My relationship with speculative fiction has the flavour of an intimate romance. To be captivated by a mind-bending short story; to guiltily bookmark your intergalactic saga so you can spend a delightful evening with a horror novella. There is something visceral and lovely about reading beyond the real. I find myself gently stretched into a slow-motion frame. The consumption of the tale warps my body, indelibly.
Several years ago, I signed up as a non-attending member for Worldcon, one of the world’s biggest science fiction conventions, and the event at which the Hugo Awards are announced. As a member, I was able to download an electronic packet of Hugo-nominated works. Within the folder of short stories was one by a writer I hadn’t heard of. His name was Ken Liu; the story was ‘Mono no aware.’ I read the story in a single sitting, saturated with wonder and melancholy.
I immediately purchased Liu’s 2016 short story collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. The stories spanned alternate history, fantasy, folklore, steampunk, cyberpunk-crime, and science fiction. Each contained its own exquisite world. Several dealt with the unreliability of historical accounts. In ‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’, the discovery of a special type of particles under quantum entanglement allows humanity to glimpse events from the past—but only once, as the information disappears with measurement. The characters harness this science to explore the atrocities committed at Unit 731 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. In ‘Good Hunting’, which was recently adapted for the Netflix series Love Death + Robots, a demon hunter’s son pursues a húlijīng from Opium War China into a colonial, steampunk Hong Kong. I devoured the book with my heart in my throat. I hadn’t known that speculative fiction could be like this.
As I mull over this column, I pull my copy of The Paper Menagerie off my bookshelf and reread ‘Mono no aware’, hunting for what it was that so haunted me on that first reading. Hiroto Shimizu is a solar sail technician aboard the Hopeful, a spaceship built and run by Americans, speeding away from a meteorite-destroyed Earth. As the only surviving person from Japan, Hiroto feels obliged to preserve what little he understands of his family’s culture. He reflects on Japan’s failed evacuation plans and on childhood memories of his father, who often recited Japanese and Chinese poems.
The story, as the title suggests, touches on the beauty and sadness of accepting the impermanence of all things. With a rush of surprise and serendipity, I realise that this same feeling led me to write my debut novel, Every Version of You. I’ve even tried to describe it, with more words and less eloquence, in some recent interviews. At the time the idea dropped into my head, I was moping about the fact that all experiences exist only for the briefest moment. We’re constantly in flux; our selves and our relationships will never be the same as they were yesterday.
Fortunately, from my self-indulgent angst emerged a bittersweet acceptance. Everything seemed more beautiful for its transience. It’s not that I savour it more because it’s fleeting—not quite like a bite of ice cream, or the summer holidays. Rather, it’s the fleeting nature of the thing that makes the doing, the creating, the living sacred. In every action and interaction, I’m shaping something that will have existed. I’m doing it despite knowing that by beginning something I have also consigned it to an end. To have existed momentarily is still a sort of immortality, I think. After all, isn’t this what a story strives for?
Around the same time as I read Liu, I discovered another remarkable short story collection: Ted Chiang’s award-winning Stories of Your Life and Others. Together, these collections immersed me in curiosity and boundlessness. They compelled me to write my own stories: an inescapable creative response, as well as an attempt to emulate, to strive to capture a fraction of such magic in my own craft.
Two of my favourite works in Chiang’s first collection have themes of circularity and simultaneity; both left me feeling like the world was bigger and stranger and weirder than I’d thought. In ‘The Tower of Babylon’, I followed a group of Elamite miners summoned to break through the vault of heaven. The story was palpable and riveting in its granular detail; I felt like I was climbing the tower for months on end, eating and sleeping with the workers who lived suspended in the sky.
I watched the movie adaptation, Arrival, before I read ‘Story of Your Life’. Both versions boggled me with what-ifs. What if language could change not only the way you think, but the way you perceived space and time? What if our human tendency to defensiveness and aggression hindered us from meaningful liaison with other intelligences? What if we kept choosing love, despite inevitable grief? The story contains a perfect collision: the vast and profound, with the intimate and personal.
