WBBT Stop: Ted Chiang

Tedchiangheadshot Ted Chiang is one of the world's best short story writers, as evidenced by his many, many awards (which include the Whole Set: the Campbell, the Nebula, the Sturgeon, the Sidewise, the Locus, the Hugo, and others). If you haven't been reading him, you're really and truly missing out. And while Ted's work is challenging, I also find it very accessible–if you haven't read any science fiction you liked in a long time, I bet you like his stories. (And I bet you like them if you have too.) This has been a busy year for Ted, with Small Beer Press bringing his collection Stories of Your Life and Others back into print as a tradepaper back and e-book, and a brand-new novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, out from Subterranean Press. (Note: The novella is available online at that link, but you should also purchase one of the gorgeous hard copies.) In addition to being one of my favorite writers, Ted happens to be among my favorite people in the entire world, and so I'm truly delighted to host this interview.

GB: As I always do, I'll start by asking you about your writing process. How do you approach your stories in terms of actual production? Was your new novella–which is, I believe, your longest work to date–different from your usual process?

Ted Chiang: My usual process is to start with the ending. The first thing I write is usually the last paragraph of the story, or a paragraph very close to the end; it may change somewhat after I've written the rest of the story, but usually not much. Everything else in the story is written with that destination in mind. I've heard many writers say that they lose interest if they know the ending too far in advance, but I have the opposite problem. I've tried writing stories when I didn't know the ending, and I've never been able to finish them.

My new novella was definitely a challenge for me, but only partially because of its length. I made a giant mistake early on, which was trying to write a 10,000 word version of the story to bring to a couple of workshops. I knew the story needed to be much longer than that, but I thought I could fit enough of it into a novelette to get some useful feedback on it. After the workshops I spent a while expanding that version, but eventually I realized that, in writing such a short version of the story, I had made certain decisions that sent me in completely the wrong direction. So I had to throw that version out completely and start over from scratch, which isn't something I had ever done before. (One result of all this is that I'm going to be much more careful about what I take to workshops.)

Work on the second version of the story proceeded more smoothly, although there were still a few hiccups. In the past I've been good at anticipating how long a story will be, but this time I was way off; I expected it would be 20,000 words, but it turned out to be 30,000. Misjudging the length so seriously made for some odd moments. I'd say to myself, "This thing is 22,000 words; how come I don't have all the scenes I need yet?"  And then, "It's 25,000 words and I'm still not done?  What's going on?"

GB: I understand that the entirely wonderful Subterranean Press agreed to let you oversee the design process and cover development for the novella–what was that experience like?

TC: Bill Schafer, who runs Subterranean Press, has been very good to me. A few years ago he approached me about doing a limited-edition hardcover of a story of mine, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," with two-color interior illustrations. He knew that I'd had a terrible cover-art experience with my first book publisher, so he offered me creative control over the appearance of the volume. We were both happy with the results, so he offered me the same deal for "Lifecycle of Software Objects." Lifecycle

Initially I didn't know if I wanted to do an illustrated edition of the novella, because I wasn't sure how well the subject matter lent itself to illustration. It's a story about artificial intelligence, and most of the action in the story consists of people sitting in front of computers, so depicting specific scenes wouldn't be interesting. Then I had an idea: as the title suggests, the novella makes a comparison between the stages in a commercial product's lifecycle and the stages of development for a living being. It occurred to me that the illustrations could show a robot undergoing the different stages of human development: a robot as a fetus, a robot as a toddler, a robot as a child doing homework, and eventually a robot having sex. That was when I thought that an illustrated edition of the novella might make sense.

I also knew I wanted an art style different from the realism that's dominant in SF art these days. I was hoping to find someone who could do something resembling sumi-e, Japanese ink and wash painting; I thought it would be cool to combine futuristic subject matter like robots with a very traditional rendering style, and I felt that style would work well with two-color printing. Unfortunately, the illustrators I contacted were either busy or uninterested in doing pictures of robots in that style. Eventually I decided to stop looking for artists who did sumi-e and start looking for artists who were comfortable painting robots.

