Melancholy Transcendence: Ted Chiang and Asian American Postracial Form

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Beginning1 with the publication of his first story, "Tower of Babylon," in 1990, the American science fiction (SF) writer Ted Chiang has produced one of the most impressive bodies of work of any SF writer of his generation. One of the most notable features of Chiang's career is the extremely high award-to-publication ratio he has achieved. As a member of a genre community whose most successful writers are maniacally prolific, Chiang has published a mere thirteen works, all short fiction, most of which are included in his 2002 collection Stories of Your Life and Others. Along the way, Chiang has been awarded three of science fiction's most prestigious prizesthe Hugo, Nebula, and Locusfour times each.2 In light of the enormous cultural capital that he has accrued, it is no wonder that teachers of Asian American literature have been so eager to include Chiang in their studies and syllabi.

But the categorization of Chiang's fiction as Asian American raises a number of difficult questions. With only minor exceptions, Chiang's work passes over in silence Asian and Asian American content alike. This qualifies him as one of the few writers whose work falls neatly into Yoonmee Chang's definition of "postracial" Asian American fiction as "literature written by Asian American writers that does not contain Asian American characters or address Asian American experiences."3

From the standpoint of a normative Asian American framework that interpellates writers via their biological and/or filiative backgrounds and literary texts via their explicit engagement with Asian and/or Asian American content, Chiang's fiction is Asian American only insofar as Chiang himself is biologically Asian.

The exclusion of ethnic and racial content in Chiang's work thus raises a rather different set of questions than those posed by novels like Chang-rae Lee's Aloft (2004) and Susan Choi's My Education (2013).  Both of these novels are bereft of Asian or Asian American protagonists and narrated from the standpoint of white American characters, and yet they cannot not be read in light of each author's critical and market identities as successful Asian American writers whose previous novels have been installed in the Asian American literary canon.4 Aside from these questions of what Stephen Hong Sohn calls "racial asymmetry"5referring to the perceived mismatch between an author's racial identity and the racial content of his/her fictionthe questions Chiang raises are different still from the ones posed by the intraethnic ressentiment expressed by writers like Tao Lin and Frank Chin.6 Instead, Chiang's work represents what Viet Nguyen has called a "flexible strategy" of either resisting or accommodating modes of identification; a strategy that does not fall into the normative, oppositional framework of Asian American literary studies in which a politics of resistance has become the predominant hermeneutic and criteria for canonization.7

This essay will focus on a reading of Story of Your Life and Others' eponymous story, "Story of Your Life" (1998). Despite its almost total exclusion of racial and ethnic content (not to mention Asian or Asian American content), I argue that "Story of Your Life" is nonetheless systematically structured by ongoing processes of Asian American racialization. To argue this claim, I make recourse to Colleen Lye's concept of Asian American "racial form": a form that is keyed to the transactions between language and social relations rather than to essentialist mythologies of racial biology, and that, in fact, often eschews direct reference to race.8 Unlike Lee and Choi, who sometimes write as Asian Americans and sometimes don't, Chiang indicates and conceals his Asian American identity in the same gesture.9 What, then, are the features and circumstances of Chiang's writing that produce Asian American racial form in the very same postracial move of not writing as an Asian American? This question corresponds to a crucial aspect of the postracial that deserves more emphasis: namely, that it is impossible to think or write about race without reference to a specific manifestation of it. The Asian American and postracial dimensions of Chiang's fiction do not operate independently from each other. Every enunciation of the postracial is an enunciation of a specific racial relation.

 

The Two Cultures after 1965

Sherryl Vint sees in Chiang's work the pursuit of a "relentlessly logical extrapolation."10 Indeed, "meticulous," "methodical," and "precise" are among the most common adjectives that commentators use to describe Chiang's style. China Miéville sees in Chiang's attention to two of SF's central concernsideas and wondera "traditional" approach that somehow "never feels dated." He explains: "Partly this is because the 'wonder' of these stories is a modern, melancholy transcendence, not the naïve 50s dreams of the genre's golden age."11 According to Chiang, his narratives are often structured by the trope of "conceptual breakthrough," a term coined by John Clute and Peter Nicholls that describes the epistemic shifts produced by scientific revolutions.12 These narratives interest him "because they're a way of dramatizing the process of scientific discovery without being limited by history."13 The unadorned, unaesthetic style that allegedly enables Chiang to focus "relentlessly" on "dramatizing" conceptual breakthrough is, in other words, underwritten by a principle of selection that, like Ernest Hemingway's "theory of omission," is in fact deeply aesthetic. In Chiang's fiction, race and ethnicityspecifically, Asian and Asian American modalities of theseare two of the major limiting factors that "history" names.

The effect that Miéville calls "melancholy transcendence" is a transcendence that, in the words of one of Chiang's characters, is "not spiritual but rational."14 Even when science fictional and fantastic elements are introducede.g., towers, angels, super-geniusesthey are treated with all the coldness of empiricism. In "Tower of Babylon," the mythical tower reaches the seemingly impenetrable firmament, but workers nonetheless breach it using the mining techniques of dynastic Egypt. "Hell Is the Absence of God" (2001) treats divine visitations with all the ordinariness of weather patterns. In "Understand" (1991), super-intelligence collapses under the infinite loops of self-reflexivity. Attempts to transcend the brute facts of the empirical world inevitably return Chiang's characters to those brute facts. In similar fashion, one seeking to recruit Chiang to any model of Asian American literature must therefore contend with the brute facts of a particularly intractable case.

