WORD Christchurch: Arrival, with Ted Chiang

Maybe it was because this event came directly after the divine Sonya Renee Taylor – a truly impossible act to follow – but this session did not live up to my expectations.
Karen Healey was interviewing Ted Chiang, a celebrated Chinese-American science fiction author whose short story “Story of Your Life” was turned into the excellent film Arrival. Healey is a lively and intelligent stage presence and she did her best, but Chiang was immovably ponderous.


Ted Chiang

Chiang spoke about how most people’s perceptions of science fiction are formed through Hollywood movies, which are stories of good vs evil that generally end with the status quo being maintained – thus making it very easy to create endless sequels. Real science fiction, though, specialises in a different type of story: the world starts out as familiar, then something changes and the world becomes unfamiliar, never to return to its previous state. His favourite film is The Matrix, because by the end, the world is radically different. (He doesn’t like the sequels though. Fair call.)

Chiang said he is primarily interested in philosophical questions and thought experiments – and he did indeed come across as very academic. His vocal delivery was slow and tending to the monotonous, with pauses after most words. We spent a lot of time in silence waiting for him to say his next phrase. Healey asked Chiang whether religion – a common theme in his work – has any personal relevance for him. The answer was ‘no’.

I must also give Healey credit for the excellent way she dealt with a particularly troublesome audience question. You know the type: an older man, first to the mic, with a rambling question-that’s-more-of-a-comment. He seemed to be ramping up to some sort of climate change denial rant, but Healey cut him off in a way that was direct and effective but still civil. Ka rawe koe!

To be honest I would have left if I hadn’t been reviewing – but never mind. I needed some quiet time in between the loud and glorious The Body Is Not An Apology and the high-energy Adventurous Women. Onwards!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Ted Chiang: Arrival

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