I found Christian Pearce, whose day job is doing concept art for Weta Workshop in New Zealand; he liked painting robots, and was willing to try a loose, watercolor-ish style of rendering. First we came up with a design for the robot; then we decided on a rendering style and way of using color (black for the robotic world, red for the human world); and finally we worked on the poses for the various illustrations. The fetal robot image turned out to be the most striking one, so we went with that one for the cover.

GB: So robots in science fiction can fill lots of different roles, but a major one is to make them into helpful servants. This is, of course, right up to the moment they decide to overthrow their human masters. Do you think we have to worry about robots taking over? What about the singularity?

TC: In one respect, stories about robot uprisings are about a fear of technology, but in another respect they're about slavery. Stories in which robots are obedient are a kind of wish fulfillment for a "just the good parts" version of slavery. Stories in which robots rebel, or try to win legal rights, acknowledge that you can't have the convenience of slavery without the guilt. But these stories don't have much to do with actual robots; in the real world, robots are so far from being conscious that questions of morality don't even apply. I think it's possible that in the future, robots and software will become sophisticated enough for there to be moral implications to the way we treat them, but even then slavery won't be the appropriate comparison: it'll be more like the debate over how we treat chimpanzees. (And it's worth noting that not a lot of people get worked up over that topic.)

I don't worry about the singularity at all. I think that the singularity–meaning the idea that computers will suddenly wake up and make themselves smarter and smarter–is pretty much nonsense. Conscious software isn't going to arise spontaneously any more than word processing programs arise spontaneously. And even if we design conscious software, it won't automatically know how to make itself smarter; you and I are conscious, but neither of us has a clue about how to turn ourselves into geniuses. Even geniuses don't know how to make themselves smarter.

And now someone will say that conscious software could be run on a faster computer, which would make it smarter, and the singularity will happen that way. But the vast majority of software doesn't become better when you run it at a higher speed. Translation software doesn't produce a better translation if you run it on a faster computer; it just produces the same bad translation more quickly. The same thing would apply to uploaded people; running an uploaded stupid person at high speed wouldn't give you a smart person, it'd just give you a person who makes stupid mistakes more rapidly. If we want to make a computer as smart as a human being, there are about a million hard problems to be solved that have nothing to do with faster hardware.

GB: Your novella seems to be about parenthood as much as it is about robots. What was the motivation behind that?Stories

TC: I believe the process of training an artificial intelligence will almost inevitably resemble the raising of a child. The reason I believe this is that traditional approaches to AI have failed so badly; it turns out you can't simply program in the information you want an AI to know. Our best hope appears to be building a learning machine and then teaching everything you want it to know. It's not strictly necessary that this training process have the emotional dimension that parenting has, but I think there'd be advantages if it did.

This need for training has major implications for how we would use artificial intelligence. As a simple example, right now it makes much more sense to hire human beings to farm gold in World of Warcraft than it does to develop an artificially-intelligent robot that can do it. Humans have a huge cost advantage over robots, because someone else has already paid for the development costs: the parents. If the only way to employ gold farmers were to give birth to a bunch of babies and raise them yourself, then developing gold-farming robots might make sense. But as long as there are human beings out there–raised by someone else–who are willing to work for subsistence wages, it'll be cheaper to hire them.

And parenting is important in ways that go far beyond matters of economics. Let me quote something Molly Gloss said about the impact that being a mother had on her as a writer. Raising a child, she notes, "puts you in touch, deeply, inescapably, daily, with some pretty heady issues: What is love and how do we get ours? Why does the world contain evil and pain and loss? How can we discover dignity and tolerance? Who is in power and why? What's the best way to resolve conflict?" We all confronted these questions as children, and the answers we received–sometimes through words but often through actions–played a big role in the kind of adults we became. If you actually want an AI to have the responsibilities that AIs in science fiction are shown having, then you'll want it to have good answers to these questions. I don't believe that's going to arise by loading the works of Kant into a computer's memory. I think it will have to come from the equivalent of good parenting.