It is surprising that it is nowhere mentioned that the Nebula awarded to "Tower of Babylon" made Chiang the first Asian American ever to win a major SF award. In one sense, this evidences a deracination that has no doubt been constructed by, and contributed to, his reputation for "precise" attention to his thought experiments, which presumably proceed untrammeled by externalities like race, ethnicity, or politics"history," to use Chiang's word. This view of his work has also played no small role in his ascension to the apex of Anglophone literary SF, which names not only a genre of fiction, but also a community in which, Chiang himself points out, "Asian Americans are underrepresented ... as are most people of color." 15

In another sense, the silence surrounding Chiang's landmark achievement in literary history is the predictable consequence of his own reluctance to address issues of race and ethnicity. When asked by Betsy Huang if "being Asian American had any influence or impact" on his writing, he is at a loss: "I can't point to any specific examples of how it has influenced me."16 And when another interviewer asks about one of the few moments in his oeuvre when he explicitly addresses race, Chiang explains his view that race is not reducible to biology: "While I agree that race blindness is an interesting idea, I didn't think there was any way to make it even remotely plausible in neurological terms. Because there are just too many things that go into racism. It seems to me that to eliminate the perception of race at a neurological level, you'd have to rewrite the underpinnings of our social behavior."17 As to the question of why he avoids race in his work, he offers two explanations. The first concerns control over the play of meaning in his texts: "I may address the topic of race at some point," he says, "but until I do, I'm hesitant about making my protagonists Asian Americans because I'm wary of readers trying to interpret my stories as being about race when they aren't."18 The second has to do with the politics of publishing: "I think it's hard enough to write about issues of race and get published, even when you're working in respectable literary fiction. If you try to do it in genre, it'd be an even steeper uphill battle because there would be, I think, two axes of disenfranchisement to deal with."19 It would be unfair to accuse Chiang of eliding race in order to get published, given his view that race and racism might not even qualify as valid topics for science fictional extrapolation. But more importantly, such an accusationpremised as it is on a mimetic concept of race that only knows race in its evident rather than structural or systemic formswould fail to clarify anything about his fiction. All we can say is that race, for Chiang, is an impediment to the process of writing and publishing. What is of particular interest is how he conceives and goes about surmounting this impediment.

The rejection of a teleological, mimetic concept of race upon which Chiang's work is premised joins him to a cohort of writers whose relation to issues of identity and social justice ranges outside the orbit of an ethnographic imperative to give authentic and realistic expression to one's identity. Critics like Yoonmee Chang, Sohn, Ramón Saldívar, Elena Machado Saez, Raphael Dalleo, Min Hyoung Song, and Ken Warren have attempted to theorize this cohort in relation to what has come to be called the "postracial."20 Rather than refer to an after of race or racism, whatever that would mean, "postracial" refers to a set of representational and social problems that have arisen as a result of the discursive silence that has settled around race in what is frequently called the "post-Civil Rights" or "post-segregation" era.21 As legal scholar Michelle Alexander argues, "What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it."22 The mass incarceration of predominantly young, black men, she argues, perpetuates a "racial caste system" that "permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy." This system operates without any of the visible racial mechanisms of Jim Crow, and primarily under the institutional and social aegis of the (allegedly) colorblind "War on Drugs."23 Under such a regime of racialization, race takes on the status of

...an optical illusionone in which the embedded image is impossible to see until its outline is identifiedthe new caste system lurks invisibly within the maze of rationalizations we have developed for persistent racial inequality. It is possiblequite easy, in factnever to see the embedded reality.24

What I hope to show is how Chiang's fiction is concerned with the "outline" of race, and that his apparent lack of concern over race in his fiction is not simply a refusal of some general concept of race, but part and parcel of his exclusion of specifically Asian and Asian American racial contents. His postracial aesthetics, even if his name were indeed "Davis or Miller," are nevertheless imprinted by the processes of Asian American racial formation.  It is therefore more useful to think in degrees of Asian American-ness, which can be found in variously concentrated or disperse forms in specific stories. Not all of Chiang's stories are Asian American, and not all writing by Asian Americans is necessarily Asian American.25 Postracial form produces an infinite spectrum of illusions.

A number of recent studies have attempted to understand postracial aesthetics in Asian American fiction. Sohn and Song, in addition to Chang, have offered useful postracial frameworks for reading work by Susan Choi, Sesshu Foster, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nam Le, Claire Light, Ed Park, and Charles Yu, among others. Sohn theorizes postracial literature via his aforementioned figure of "racial asymmetry." Song sees in the postracial fiction of Asian American writers an aesthetic "restlessness" instigated by the multiple forces of expectationespecially by the burgeoning market for Asian American fictionleveled upon their careers as well as their fiction. These readings are tremendously helpful in charting the proliferation of a postracial aesthetic, but they also conceive of this aesthetic superficially, as a mere screen covering over a more predictable economy of mimetic racial representation. Accordingly, each sees postracial Asian American fiction as ultimately conforming, or at least aspiring, to an anti-racist, anti-imperialist identity politics. Sohn sees in Chiang's writing an attempt "to relay a strongly political [message] concerning issues related to social inequality and oppression."26 Song treats postrace as a horizon to be surpassed on the way to a deracinated, metaphysical consideration of difference: "Chiang's works," he argues, "when read as Asian American literature, are able to contribute to an imagining of difference as such."27 What I hope to add to these accounts is an engagement with the very postracial aesthetic they propose.28

My argument in this essay is that the postracial indeed offers an appropriate framework for understanding the racial dimensions of Chiang's fiction, because it forces us to think about race as inevident. Not absent, as Yoonmee Chang's definition of postracial Asian American fiction entails, but operating beneath the surface of our language and institutions, structuring them. The challenge, again, is to identify the specifically Asian American racial relation undergirding Chiang's postracial aesthetics.

