By Alexander Wallace
In the world of print science fiction there are few names more lauded than that of Ted Chiang, who, despite his breadth of vision, has never written a novel. His short fiction has won a variety of genre awards and has even gained some notoriety in more mainstream literary circles. He has thus far written two collections of short stories, most originally syndicated in magazines, entitled Stories of Your Life and Others and Exhalation. His story Story of Your Life and Others was the basis for the major motion picture Arrival.
Chiang writes an eclectic mixture of science fiction and very rigorous fantasy that has the analytical approach of a hard science fiction story; one such story examines the ramifications of biblical angels regularly interfering in humanity’s affairs. It is this sort of story that is the subject of this article, as he has written two such stories that are indisputably alternate history.
In Stories of Your Life and Others is a story originally published in 2001, entitled Seventy-Two Letters (I originally read it in the anthology Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer). Set among the backdrop of Victorian London, it is a world where the myths of the golems are reality, and their production has been refined to a science. There is talk of a “lexical universe” in which the true names of everything can be discovered, and used to create better golems. There are also luddites furious at the changes that an earlier age of automation has wrought, and kabbalistic mystics with their own intentions. There is also a scientist working to save humanity from a terrible fate, and his own search interacts with those of the golem scientists.
The other story I would like to bring to the community’s attention is one I have discussed before: his Omphalos, in Exhalation, was a nominee for the novelette category at the 2020 Hugo Awards, which I covered in an earlier article. This is a world in which medieval conceptions of the universe are entirely true: the sun revolves around the Earth, humanity was created by God in an instant, and the world was created in seven days. The plot revolves around an archaeologist in this world investigating a scientific discovery that will shake this intensely religious world to its very foundations.
What Ted Chiang brings to alternate history as a genre is an intense rigor in his speculations, to a level that isn’t seen in that sort of supernatural alternate history. He applies hard science fiction logic to a magical story, and in there creates something quite different from some of the more openly mystical alternate histories with fantastic elements. That’s what Chiang does best: breaking your assumptions through intense interrogation, and we could learn much from him.