On a road trip with my partner, I play an audiobook through the sound system. Within the first few chapters, I’m no longer zooming down a highway in coastal Victoria. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice discards binary gender pronouns, embroils me in an empire’s brutal annexation of star systems, and transposes me into the mind of an artificial intelligence who can simultaneously run a colossal starship, operate military units, and juggle reams of information.
By this time, my affair with speculative fiction has settled into a well-worn pleasure. Many of my favourite stories explore the consequences of technologies that access minds and bodies—commodified in capitalist futures, exploited by the power-hungry—but entwine hard concepts with the tender and the thoughtful.
In Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, the main character hails from a space station resisting colonisation by a powerful empire. Her people possess a secret technology: a neural implant that allows an imprint of a predecessor’s mind to live on within another’s brain. I marvel at this: a brain within a brain, like nesting dolls. When multiple selves inhabit one physical form, the boundaries between them must eventually blur, changing the emergent identity. What a concrete and dangerous way to immortalise knowledge, language, and culture.
In Elaine Cuyegkeng’s ‘These Constellations Will Be Yours’ (Strange Horizons, August 2017), I am moved by the tragedy of the oracles stolen and flayed into galleon ships for an empire’s expansionism. Sameem Siddiqui’s ‘AirBody’ (Clarkesworld, April 2020) mashes mind-hijacking with the gig economy: Arsalan rents out his body to businessmen, travellers, and, eventually, a Desi auntie trying to reunite with a lost lover. In my own short story, ‘He Leaps for the Stars, He Leaps for the Stars’ (Clarkesworld, July 2021), a pop idol is forced to host fans within his own brain—neural piggybackers who can voyeuristically watch him go about his daily activities.
Lately, I find myself resisting pessimism, drawing toward hopeful futures. I’m on the search for utopias—or, at least, more egalitarian futures where technology is used collaboratively to combat climate change; where science and exploration are undertaken with ethical reflection; and where inclusivity, reparation, and accessibility underpin progress. I read Unlimited Futures, an anthology of visionary fiction by Black and First Nations writers, edited by Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail. It is deeply powerful, poetic, tragic, hopeful, and utterly unforgettable.
A writing friend tells me that To Be Taught, If Fortunate will be right up my alley. As I’ve long wanted to read Becky Chambers but haven’t known where to start, I grab a copy of the novella immediately. It’s about a polyamorous crew who adapt their bodies with biological supplements to investigate life on exoplanets. The story is touching and harrowing in places, and tackles the ethics of interacting with alien environments. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve read before.
In 2018, at Continuum Con in Melbourne, I stood in a queue to have my books signed by Ken Liu. Liu asked me if I write, and what I write. I stammered that I’d written some short stories and I was trying to write a novel. He chuckled and said he could identify with that. I wanted to tell him that his stories inspired me, but I didn’t know how to put it without sounding effusive. He scribbled on the title page of his book, Grace, Enjoy the stories!
There’s a 2019 interview with Ted Chiang published on culture.org. I found it an entertaining read, not least because of Chiang’s dislike of small talk and his precise, analytic responses. In fact, he often rephrases the interviewer’s questions to clarify the meaning—not in a rude way, but in the manner of an engineer trying to clean up the code to achieve the purest form of the program.
My heart leaps with kinship when Chiang mentions: ‘Science fiction is known for the sense of wonder it can engender, and I think that sense of wonder is something that is generated by stories of conceptual breakthrough.’ He goes on to say that he’s not sure if wonder is generated by stories of personal epiphany. I must disagree with him on that point. Even in his stories, the personal and the conceptual seem irrevocably interwoven.
As I finish putting together this piece, I realise that my writing is a response to my reading, and vice versa. I’m in a perpetual, circular, simultaneous pursuit of enjoyment, tenderness, and wonder—endpoints that are not particularly complex, but the path towards them can take an infinite number of routes. And therein, of course, lies the joy: in finding these astonishing and twisty stories, journeying with them to strange places, and letting them give me new ways of seeing myself and the world.
Grace Chan is a speculative fiction writer and psychiatrist. Her short fiction can be found in Clarkesworld, Going Down Swinging, Aurealis, and many other places. Her debut novel, Every Version of You, explores self and transformation through virtual reality and mind-uploading (Affirm Press, 2022).