To develop a framework for identifying this specificity, I would begin with a fact frequently noted by postracial critics: that most postracial writers were born after 1965, a date significant for the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act passed that year, and that they are by and large first, 1.5, or second generation immigrants. Crucially, since the passage of the Act, which ended the decades-long legal exclusion of Asians, the US racial and ethnic landscape has transformed into an expanse of what Lisa Lowe has influentially called "Heterogeneity, Hybridity, [and] Multiplicity."29 Coming of age as they did after the radical movements that birthed literary categories like ethnic and Asian American literature, this cohort inhabits a significantly different relation to identity and social justice than the agonistic one held by their predecessors, a relation Saldívar describes as "post-postmodern, post-Civil Rights."30

In the case of Asian American "Children of 1965" (to use Song's apt designation), I would argue that the circumstances of post-1965 immigration have inserted many of these writers into a freighted relation to what C. P. Snow has termed the "two cultures" of the arts and sciences.31 Edna Bonacich and others have shown that the system of professional preferences at the heart of the 1965 Act and subsequently expanded through the H-1B visa program it established, was originally intended to address a shortage of technical and scientific labor, and to ready the US for a postwar global restructuring that has seen the cheapening of labor costs, the rise of developing economies (especially Asian "economic miracles"), and a post-Fordist shift from a production to a service economy. In the Asian American community, the consequence of these policies has been what sociologists call "occupational segregation," or the over-representation of certain groups in certain professions.32 Recent statistics indicate that among U.S. minority groups, Asian Americans have the highest level of occupational segregation, and are concentrated in "highly paid occupations linked to scientific, medical, and computer engineering jobs."33

The other side of the two cultures token is an antinomy expressed by one of Chiang's characters in what can be read as a slogan of post-1965 Asian American experience: "pragmatism avails a savior far more than aestheticism."34 Indeed, the widespread decision of these "Children of 1965" to eschew aesthetic pursuitslike writing fictionin favor of more pragmatic and professionally secure technical training reveals a link between post-1965 immigration priorities and specific modes of the "model minority" stereotype that, as the present essay is attempting to demonstrate, correspond to specific literary forms.

While critics like Lye and Victor Bascara have offered historical accounts of the model minority's material and ideological construction at the intersection of early/mid-20th century US policy and the social dimensions of racial formation, few have engaged the specificity of its post-1965 modes. The model minority is generally evoked as a metonym for the process of Asian American racialization, the flipside of which is the figure of the yellow peril, or perpetual foreigner. Because the model minority names everything that Asian America is not, critics tend to reduce it to its misrepresentations rather than ask what it might accurately represent. Consequently, what has escaped analysis is the overdetermination of the model minority stereotype by the immigration priorities outlined by the 1965 Act, prior to which we do not find Asians being coded as inherently gifted at math and science: a stereotype that has since become a predominant mode of Asian American racialization. Up to this period, the Asian American model minority was a figure of "economic efficiency"35a view reinforced by the 1966 U.S. News and World Report article, "Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S.," which coined the phrase "model minority." There, Chinese American middle-class attainment, in contrast to the socioeconomic lagging of "Negroes and other minorities," was attributed to the community's industrious values of "self-respect," "discipline," "hard work," and family cohesion.36 After the Act, the model minority became more strongly associated with academic success in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.37 While success in these fields can certainly correspond to economic efficiency, it is the association between STEM fields and the model minority stereotype that has come to define a specific, post-1965 Asian American racial form. SF written by Asian Americans did not exist prior to this period, but since the 1990s has seen explosive growth as the children of 1965 began publishing.38 This is not to propose via some vulgar sociological determinism that the children of 1965 are necessarily or even disproportionately compelled to write SF. The reasons for the explosive growth have as much to do with a burgeoning market for Asian American writers and topics, and the proliferation of venues for SF publication (especially online), as they do with the forces of occupational segregation. What I am arguing is that Asian American SF can be read as an archive of Asian American literature defined by a historical formalism, rather than biology or some other essentialist criterion.

Chiang's father Fu-Pen completed his Ph.D. in engineering at the University of Florida and subsequently joined the engineering faculty at SUNY-Stony Brook. Chiang himself majored in computer science at Brown, but always harbored a love for writing, which led him to technical writing.39  It was in his first year out of college that he took the step to apply to the Clarion Writer's Workshopthe prestigious, multi-week bootcamp for aspiring SF writers. Given these factors, I would argue that Chiang's work should be read as motivated by a struggle that responds to a specifically post-1965 Asian American immigrant tradition that privileges pragmatismthat is, STEM-related and other lucrative professions (i.e., healthcare, law, business)over aestheticism.40  In Chiang's work this struggle manifests formally as a struggle for aesthetic freedom. What makes this struggle specifically Asian American is the degree to which the two cultures antinomy limits aesthetic freedom.

