Non-Dystopian Fiction for a Dystopian World

Non-dystopian fiction is a remedy for a world that has gone fucking nuts.

I remember saying just a few months ago that reading has become a tough task for me. This held true from the beginning of 2020 all the way to maybe the 90th day of the COVID-19 pandemic. Basically: from our so-called non-dystopian world to a damn dystopia.

Then the exact opposite happened. I’ve spent most of my free time since June reading – an extreme reaction in the other direction. It was semi-automatic: shut everything out to regain a bit of control, as dramatic as that sounds.

This coping strategy benefits me now in the ‘new normal’ (ugh) as much as it did in the old one. I’m not in denial about how things are going here in the Philippines and worldwide. But mixing horrible fictional worlds with our horrible dystopian reality isn’t a good idea at all. We’re playing a very long game here, and I don’t plan on losing physically or mentally.

I didn’t expect Ted Chiang and his two fiction collections to help pull me out of my reading rut. But they did, much like Martha Wells and the makers of Snowpiercer. The best part? I got several important lessons (or reminders?) on both reading and writing stories.

(I’ve previously talked about the titular Story of Your Life, but in terms of movie adaptations of literary works. I won’t talk about that novella today; instead, I’ll focus on Chiang’s other stories.)

I had some ‘unfinished business’ with Ted Chiang’s story collections. Got to finish reading both this month: around two years after I started the one on the left, and six months for the one on the right.

Non-dystopian stories can be more complicated.

I’m still not sure what made me have this opinion. But I initially assumed that all or most science-fiction stories are dystopian.

The standard pattern: a major event overturns people and planets, and obviously not in a good way. These trials require centuries to conquer with scientific breakthroughs and true human cooperation. It’s always make-or-break, and entire universes hang in the balance.

Of course, this kind of fiction will always sell well. It’s not just because we all know it’s fiction and we can escape it. It also reminds us we could have it worse, and everyone struggles with doing the right thing.

But non-dystopian sci-fi also works without the blood and gore, not to mention better at mindfuckery. Stories of Your Life and Others and Exhalation are about humanity’s feelings and thoughts on and reactions to external factors like free will, power, faith, beauty, and technology. And it’s not always pretty or predictable; Chiang asks us to consider that maybe:

  • We’re the villains. Or there’s no villain at all, and things are fucked up just because.
  • Big Hero Moments are reserved for the movies. Or we can do better in other, more subtle ways.
  • There is a gulf-sized line between correct and incorrect. But it could be hard to find in certain situations.
  • People don’t have to die in the end.
  • A non-dystopian story isn’t that clear-cut. Or is it?

“Liking What You See: A Documentary,” from Stories of Your Life and Others, is one example of these conflicts. Entire lines and passages can convince you to go one way, then jump toward the other on the next page. No one is completely right or wrong, but not everything is justifiable, either.

“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom”, from Exhalation, is a runner-up. We cringe at the thought of using advantages and advance information to improve our lot in life. But we all know that we’ll immediately do it in real life, and at the first chance we get.

Make your reader work for each page.

We’ve all heard of that first “rule” of writing: show, don’t tell. And I’m not sure if I already wrote about this in a previous post. But I’ve said before that writers should never think their readers won’t understand what they mean. They’re not as dumb as you think, so you don’t have to spell everything out for them.

Chiang doesn’t show his fictional non-dystopian worlds as much as he slam-dunks readers into them. His stories are immersive: once you start reading, you have to get to the end ASAP. And while he does explain some things, he trusts that you’ll get it as you go on.

(It helps to have read Stories of Your Life and Others on a Kindle. I could easily look up words and concepts I don’t know, and there were a lot of them.)

The story ideas are also brilliant, with some making me think he can see the future. People have suffered for centuries under the patriarchy and from society’s impossible beauty standards. But certain paragraphs and dialogue in “Liking What You See” read like they were written by modern feminist activists, leaders, and scholars.

And I didn’t feel any impatience with each page turn, even with the longer novellas and novelettes. But I do warn you that you need to prepare for them; they require a vast imagination as well as mental capacity:

Chiang writes what could be loosely described as “thinky sci-fi.” His stories tend to introduce a single scientific idea or paradox, and then dramatize it.

Constance Grady, Vox

The best example for me would be the mathematics-themed “Division by Zero” from Stories of Your Life and Others. Those who know me also know I am astoundingly bad at math, and I have zero interest in it. So I had to finish this story before my eyes glazed over.

In Exhalation, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” shows AI as children, and asks how far you’ll go to protect them. And I couldn’t quite get into “Seventy-Two Letters,” partly because of the characters’ views on women. But Chiang showed a unique way of tackling Man bringing Machine to life, with sides of human reproduction and racism.

Themes and scenarios can carry over to other stories.

In her short-story collection The Stories So Far, Jessica Zafra used characters as connecting threads. Chiang doesn’t repeat characters, but he does have reoccurring (but still non-dystopian) themes.

In Exhalation, there are two similarities between the first novelette (“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”) and the last novella (“Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom”). An object connects different versions of yourself in two worlds across time. The protagonists must also choose to be better people or to negatively impact their other self’s circumstances.

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” also have nested stories a la Matryoshka dolls or the entire conceit of Inception. “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” and “What’s Expected of Us” present two sides of free will: the intentional practice of it, and surrender to its fallacy. Plus the eponymous “Exhalation” and “The Great Silence” both concern dying species – aliens through breathing failure, and natural extinction with associated losses (e.g., language).

Then “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is closely similar to the Black Mirror series 1 episode “The Entire History of You.” People in these stories record their entire lives and depend on the footage to see the, well, truth in their relationships with others:

Convenient, yet terrifying.

Stories of Your Life and Others has its own shared elements and callbacks to other media.

“Division by Zero” includes the phrase “believing six impossible things before breakfast” from Alice in Wonderland, book and movie version:

“Tower of Babylon” and “Hell is the Absence of God” join Exhalation‘s “Omphalos” with their religious roots. The former is modeled after the Tower of Babel and is about humans’ quest to reach their deity. Not to mention it’s kinda like The Truman Show, with its world having a ceiling:

“Hell is the Absence of God” treats God, the angels, and Heaven and Hell as literal facts of life. Here, there are painful and lethal consequences for humans after every fiery angel visitation. It’s a fun concept that isn’t explored often if at all, much like who cleans up after big superhero fights.

“Understand”, “The Evolution of Human Science,” and “Liking What You See” cover human augmentation and improving (or imploding) our lives through tech. “Seventy-Two Letters” opposes “Understand” in that the machine is the one intended to improve physically and mentally instead of humans.

“Liking What You See” also mentions people wanting to use ‘neurostat’ “as an aid to meditation.” It could be seen as a callback to “Seventy-Two Letters,” where one character approaches the protagonist because he wants to use his patent to improve his cult’s meditation practice.

Standout non-dystopian stories

Ted Chiang’s non-dystopian story collections should be read from start to finish. But if you’re a picky reader, I loved these stories more than the others.

In Exhalation, check out “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” and “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom.”

And for Stories of Your Life and Others, go for “Tower of Babylon,” “Understand,” “Story of Your Life,” “Seventy-Two Letters,” and “Liking What You See: A Documentary.”

Normally, I’d add bookstore links to hardbound and paperback editions in this part of the post. But because we’re living in fucked-up times, I suggest sticking to e-books for now. Amazon, B&N, and Kobo + other digital retailers should have Chiang’s books on their catalogs.

Stay indoors, everyone! Wear your masks and face shields. And of course…

Yep. (Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash)