Link and Comments: Ted Chiang interview

Ted Chiang is a science fiction writer who since 1990 has published a couple dozen works of short fiction (and no novel), gathered in just two books: Stories of Your Life and Others (2002), and Exhalation (2019). I’m certain he holds the record for highest ratio of awards won to stories published (see Ted Chiang Titles at The novella “Story of Your Life,” included in the first book, was the basis for the film Arrival.

A couple days ago on the New York Times site appeared a long interview of Chiang by Ezra Klein, formerly of Vox (and author of Why We’re Polarized, reviewed here a couple months ago).

I blogged recently about wise men.

Excerpts from the interview (from the transcript):

About Clarke’s law about magic and technology:

So, when people quote the Arthur C. Clarke line, they’re mostly talking about marvelous phenomena, that technology allows us to do things that are incredible and things that, in the past, would have been described as magic, simply because they were marvelous and inexplicable. But one of the defining aspects of technology is that eventually, it becomes cheaper, it becomes available to everybody. So things that were, at one point, restricted to the very few are suddenly available to everybody. Things like television — when television was first invented, yeah, that must have seemed amazing, but now television is not amazing because everyone has one. Radio is not amazing. Computers are not amazing. Everyone has one.

Magic is something which, by its nature, never becomes widely available to everyone. Magic is something that resides in the person and often is an indication that the universe sort of recognizes different classes of people, that there are magic wielders and there are non-magic wielders. That is not how we understand the universe to work nowadays. That reflects a kind of premodern understanding of how the universe worked. But since the Enlightenment, we have moved away from that point of view. And a lot of people miss that way of looking at the world, because we want to believe that things happen to us for a reason, that the things that happen to you are, in some way, tied to the things you did.

(This relates to my take on the difference between science fiction and fantasy.)

About the transition, in the history of science, from alchemy to chemistry:

So, one of the things that people often associate with alchemy is the attempt to transmute lead into gold. And of course, this is appealing because it seems like a way to create wealth, but for the alchemists, for a lot of Renaissance alchemists, the goal was not so much a way to create wealth as it was a kind of spiritual purification, that they were trying to transform some aspect of their soul from base to noble. And that transformation would be accompanied by some physical analog, which was transmuting lead into gold. And so, yeah, you would get gold, which is cool, but you would also have purified your soul. That was, in a lot of ways, the primary goal.

And that is an example, I think, of this general idea that the intentions or the spiritual nature of the practitioner was an essential element in chemical reactions, that you needed to be pure of heart or you needed to concentrate really hard in order for the reaction to work. And it turns out that is not true.

–My take is that fantasy is about imagining that human perceptions and imaginations, not actual study, about reality are true. Fantasy is all about wish-fulfillment, which is why so many fantasy novels are about the struggle to reinstate the lost fantasy of the world.

Going on about this same point:

Chemical reactions work completely independently of what the practitioner wants or feels or whether they are virtuous or malign. So, the parts of alchemy which ignored that spiritual component, those eventually became chemistry. And the parts of alchemy which relied on the spiritual components of the practitioner were all proven to be false. And so, in some ways, the transition from alchemy to chemistry is a recognition of the fundamentally impersonal nature of the universe.

Yes, exactly.

Much more here, about how the alliance between science and religion is closer than that between science and engineering; about the spectrum between metaphorical and literal science fiction; about superhero movies (“So superheroes basically are magic.”); about free will; about whether you would want to know the date of your death; and about the potential, and limitations, of artificial intelligence.

And at the end Chiang has book and video game recommendations. (On his recommendation, I’ve ordered the book by Annie Dillard.)

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