Indeed, insofar as Chiang's style is a reaction against such limits, my readings identify overlaps between "melancholy transcendence" and what Anne Cheng calls "racial melancholia," which she defines as "a sign of rejection and as a psychic strategy in response to that rejection."41  The resulting act of "exclusion," to use another of Cheng's terms, corresponds to Chiang's exclusions of race and ethnicity as subjects of his fiction. Importantly, Cheng's theorization of racial melancholia registers the crucial tension between performance and performativity in the processes of racial formationthe tension, in other words, between agency and the "reiteration of a norm or a set of norms."42 In our ongoing study of race, Cheng argues, "We need to imagine a form of agency that recognizes competition between performance and performativity; between historicity and reenactment. Only then can we understand the coexistence of coercion and agency in any act of cultural performance. Only then can we see the performances of citizenship and nationalism as a continuous navigation between a scripting history and individual response."43 It is precisely this kind of agency that Chiang attempts to fashion through a postracial aesthetic that mediates the competition between Asian American interpellation (performative) and the aesthetic freedom of melancholy transcendence (performance).

If the effect of melancholy transcendence is produced by a "methodical" focus on relentless extrapolation and conceptual breakthrough, and if Chiang is presumably freed to pursue this focusfreed from the threat of at least one of the "axes of disenfranchisement"by excluding race and ethnicity, then the material bases of Chiang's postracial aesthetics can be located in the forces of post-1965 "occupational segregation." "Melancholy transcendence" is thus the perfection of an unadorned style that asserts aesthetic freedom through a performance of excluding race and ethnicity.

Heptapod B: Language of Gestalts

"Story of Your Life" proceeds contrapuntally, alternating between two storylines from the life of Louise Banks, a linguistics professor. Its characters are all racially unmarked. The first storyline recounts, in no particular chronological order, episodes from Louise's sometimes rocky relationship with her daughter, who we soon learn has died at age twenty-five in a rock-climbing accident. The second focuses on Louise and her partner Gary, a physicist and eventually the father of her daughter, both of whom are commissioned by the US military to learn the language of a race of aliens, which Gary calls "heptapods" on account of their seven limbs.

The two cultures suffuse both storylines. In regard to Louise's daughter's choice of profession, it becomes an intergenerational agon:

...after graduation, you'll be heading for a job as a financial analyst. I won't understand what you do there, I won't even understand your fascination with money ... I would prefer it if you'd pursue something without regard for its monetary rewards, but I'll have no complaints. My own mother could never understand why I couldn't just be a high school English teacher. You'll do what makes you happy, and that'll be all I ask for. (112-3)

Even as Louise offers the opposite of the pragmatic emphasis that leads to Asian American occupational segregation, the juxtaposition of "financial analyst" to "English teacher" creates a contrast drawn in no small part from a post-1965 modality of the two cultures conflict.

The second storyline engages the rigorous scientific description and extrapolation of "hard" SF, focusing occasionally on principles from physics, but mainly on techniques in linguistics for "monolingual discovery," or the learning of a language between subjects who do not share a mediating language. The story thus thematizes the two cultures as an opposition between the "soft" and "hard" sciences. Along these lines, despite Louise's practice of scientific linguistics, she is coded as being on the other side of a cultural divide from the "hard" science of physics. At one point, Gary confesses to her that he had given up trying to learn Heptapod: "I'm just no good at languages." To which she replies, "I suppose that's fair; I have to admit, I've given up on trying to learn the mathematics" (124). In regard to genre, Chiang's choice of linguistics as the focus of a "hard" SF story is an unusual one, since the field is, both within and outside of SF circles, stereotyped as a "soft" science. "Hard" SF is concerned with "the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone."44 What makes Chiang's treatment of linguistics align with "hard" SF is the rigor and intricacy with which he develops Heptapod B, as well as the laws of physics he uses to analogize certain aspects of it.45 Chiang's generic revision of the "soft" SF of linguistics as a "hard" SF extrapolation is one indication of his overarching concern with achieving a formal resolution to the two cultures conflict.46 Indeed, the very title of the story"Story of Your Life"casts everything that follows in this light by gesturing at the essence of the liberal arts.

The heptapod storyline becomes a vehicle for two thought experiments. The first posits a time-symmetrical language whose users possess a "simultaneous," as opposed to "sequential," consciousness that perceives all points in time at once, past, present, and future: a mode of consciousness appropriate to what philosophers of science call "block time" or the "block universe theory." A version of this theory is presented by the Time Traveller in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine: "Really this is what is meant by the Fourth Dimension, though some people who talk about the Fourth Dimension do not know they mean it. It is only another way of looking at Time. There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it."47 As we will see, this theory is crucial to the story's postracial aesthetics.