GB: And, last, plug some other people's stuff–what have you been reading/watching/listening to that you think other people should dash out and get? How about this season of The Good Wife?

TC: I've definitely been enjoying the current season of The Good Wife. My complaint about the first season, which I mentioned when you and I last discussed it, was that too many of the law firm's clients were clearly good and deserving; that's been less so during the second season, which I think is more in keeping with the show's themes of compromise and moral ambiguity. Another TV show I've enjoyed is Terriers, which recently finished its first season; it combined the banter of a really funny buddy-cop show with the modern noir atmosphere of Polanski's Chinatown. I'm also looking forward to the next season of Justified.

Something else that I'd like to recommend is the video game Heavy Rain. For me the most notable thing about it is that it's a video game that doesn't ask you to kill five hundred bad guys in the course of the story. Not that I haven't enjoyed games that involve a lot of killing, but I'd like to see more variety in the types of games available, and Heavy Rain provides an interesting example of a game that's story driven and not focused on combat. Game critics sometimes use the phrase "ludonarrative dissonance" to describe the discrepancy between the narrative side of a game, where the protagonist behaves like a normal person, and the gameplay side of a game, where the protagonist is an unstoppable killing machine. One of the reasons this arises, I think, is that game designers want to tell a variety of stories, but only a few stories mesh perfectly with the combat mechanics that are the core of modern video games. Heavy Rain avoids this problem by using a different style of gameplay, one that works for activities other than combat, and I think it opens up a lot of opportunities for storytelling in video game form.

GB: Thanks, Ted, for stopping by and classing up the joint!

And the rest of today's WBBT stops are:

Marilyn Singer at Writing and Ruminating

Jennifer Donnelly at Shelf Elf

Sofia Quintero at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Maria Snyder at Finding Wonderland

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WBBT Stop: Andrea Seigel

Andrea Andrea Seigel is one of my favorite writers. Ever since I randomly picked up her debut novel Like the Red Panda at the library, I've been ecstatic whenever I hear she has written a new novel. Her work is full of cross-over appeal for young adult audiences, which is why I was especially happy The Kid Table was being published as YA. (Spoiler for the interview: We talk about this below.) I actually believe that Andrea's work is semi-unclassifiable in the best possible way. It's less saccharine than anything out there, while still being very sincere. Her characters aren't always traditionally likeable, and that's what makes me always, always end up liking them. Her novels are recognizable as "Andrea Seigel novels" without ever being repetitive. And The Kid Table is the perfect cure for holiday mania, following a cast of relatives from festive occasion to festive occasion, with decidedly unpredictable results. So without further ado…

GB: As I always do, I'll start by asking you about your writing process with this book. How did you approach it? Do you have a pretty set working pattern or does it change from project to project?

Andrea Seigel: I used to be completely religious about writing 2 double spaced Courier New pages a day. They had to be decent pages or I wouldn't close the file. Each day, I would start by reading over the previous two pages and making sure they were solid, and then I'd continue on with the next two. But with this book, first I really got crazy and went with a different font because Courier "looked wrong" for the narrator. I wrote in Century Schoolbook. And then life intervened when my dad got diagnosed with brain cancer maybe three-quarters of the way through, and I started falling behind on that religious clip. One day while visiting him in the hospital, I guess I either got my laptop too close to a large magnet or I bumped it against a wall because when I tried to turn it back on that night, it no longer recognized that I had a hard drive. I think I still had a page left to do that day. And at that point, I melted down and even though the dude at Apple eventually recovered my files for me, I just didn't feel the same about my regimen. I think I used to be a lot more of a machine than I'm capable of being now. I tried to return to the regimen with the book I'm currently writing, but I don't feel driven by that same loop. I guess this is probably because I had some kind of magical thinking attached to the 2 page a day thing, like I'd come to believe that that's why I got published–that it was a spell–and when it got broken, it was impossible to go back to believing in it. 

GB: I'm always fascinated by big cast novels about families. Was there a kid table in your own childhood?  Did you grow up with a big extended family or is Ingrid's experience something totally foreign to your own?

AS: We had a kid table at family events, but I always had the hardest time warming
up to my relatives. I Kidtablecover think your parents assume that if you're a kid, then you're going to instantaneously bond with other kids– especially if you've been put with them since you guys were drooling–but I've never been especially close to my cousins, and so every get together felt like starting over. I'd get really anxious and my mom would be like, "This is your family!" and I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, because for me "family" only referred to the people you lived with and could yell at without feeling strange about it. So I definitely didn't have the relationship portrayed in the book, and that's probably why I wrote it–out of some kind of fascination with people who always feel like they have this club they belong to.  

GB: I'm curious whether you feel there's a difference in how you come at your work for adult readers vs. this new YA novel? To me, your work has always held appeal for both audiences, but I wonder if it feels different to you. Or if you've noticed a difference in the response you've gotten for the new book?

AS: You know, at first I was trying to tell myself (and other people) that there wasn't a difference between this YA book and the others I wrote. And I think I didn't want to admit that there was one because I've never liked the idea of bending yourself to be different people in different situations. I know that's bullshit because we all do it, but it's an idea that has always disturbed me because I guess I have a fantasy of a "true self." Anyway, the short answer is yes. There's a difference. I forced myself to try to have more defined arcs for my characters because I knew that a lot of YA readers seek that kind of reward–and I guess I still failed because if you look at the people who hated the book on Goodreads, it's mostly because they're frustrated that the characters don't evolve more. But I just don't see personality in an epic way. I think you sort of are who you are and of course your experiences leave dents in you as you go through life, but I'm not incredibly interested in that balls to the wall character arc where your protagonist comes out the other end of the story a new person. In fact, when it comes to my own reading, I think I'm particularly drawn to narratives where the change is really in the reader's perception of that character as she gets to know him better (I'm thinking about books like Catcher In The Rye and American Psycho and The Mystery Guest), so the real arc is the one that happens in the reader's awareness of who that character is and how he sees the world. And when it comes to my own characters, I'm just honestly much more interested in these inner shifts of perception and these small negotiations that we all make in order to keep up a somewhat legible identity for ourselves. I inwardly groan when I hear people say, "Life is the journey, not the destination"–which always sounds so, so gross–but I guess I'm describing a similar leaning when it comes to storytelling. This is also probably why I'm basically uninterested in out-and-out villains as well as epic adventures (unless Bill and Ted are having them). The most frequent note I got from my publisher on The Kid Table manuscript was that my narrator spent too much time pondering, which was a mode for an older audience, instead of gut-reacting, which is the mode for the YA audience. And that's true, I like an almost compulsive 1st person voice that's about the narration as plot in and of itself. So that's maybe also why I should think about sticking to adult in the future, is what I've been thinking.

GB: So you had some cover issues, but you managed to get them resolved. What happened there? 

AS: The initial cover struck me as being off-tone for the book. It was a girl who looked younger than   the character actually is, and she was dressed like an American Idol contestant circa Jordin Sparks, and she was with some kids at a table who were smearing food on their faces…and I just lost it over that cover. I have this intensely supportive fan named Danny, a soldier in Iraq who first emailed me about reading Panda inside a tank as it rolled over an explosive device, and I knew he was waiting for Kid Table to come out, and I just thought, "Man, I can't have Danny carrying around this cover." That was my first thought. Because Danny is so into the books I write, and it depressed me to have someone who's completely in tune with my sensibility to be so misrepresented by a cover. He was exemplary for me, and I felt like that cover was just wrong for the people who identified with what I'd written before. So anyway, I went through a series of negotiations with the publisher and we finally agreed on the green-blue cover with the fork and macaroni, which leaves a lot more up to the reader's imagination. It also has a wryness about it, and "wry" is one of the descriptions that ends up on almost all of my jacket copies, so there you go.

