Astral Weeks: Ted Chiang’s mental travelers
Not a short story, not quite a novella — wasn’t that a Britney Spears song? — the oxymoronic long short story is an underemployed literary form. (For argument’s sake, let’s say the long short story ranges from 30 to 60 pages.) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (1922) is a perfect example of the length’s virtues: the story, covering the whole of a character’s life, is ample enough to be divided into chapters, yet the execution retains an antic swiftness that lofts the bizarre premise. Contemporary practitioners who thrive at this length include Alice Munro, Ethan Canin and the underread Rachel Ingalls.
To this list must be added Ted Chiang, whose “Stories of Your Life and Others” (Small Beer Press: 320 pp., $16 paper) contains a half-dozen such specimens, along with a regulation-length short story and a three-pager, commissioned by the magazine Nature, in the form of a letter to the editor of a science magazine. Originally published in 2002 by Tor and newly reissued by Small Beer Press, the stories range widely in time, subject and style but are united by a patient but ruthless fascination with the limits of knowledge.
In a genre brimming with more-is-more-ists, Chiang is notable for his sparse publication history. The first story in this book appeared in 1990 (remember Omni?), the last in 2002, with only three additional fictions appearing since then. In fact, he has more awards (including multiple Hugos and Nebulas) than published works, suggesting he’s that rare writer who waits until a story reaches its ideal state before releasing it into the world. (Chiang’s even rarer than that: He actually turned down a Hugo nomination for the final story in this volume, the polyphonic “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” because he wasn’t satisfied with how it came out.)
The first story, “Tower of Babylon,” is a boldly conceived Borgesian fantasy about the biblical undertaking to build a tower up to heaven, with an ending at once inevitable and jolting. “Were the tower to be laid down across the plain of Shinar,” it begins, “it would be two days’ journey to walk from one end to the other.” Contemplate that: how far you would walk in two days. Then imagine that distance upended heavenward. Then dilate on the fact that, for the tower builders, it would take even more time to ascend: “Four months pass between the day a brick is loaded onto a cart, and the day it is taken off to form a part of the tower.” The strangeness of the account in Genesis is made fresh again via thoughtful expansion, as Chiang’s characters contemplate the logistics of construction and marvel at the strange new territory they enter.
In the biblical account, God destroys the tower and confuses the language of men. Chiang sidesteps that conclusion, but “Tower of Babylon’s” placement at the start of the collection is significant, considering how obsessed with language the next five stories are. They are obsessed not in the sense of lexical complexity — Chiang’s prose is always lucid — but in their exploration of the meaning and uses of language. The inventive scenarios make such potentially dry material come alive. “Understand” takes an intelligence-building conceit (à la Daniel Keyes’ short story-turned-novel “Flowers for Algernon”) and builds on the conceit itself. The protagonist, Leon, doesn’t just gain massive amounts of IQ after submitting to experimental " hormone K therapy,” but aims straight for the godhead. Its 40 pages have the pace and tension of a crackling spy movie, as Leon’s insight into his condition and that of the world deepens. The sentences tremble with the excitement of discovery while simultaneously reflecting his increasing disdain for society’s proles (that is, everyone else). Paranoia is close at hand: “I could detect clandestine ploys everywhere if I kept informed about current events,” Leon thinks, “but none of them would be interesting.”
“Understand” is a convincing trip into the mind of an untrammeled genius; it’s also the funniest story in the book. Leon’s old friends ask if he wants to see a movie, but his preference is for a spot of rarefied theater, a “monologue in verse” that “alternates between four different meters.” Later, he tries his hand at his own brand of supersaturated poetry, “employing six modern and four ancient languages……Each line of the poem contains neologisms, born by extruding words through the declensions of another language.” And then it comes time for him to develop an entirely “new language,” as all the human ones are too paltry to serve as viable forms of expression. The description of awesome mental superiority veers tantalizingly close to a portrait of insanity:
"[The language] is gestalt oriented, rendering it beautifully suited for thought, but impractical for writing or speech. It wouldn’t be transcribed in the form of words arranged linearly, but as a giant ideogram, to be absorbed as a whole.…The intricacy of each ideogram would be commensurate with the amount of information contained; I amuse myself with the notion of a colossal ideogram that describes the entire universe.”
In “Story of Your Life,” Chiang transposes this conceit to a bittersweet key. Here, a linguist deciphers the ornate language of extraterrestrial “heptapods,” rendered in “semagrams” that resemble “fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Eschereque lattice, each slightly different in its stance.” The sentence structure turns out to be like nothing on Earth, a “nonlinear system of orthography” with words “melted together” and rotated in such a way that time is effectively scrambled.
One of the human observers calls the heptapodic language “highly neat,” and the same could be said about this 1998 heartbreaker, which alternates an alien-contact narrative with a more recognizably “realistic” one, addressed to a daughter (“you”) who is, or will be, mourned. The bravura structure and ideas are in the service of character and story; the excitement of first contact and the intellectual thrill of deciphering a completely foreign tongue can never erase a mother’s loss. The toggling of time frames and the unexpected variety of verb tenses (“Your eyes will be blue like your dad’s”; “I remember when you’re fourteen”) keep “Story of Your Life” a living thing, fresh and surprising, akin to the semagrams that Chiang so lavishly describes. In this way language itself becomes a life preserver.
Park is the author of the novel “Personal Days.” Astral Weeks appears monthly at https://www.latimes.com/books.