The second thought experiment considers how this language might affect a sequential human consciousness vis-à-vis the theory of linguistic relativity. Also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this theory speculates that "The structure and lexicon of one's language influences how one perceives and conceptualizes the world, and they do so in a systematic way."48 "Story of Your Life" thus develops one of the prevailing interests in Chiang's work, the linguistic mediation of scientific reason and reality. In "The Evolution of Human Science," human scientists must decide how to interpret the impenetrable scientific research produced by super-intelligent "metahumans," so they begin developing techniques of "textual hermeneutics." "Seventy-Two Letters" poses the theory that "there [is] a lexical universe as well as a physical one, and bringing an object together with a compatible name [causes] the latent potentialities of both to be realized."49 The narrator of "The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling" observes, "We don't normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound."50 As we will see below, "Understand" centers on the novum of a language of gestalts and is in many ways an apprentice work to "Story of Your Life." For Chiang, the technologization of language is often a conduit for considerations of difference: intergenerational, racial, professional, etc.51

Upon arrival, the heptapods themselves remain in orbit, but they deploy one hundred and twelve wall-sized "looking glasses" to various sites on Earth to serve as two-way videoconferencing screens. Louise and Gary begin holding virtual meetings with the heptapods, who are patient and cooperative in teaching them their spoken and written languages, which Louise designates Heptapod A and B, respectively. These languages, Louise soon comes to realize, are completely separate: B is not "glottographic" like human writing, because it "conveys meaning without reference to speech" (108). Faced with the problem of how to categorize Heptapod B, Louise rejects the categories of logograms and ideograms, which appear to be obvious analogues. She disqualifies "logogram" because it implies a corresponding spoken word, and "ideogram" for the somewhat cryptic reason of "how it had been used in the past" (111). She settles on "semagrams," since the sentences of Heptapod B operate according to their own grammar and syntax. They look "almost like mandalas," she explains: the large, intricate, circular images representing the totality of the universe in Buddhist cosmology:

When a Heptapod B sentence grew fairly sizable, its visual impact was remarkable. If I wasn't trying to decipher it, the writing looked like fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance. And the biggest sentences had an effect similar to that of psychedelic posters: sometimes eye-watering, sometimes hypnotic. (112)

Louise describes this use of space as a "two dimensional grammar," and then stumbles upon a crucial realization after asking a heptapod to demonstrate the stroke-order of a sentence. Its design is so intricate that "the heptapod had to know how the entire sentence would be laid out before it could write the very first stroke" (123). She finds an analogy in Arabic calligraphy, which in some forms features strokes "so interconnected that none could be removed without redesigning the entire sentence ... But those designs had required careful planning by expert calligraphers. No one could lay out such an intricate design at the speed needed for holding a conversation. At least, no human could" (123).

Only a simultaneous consciousnessa consciousness that perceives "block time"could construct a sentence in Heptapod B. This realization leads Louise to existential questions about determinism and agency, freedom, and coercion. "Within the context of simultaneous consciousness," she observes, "freedom is not meaningful, but neither is coercion; it's simply a different context, no more or less valid than the other" (137). This nihilistic approach to the freedom-coercion antinomy might symbolically resolve the tension between aesthetic freedom and the ethnographic imperative, but it does not appear that Chiang finds this to be a particularly satisfying solution. Given the relativity of agency within simultaneous consciousness, Louise wonders why the heptapods bother with communication at all. Her solution is that "For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place" (138, my emphasis). For a simultaneous mode of consciousness, the only difference between Louise's daughter being dead and alive is the linguistic performance of one state of being or the other. An event is "true" when its linguistic representation rises above the merely constative and achieves a union of content (the facticity of an event) and form (the linguistic performance of an event).

As Louise builds fluency in Heptapod B, she discovers that it is transforming her own consciousness. Her thoughts become "graphically coded," and she begins experiencing "trance-like moments" in which she experiences "past and future all at once." Via the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, she undergoes a racial transformation from human to human-heptapod hybrid that proceeds by language learning, not biology: in other words, a postracial racialization. We now understand that what we have thus far been reading as Louise's prosopopoeic address to her daughter has in fact been taking place in the tenseless, performative address of Heptapod B. The story's narration becomes, from the standpoint of this realization, a representation of Heptapod B, and thus of Louise's racial difference. This racialized mode of narration correlates to postrace aesthetics in its movement away from a mimetic economy of racial representation to a narrative one.

Interdependent Narration

"Story of Your Life" not only aestheticizes but performs Asian American postracial form. Louise's narration of her daughter's life, which proceeds through a fraught economy of the evident and inevident, can be read as a metaphor for the postracial. Because her daughter is never named, and because we meet her at so many disparate ages, she never completely resolves as a character; everything we know about her is mediated by her mother. Along the same lines as Chiang's and Alexander's concepts of race, she is an effect of language, and is no less real because of it. Shortly after she is born, Louise tells her:

I feel elated at this evidence of a unique mother-child bond, this certitude that you're the one I carried. Even if I had never laid eyes on you before, I'd be able to pick you out from a sea of babies: Not that one. No, not her either. Wait, that one over there.

Yes, that's her. She's mine. (144)

Louise's "certitude" is independent from visual evidence. By this time, Louise's consciousness has already been transformed by Heptapod B, and we know that her utterance here"She's mine"is a performative that initiates the parent-child relationship in language rather than through biology and birth. It is precisely this utterance, however, that makes her daughter truly dead:

An orderly will pull the sheet back to reveal your face. Your face will look wrong somehow, but I'll know it's you.

