I’m having an incredibly hard time writing a review for The Lifecycle of Software Objects. I read it over the weekend, and have been turning it over in my mind since. Actually, to be more specific, I began reading it on Friday evening and finished it sometime around one in the morning. I went to sleep, woke up, and immediately began reading it again. After the second time through, I went out and picked up the other two pieces available by Ted Chiang, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and the collection Stories of Your Life and Others. Then I began scouring the internet, finding a piece he wrote for Nature magazine and a short story “Exhalation,” published in a collection here. I intend to drink these in like water in the next few days, after which point I’ll be devoting time daily to scouring the internet for new writing by Ted Chiang, reading every word I can find. I understand he also does technical writing, and I’m so sold on his talent and voice I believe those manual may be the finest examples of the form written.
The last line was a little over-the-top hyperbolic, but I’m finding it difficult to state how impressed I am with Chiang’s writing. I’m not the only one, either, judging from the awards he’s been racking up over the past 10+ years. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of Ted Chiang earlier, and was kicking myself wondering if he’s out there what other great writers I’m missing. I was kicking myself until finishing “The Merchant…” and decided writers this good are rare, and I felt very grateful to discover him. The last time I read a Science Fiction novelist I felt this strongly about was Connie Willis. Before that it was Ray Bradbury. Both are authors I love, and I questioned whether or not to put Chiang in the same category. The arguments not to, however, fall short when you consider a comparison of authors isn’t about comparing total bodies of work, it’s more about finding common ground between authors. All three put humanity at the center of their writing. They create complex, painfully human characters who struggle with the options before them and the consequences of their choices, and the find beauty in the most unexpected places, whether on line between life and death, in a graveyard for rockets, or the connection between a human and a virtual creation.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects may run a scant 125 page, but there is so much more to unpack in there. Chiang raises questions about who we choose to love, how we form relationships, why we make the choices we make, and if we can ever know what the right choices are. He asks and never answers these questions, and gets right under your skin. Writers don’t need to raise deep questions in their work. But when they choose to, this is the template they should follow. He doesn’t lay out straw man arguments to ensure you agree with him. His characters choose (sometimes wisely, sometimes poorly), and Chiang presents these choices almost as a journalist would, giving you the context to understand the motivation and possible outcomes. He then lets those outcomes unfold organically. As in life, sometimes the outcomes are immediate. The times they aren’t we’re left to wonder whether it will be good news or bad when that other shoe drops, both anticipating and dreading where the story might go next.
Read Ted Chaing, then pass what you read to your friends, your family, your online community, neighbors, barista, everyone you can. This is the kindling for your next deep conversation, the one that keep you up later than reading this book will.