GB: And, last, plug some other people's stuff–what have you been reading/watching/listening to that you think other people should dash out and get?

AS: Well, 'tis the season so I have to recommend Hank Steuver's book Tinsel, which I probably loved more than anything else I read this year. He writes novelistically, meaning that he does these insightful, complex portraits of his characters and he follows their stories in the most intimate, satisfying way, but all of it is true. I wanted 5000 more pages of that book. (I'm a Jew who's a sucker for Christmas, but my love went beyond that pre-existing inclination.) Then my favorite documentary of the year was "The Wild Whites of West Virginia"– I'm so fascinated by this family of outlaws because they'll stab and shoot each other, but then there's a mythical attachment to the family bond and a stronger sense of loyalty than exists in families that don't stab each other. Again, the presentation of the "characters" in this movie is exactly my kind of thing. In music, I'm still listening to Alicia Keys' "Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart" on repeat since last winter, so I'm like the toddler who just watches the same movie over and over when it comes to songs. I can also recommend this pumpkin chocolate chip cookie recipe, which is pretty much the only thing I can bake. They come out like muffin tops. You'll love them.

Visit today's other WBBT stops (will update with links as I see them):

Adele Griffin at Bildungsroman

Susan Campbell Bartoletti at Chasing Ray

Charles Benoit
at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Sarah MacLean at Writing & Ruminating

Allen Zadoff at Hip Writer Mama

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Pleasant Hibernations

It's rainy and dreary. Our roof seems to have a small leak, based on the small drip drip drip in our utility room when the rain comes down hard; this is only to be expected in a hundred-year-old plus house, so I'm not too worried about it. Especially since the source is mysterious despite Christopher journeying onto the shingles, the roof itself isn't that old, and our neighbor who used to be a carpenter says their hundred-year-old house built at the same time as ours also has a mysterious leak and they don't worry about it too much. Don't worry or leave dread scenarios in the comments. We'll call someone to look at it, promise.     Pippi longstocking

Anyway, there's part of me that feels very Pippi Longstocking about it.* Leaky houses always seemed like the kind of glamorous thing encountered in books, while, you know, the far less glamorous flooded basements were the stuff of my own childhood. No alluring buckets, only the ugly roar of shopvacs. I just need to wear mismatched patterned knee socks around the house, and the effect will be even better.

My sojourn from the creepy island book is done, and today I dive back in. The beginning of winter (in terms of actual weather) seems like an ideal time to hunker down in the writing bunker. Hibernation only without the hibernation part**. Oh, how I love this part of any project. The first time you roll up your sleeves armed with pen and someone else's notes and begin the journey to version 2.0. Or from beta release to one that is… less beta.

I've been cheating on hangovers for the past week or so, experimenting with sticking little links at Tumblr instead. This seems easier to manage, and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, with random natterings like this one and book recommendations landing here. We'll see.

For now, I'm donning those socks and rolling up my sleeves.

*Or very Rivane Neuenschwander–when we were last in NYC Scott took us to the New Museum and they had a big exhibition of her work on display, including a riveting immersive installation called Rain Rains involving aluminum buckets hung from the ceiling dripping water into buckets below. The cumulative soundscape ended up making everyone quiet as they began to take it in. Pretty amazing.

**There's a new issue of LCRW just out on the street and the Dear Aunt G features much on the topic of hibernation. Also, space madness. Forewarned is forearmed.

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Wednesday Hangovers

Wednesday Hangovers Read More »

Monday Hangovers

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