"Yes, that's her," I'll say. "She's mine." (95)

Even though her daughter's face looks "wrong," the inevidenther "certitude"prevails again. In simultaneous consciousness, Louise's daughter is always-already alive and dead, being born and dying. Heptapod B is thus not only a language adequate to a simultaneous consciousness, it is also adequate to the complicated ontology of Louise's daughter. Just as Louise's daughter is never named, Heptapod B is never shown; Chiang offers no illustrations. The progressive displacement of Heptapod B's representation from the visual to ekphrases and narrative is thus homologous with the postracial.

The contrapuntal narratives in "Story of Your Life" are, moreover, structured in the same way as the semagrams of Heptapod B sentences. For instance, it is never made explicit that Gary is the father of Louise's daughter until quite late in the story, yet clues are offered in what we might call interdependent narrations. Gary's impatience will reappear in his daughter in a subsequent section. At one point early on in their process of learning Heptapod B, Gary asks Louise, "So are we ready to start asking about their mathematics?" To which she responds, "We need a better grasp on this writing system before we begin anything else ... Patience, good sir" (110). In the next section, their daughter cannot wait to go to Hawaii. "I wanna be in Hawaii now," she whines, and Louise tells her, "Sometimes it's good to wait ... the anticipation makes it more fun when you get there" (111). At another moment in the story, after Louise realizes that Heptapod language is performative, we are given a scene from her daughter's childhood that illustrates her realization. Tired of reciting the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" for the umpteenth time, Louise decides to make a few changes. These her daughter rejects, insisting, "That's not how the story goes." Flabbergasted, Louise asks her why she wants to hear the story if she already knows it goes. She replies: "Cause [sic] I wanna hear it!" (138).

Scenes in one narrative illustrate aspects of the other in a manner clearly meant to mimic simultaneous consciousness rather than, say, the interconnectedness of leitmotif's progressive accrual of meaning and cohesive effect across a narrative space. Just as a story's quantum of pleasure is, for a child, undiminished by endless repetition, so for the heptapodsand possibly Chiang's readersdoes the performance of an already scripted future actually infuse that future with value: it makes that future "true."

Chiang stages the interdependency of the story's two narratives visually as well. In one scene, Louise's fourteen-year-old daughter is pestering her for an answer to a homework question: "Mom, what do you call it when both sides can win?" In a subsequent scene, set chronologically before her daughter has been conceived, Gary groans sarcastically in response to something a US diplomat says:

"If we handle ourselves correctly, both we and the heptapods can come out winners."

"You mean it's a non-zero-sum game?" Gary said in mock incredulity. "Oh my gosh."

"A non-zero-sum game."

"What?" You'll reverse course, heading back from your bedroom.
"When both sides can win: I just remembered, it's called a non-zero-sum game." (128)

Louise's daughter's statement: "A non-zero sum game" returns us to the homework scene from before, so it is as if Gary had answered her question more than fourteen years before she had asked itor, as if the time elapsed makes no meaningful difference.

These interdependent narrations, which become more apparent as the story proceeds, approximate the simultaneity of Heptapod B in narrative form, as well as Louise's hybrid racial consciousness. Indeed, Heptapod B's time-symmetry makes possible an infinite range of interdependent possibilities, over against the linear causality of sequential temporality.52

Asian American Postracial Form

The trope of the language of gestalts in Chiang's earlier story, "Understand," prefigures Heptapod B and thus provides a kind of control case for the Asian American racial forms that, in "Story of Your Life," are displaced onto narrative. As these forms appear in "Understand," they possess the convenient virtue of remaining entirely within the orbit of the post-1965 dynamic. Picking up the well-worn SF trope of the super-genius, "Understand" considers what a confrontation would be like between two individuals whose intelligence is increased by orders of magnitude after an experimental hormone therapy. Its protagonist, Leon, eventually finds that his intellectual development is being hindered by the limits of his language, so he begins inventing a new one (51). Like Heptapod B, Leon's new language is analogized with "ideograms," and, elsewhere, "mandalas." It is, moreover, "gestalt oriented," designed to convey totalities rather thanto use terms offered by Gary in "Story of Your Life""linear," "one-channel" communications.

The story's plot tracks the growth of Leon's intelligence, and culminates in his confrontation with Reynolds, another super-intelligence who has undergone the same treatment. Both Leon's development and his confrontation with Reynolds are driven by the thematics of the two cultures antinomy, which is posed as an opposition between scientific and poetic reasoning. In Leon's attempt to maximize the cognizing capacities of extant human languages, he begins experimenting with poetic form:

I'm writing part of an extended poem, as an experiment; after I've finished one canto, I'll be able to choose an approach for integrating the patterns within all the arts. I'm employing six modern and four ancient languages... Each line of the poem contains neologisms, born by extruding words through the declensions of another language. If I were to complete the entire piece, it could be thought of as Finnegans Wake multiplied by Pound's Cantos. (48)

The idea of "multiplying" one form by another echoes the virtues of Heptapod B's "two channel," "two dimensional" grammar. Joyce's and Pound's magnum opuses are suggested as analogies presumably because of their intensely heteroglossic and multilingual form, as well as their formal experimentations that aspire to maximal representation approaching totality. Finnegans Wake moreover introduces a resonance with Giambattista Vico's La Scienza Nuova and its narrative of human progress that, as in "Understand," is charted against a narrative of linguistic progress.53 With the Cantos, Leon's language is analogized not only with Pound's innovations in poetic form54 , but also with Pound's project of developing a hybrid poetic language adequate to a transcendent Sino-American culture.55 Here we find a structure of racial form that is consistent in much of Chiang's work: the routing of Asian content through a mediating context. Indeed, it is not so much that Chiang's work is devoid of Asian content; it is, rather, devoid of direct references to Asian content. This content is rendered "inevident" not because it is absent, but because it operates in a different mode than a mimetic concept of race. When Asian or Asian American content appears, it is systematically mediated: here, through Pound; in both "Understand" and "Story of Your Life," through the thematics of the two cultures; and in regard to Heptapod B, through discarded references to ideograms, and technical (rather than cultural) analogies with mandalas.

