years. “It’s a very tough story to write on a technical level, and I probably wasn’t up to the task yet,” he says. Instead, he honed his skills and taught himself linguistics. When “Story of Your Life” was published in 1998, it won the prestigious Nebula, the Theodore Sturgeon, and the Seiun awards. “I’d been a nobody for my entire career,” Chiang says. He’d found success in his niche. It would take almost two decades more to find success outside of it.    

Back in 2014, Chiang’s stories were being printed by Small Beer Press, an indie publisher out of Massachusetts owned by Gavin Grant and the well-known fantasy writer Kelly Link. One day, Link and Grant told Chiang, “Your work could find a larger audience.” At their prodding, Chiang found an agent who took his collection to New York publishing houses. Over the next couple years, Paramount released a $47 million adaptation of “Story of Your Life,” the Oscar-nominated film Arrival that starred Amy Adams, and Chiang secured a contract with Vintage and reviews in national publications. He’d gone mainstream — one of the few science fiction writers to do so. 

Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, Exhalation, was published by Vintage in 2019. A national bestseller, six of its nine stories have won major prizes. In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” Chiang asks how “parents” who raise their digital creatures with the same love and attention as human parents would respond to their charge’s right to self-determination. In “What’s Expected of Us,” he argues that the existence of a device that flashes a light one second before a button is pushed demonstrates that free will is an illusion. The stories in Exhalation display Chiang’s curiosity and ability to explore scientific concepts that, as in all his work, are entirely self-taught.

Last summer, the normally reclusive writer took a more personal approach to contemplating big ideas when he joined a conference at SFI. The meeting had been convened to consider what a theory on life’s origins needed. What were the physical limitations of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? Could intelligent life be constructed with different sets of molecular building blocks or did carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen need to be present for life to conjure? Chiang had been invited to offer an artistic perspective on the interface between intelligence and life. 

On a monsoonal afternoon, he sat in a conference room in Santa Fe with comparative and synthetic biologists, cosmologists, theorists, other writers, and experts on intelligence — all discussing in language grounded in the expertise of their respective disciplines one of humankind’s oldest questions: Are we really alone in the universe? The scene could have been lifted from one of Chiang’s own stories, except that this time, he was a central character. 

Will the experience inspire him to write? “I really can’t know,” Chiang says. But, for the first time in his writing career, Chiang has license to discuss science with scientists — to contemplate science’s future alongside those defining it.