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Ted Chiang: Scientific Method

Ted Chiang was born in Port Jefferson NY. He studied physics and computer science in college, but gave up on the former when he decided he didn’t want a life in academia. He graduated from Brown University with a CS degree, and attended Clarion the same year. After college, he took a job in Seattle as a technical writer in the computer industry, writing software documentation, and has worked there ever since.

While Chiang is not a prolific writer, he is an influential and significant one, winning or being nominated for most of the major genre awards. First story ‘‘Tower of Babylon’’ (1990) won a Nebula Award and was a Hugo finalist; ‘‘Understand’’ (1991) was a Hugo nominee; ‘‘Story of Your Life’’ (1998) won a Nebula Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and was a Hugo nominee; ‘‘Seventy-Two Letters’’ (2000) won the Sidewise Award and was nominated for Sturgeon, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards; ‘‘Hell Is the Absence of God’’ (2001) won the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Awards, and was a Sturgeon Award finalist; ‘‘Liking What You See: A Documentary’’ (2002) was a Sturgeon finalist and made the Tiptree Award shortlist; ‘‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’’ (2007) won Hugo and Nebula Awards and was a Sturgeon finalist; and ‘‘Exhalation’’ (2008) won the Hugo and British Science Fiction Awards. His most recent work, and his longest story yet, novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects, was a Nebula Award nominee, and is this year’s winner of the Locus Award. Much of his short fiction was collected in Stories of Your Life and Others (2007), winner of a Locus Award and a Mythopoeic Award finalist, and he won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1992.

Chiang lives in Bellevue WA with his partner Marcia Glover.

Wikipedia: Ted Chiang

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I wrote The Lifecycle of Software Objects partly out of a long-standing dissatisfaction I’ve had with the way artificial intelligence has been depicted in science fiction: as a very useful butler, an idealized servant who does whatever you want and is hyper-competent but servile. Maybe the AI will make some snarky remarks, just to throw in some color (in the same way you might depict a butler making snarky remarks), but he remains your absolutely loyal servant.


“We do know a lot more than Lester del Rey or Isaac Asimov did when they were writing their robot stories. I have no criticism of their depictions of robots because back then, they didn’t know what a transistor was. But today, even though we know a lot more about computers than Asimov did, many standard assumptions in our depictions of artificial intelligence date back to a time like that of Asimov’s robots. For example, technological obsolescence was not that big an issue in the ’40s. If you had something made out of steel, that could last a good long time; it was not going to be replaced by Version 3.1. We didn’t have experience with the pace of computer technology. Now we do, but our depictions of artificial intelligence don’t really reflect that; there’s no acknowledgement of how short product lifecycles are now.

‘‘The reality of computers today does not resemble the science-fictional depictions of AI at all. We have Google, we have the iPhone, and they are almost freakishly useful. In the past, if you tried to describe a computer being as useful as those things you would certainly have envisioned it as a conscious robot butler, but it turns out that software can be useful to us without being conscious. In a lot of ways, it’s probably preferable having unconscious Google rather than a conscious butler.”


‘‘I consider most of my work science fiction, even the stories that look like fantasy. To me, what makes a story science fiction is not whether the universe has the same laws as our universe or not, but whether it is a universe in which the scientific method works. That is a more interesting distinction for me. By that criterion, ‘Exhalation’ is a science fiction story, even though its universe bears no resemblance to ours. The same is true for ‘72 Letters’, and for ‘Tower of Babylon’.

‘‘’Exhalation’ is about conceptual breakthrough (to use the term from The Science Fiction Encyclopedia). It’s a way of describing scientific discovery and the experience of gaining a greater understanding of the universe. Recapturing the experience of conceptual breakthrough, dramatizing that, is one of the things science fiction is good at. You can just as easily do that in a completely made-up universe with a totally different set of physical laws. The underlying process is the same, and I still think of it as scientific investigation.”


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