Leon's pursuit of "ultimate self-awareness" eventually sets its sights on creating mind-computer links that would transform all of humanity into a giant "artificial brain" that would be capable of perceiving the most complex "gestalts," thus incarcerating individuals in the service of a collective consciousness.56 Reynolds is diametrically opposed to Leon. His focus is on the external worldon the lives of "normals," and how he might use his intelligence "for establishing a global network of influence, to create world prosperity."57 Where Leon sees himself as "a lover of beauty," Reynolds loves "humanity" in the manner of a technocratic dictator who sees science and technology as the answer to humanity's ills.

When Leon finally meets Reynolds, who has been pursuing him through various guises (e.g., manipulating specific stocks in Leon's portfolio whose ticker codes spell out his name), they honor each other through a brief, intense exchange of knowledge. This exchange occurs verbally, through an extemporaneous performance of the hyper-condensed poetic language Leon has described:

Reynolds says, quickly and quietly, five words. They are more pregnant with meaning than any stanza of poetry: each word provides a logical toehold I can mount after extracting everything implicit in the preceding ones...

We continue. We are like two bards, each cueing the other to extemporize another stanza, jointly composing an epic poem of knowledge. (64)

This, apparently, is a description of Joyce "multiplied" by Pound. The "epic poem" Leon and Reynolds create is a sublation of the two cultures at the level of form and content, and thus a symbolic resolution to a typically Asian American mode of occupational segregation. Leon's experience of this "epic poem" is aesthetiche speaks of the "beauty" of his and Reynolds' intelligences. His aestheticism is the result of a mise-en-abyme of self-reflexive thought: a kind of existential enclosure that aims for melancholy transcendence. Neither he nor Reynolds is able to convince the other to join his side, and each has plans that are mutually exclusive with the other'sthus their confrontation. Reynolds eventually defeats Leon with a trigger word, "Understand," a kind of super-speech act that instigates a rush of mental associations that Reynolds has programmed to kill Leon. It is at this point that Leon concedes that "pragmatism avails a savior far more than aestheticism."58 His only response to Reynolds' attack is to try to quickly "metaprogram" himself to resist the trigger word, but he does this to no avail. His final narration both indicates and conceals the trigger word: "I comprehend the Word, and the means by which it operates, and so I dissolve."59 It is not so much the "Word" that kills here as its operation. Like the postracial, it simultaneously stands at a remove from, and yet constitutes reality. It indicates and conceals itself in the same gesture.

Melancholy Transcendence as Permanent Parabasis

Because of how race moves between the evident and inevident in Chiang's fiction, and because of its shifting status as an explicit or excluded criteria for the aesthetic valuation of his fiction, we are reminded of what Karen Shimakawa calls, in her study of Asian American performance, the "abject" body of the performer whose "Asian Americanness ... comes into visibility in ... its constantly shifting relation to Americanness, a movement between visibility and invisibility, foreignness and domestication/assimilation; it is that movement between enacted by and on Asian Americans ... that marks the boundaries of Asian American cultural (and sometimes legal) citizenship."60 We are reminded of this concept, but Chiang enacts its negative: rather than produce his Asian American identity in the act of abjecting himself, he abjects his Asian American identity in order to produce himself. That is, he produces a racially unmarked authorial persona whose exclusion of race and ethnicity at once elevates his methodical production of melancholy transcendence to a stylistic signature, and moves toward a kind of agency that, in Cheng's words, "recognizes competition between performance and performativity." Crucially, it is a competition that this agency recognizes. Not merely performance on one hand and performativity on the other, visibility and invisibility, evident and inevident, but the dialectic between the two.

If we read Chiang's exclusion of Asian and Asian American content as symptoms of racial melancholia, then we can identify instances of this agency: moments of melancholic compulsive repetition that reproduce the lost or excluded object. In one scene in "Story of Your Life," Louise and Gary have dinner at a Chinese restaurant, "one of the local places we had taken to patronizing to get away from the encampment. We sat eating the appetizers: potstickers, redolent of pork and sesame oil" (123). This is a completely unmotivated detail that makes itself conspicuous by its unprecedented announcement not just of ethnic content, but of an ethnic content that is somehow expected, that we have been waiting for all along. It is a stereotypical performance that produces what Josephine Lee calls a "supersaturation of significance."61 Min Hyoung Song seizes upon this detail as one possible way to read the story as Asian American literature.62 Similarly, Betsy Huang finds in the story's mentions of mandalas and ideograms as reason to bemoan Chiang's "guarded adherence to the conservative techniques of the genre, perhaps at the cost of its radical political potentials."63

