This is the sequel to last week’s post about all the ways Ted Chiang’s book blows my mind and makes me want to be a better writer.
I’m aware that what follows may come across as overly critical, so let me start by reiterating that I really enjoyed these stories. They intrigued and surprised me, and made me feel like I was wrestling with some incredible intellectual notions.
If I’ve written more about what didn’t work for me than what did, it’s only because those were the aspects I felt best able to get a grip on when it comes to analysing why they affected me the way I did and applying those lessons to my own writing.
Again, this review contains very minor and non-specific spoilers – unless you’re reading the book right now, you should be fine.
Fiction of ideas – but not of people
Apart from the conceptual brilliance of his stories, the thing that struck me about Chiang’s work was how little I felt for most of his characters.
Chiang’s stories are very clearly concept-driven, not character-driven, and that’s fine – heaven knows his concepts have the horsepower for it – but as someone who enjoys writing (and reading) character-driven fiction, it was interesting to look at why I mostly didn’t feel a connection with the people in these stories.
Narrative distance – keeping the reader at arm’s length
Most of the stories in this collection maintain a large narrative distance between reader and the characters. There are a few ways they do this:
- The reader is told directly about characters’ thoughts and feelings, often in very dispassionate terms.
For instance, from the beginning of ‘Hell is the Absence of God’: “Neil was consumed with grief after [his wife] died, a grief that was excruciating not only because of its intrinsic magnitude, but because it also renewed and emphasized the previous pains in his life.”
Described this way, Neil’s suffering feels like something we’re reading about in a psychiatrist’s notes, rather than something real and immediate.
- Even the most dramatic moments are treated as a time for reflection.
Most of the challenges in these stories are cerebral in nature anyway, but even when someone is in an emotionally-intense situation – such as imminent risk of drowning – Chiang spends few words on characters’ emotional reactions, and far more on their thoughts about the nature of their situation.
No matter how dire the events, the characters – and therefore the reader – look on them primarily intellectually. This works well for exploring concepts, but not for creating an emotional connection between character and reader.
- At the most basic level, Chiang tends to use an extra layer of textual distancing to keep the reader out of characters’ heads.
I don’t know if there’s a proper name for this phenomenon (if you do, let me know in the comments!), but it’s what happens when an author writes “Stratton saw … that this pursuer had arrived” instead of simply “his pursuer had arrived”. Instead of letting the reader look through Stratton’s eyes, Chiang is positioning us somewhere outside his head, following his gaze instead of gazing with him.
Speaking as the author
Another aspect I noticed was that all of Chiang’s characters speak with the same voice – the authorial voice.
No one uses vernacular, has repetitive speech habits, or displays any other verbal tics that might make them feel like a separate person from the author. It’s a challenge I struggle with in my own writing, giving characters their own unique voice.
Their physical descriptions are likewise sparse, often entirely absent, further increasing the sense that these are vessels for the author’s text, rather than people in their own right.
There were only two stories in this collection that made me care about the characters rather than just the ideas, and those were ‘Story of Your Life’ and ‘Liking What You See: A Documentary’. I didn’t think about it at the time, but in hindsight the reason is simple: these are the only two stories written in the first person, not the third.
That simple change makes a world of difference. When a character speaks directly to the reader, we cannot help but feel closer to them. Their story becomes a conversation (even if we do let them do all the talking), not a description.
…let me just stress again that I think Ted Chiang is a brilliant writer, with an incredible brain and a truly awe-inspiring ability to extrapolate unique worlds that contain very familiar conditions.
His characters are not generally the focus of his stories, and where he tries to engage the reader in feeling for them is where I think his writing is weakest, but that doesn’t change the fact that I would highly recommend his work to anyone who likes their science-fiction to make them think.