As I have been arguing, however, endorsing the evident as the register in which the Asian American-ness of a text is to be adjudicated not only risks reproducing essentialist notions of race, it also ignores Chiang's own richly developed postracial aesthetics. Along these lines, Chiang's "exclusions" are best understood as attempts at performing aesthetic freedom over against the performativity of the ethnographic imperative. These exclusions also resonate with the generic principles of science fiction (and, indeed, genre writing more generally), in which the conservative and the transgressive are put in tension. John Huntington writes, "The SF addict wants to feel the tension of the paradox of freedom within a structured imperative."64 This is crucial: in order for aesthetic freedom to be legibly performed, there must be a limiting context, a "structured imperative" that works against it. The Chinese restaurant might thus be read as a deliberate performance of stereotypical Asian American contentindeed, as "redolent" of Asian American content. The restaurant is an ethnic detail that, in its very conspicuousness, announces aesthetic freedom by referencing a context that (as Chiang would appear to have it) at no moment governs the text. It thus announces itself, and itself alone, as the sole Asian American feature of the text, thus implying that the rest of the text is definitively not Asian American. The Chinese restaurant is thus not the stigmata of an Asian American text, but a trope that in the total context of "Story of Your Life" participates in the production of Asian American postracial form. It is not evidence of race, but the "doings" of race, to paraphrase the postracial critics Hazel Rose Markus and Paula M. L. Moya.65

Such a detail is reminiscent of the adventitious modernist detail championed by Erich Auerbach that, by virtue of its randomness, is the sign of that aspect of the human that is unassimilable by any totalizing system. What is thus projected by such a detail is the totalizing system itselfhere, normative Asian American frameworks. When Louise rejects the term "ideogram," she does so "because of how it had been used in the past." This vaguely stated reason might in fact reference a debate in the history of scientific linguistics, but that is neither here nor there given the modernist aesthetics (Joyce and Pound) that we know inform the trope of the language of gestalts in Chiang's fiction. It appears more likely that this reason references Orientalist appropriations of ideogrammatic writing that were so central to the modernist aesthetics of figures like Pound and Gary Snyder.66

Projecting this context and immediately putting it aside is part and parcel of the rigorous procedure that produces the "precise," "methodical" style that culminates in "melancholy transcendence." This strategy could thus be said to clear the way for a counter-Orientalist, predominantly technical analogy between Heptapod B and mandalas. These assertions of freedom viz. racial and ethnic politics and genre conventions allow the aesthetic autonomy of thought experiments to prevail over pragmatic concerns, scientific speculation to rise above humanism. Where "Understand" ends in self-defeat, "Story of Your Life" aspires to something different.

Chiang seems aware, however, that these assertions of freedom might not be enough; that no matter how much he insists, through innovations of form, or exclusions of content, his work is still governed by the ethnographic imperative, or will at least be read through that lens:

When you're three [Louise tells her daughter] and we're climbing a steep, spiral flight of stairs, I'll hold your hand extra tightly. You'll pull your hand away from me. "I can do it by myself," you'll insist, and then move away from me to prove it ... We'll repeat that scene countless times during your childhood. I can almost believe that, given your contrary nature, my attempts to protect you will be what create your love of climbing: first the jungle gym ... and ultimately cliff faces in national parks. (135)

Even as Louise's daughter asserts her independence, she is never fully independent of her mother's protection. Even in death, her life is guarded by her mother's mediating narration. There is in the various exclusions and forms of "Story of Your Life" a hand-in-hand relationship with a mode of Asian American-ness that is frequently refused and displaced, but never completely excluded or abandoned. Indeed, just as Louise's protection ultimately produces its opposite (i.e., her daughter's love for dangerous climbing, which will claim her life), Chiang's exclusions, in the manner of the melancholic, ultimately reproduce the very object of exclusion. The crucial difference is that Chiang reproduces the object via narration rather than mimeticallythat is, as an Asian American postracial form, rather than a racial form.

Louise's daughter's turning away from her mother on the staircase symbolically enacts Chiang's turning away from the ethnographic imperative in his paradoxical assertion of aesthetic freedom and generic conservativeness (or "traditional" SF, to use Miéville's term). An important component of the Asian American-ness of Chiang's postracial aesthetics, then, is the two-step process of projecting a totalizing system (the ethnographic imperative) and turning away from it. This turn is a moment of extradiegetic self-consciousness that recalls the trope of parabasis from Greek drama, in which the dramatic illusion is broken or suspended and the chorus addresses the audience directly on a topic unrelated to the dramatic action or diegesis. Saldívar argues that postracial American fiction is "riven by the trope of parabasis" and that it aims to "[transport] us beyond the historical contingencies of magical realisms and postmodern metafiction into the realms of twenty-first-century structures of fantasy" in which "neither literary realism, nor modernist estrangement, nor postmodern play, nor magical realist wonder can suffice as formal stand-ins for the concrete content of justice."67 Chiang's fiction differs, however, from the somewhat teleological model Saldívar offers here. The "content of justice" and the autoethnographic reading methods required to recover it, are indexed by references to Chinese restaurants and whatnot, but Chiang is not interested in the teleology of social justice here. While Saldívar suggests that the parabasis of postracial fiction looks forward to the cessation of its turns and revolutionsthus enacting, in his phrase, a "speculative realism"Chiang's fiction begins and ends with the premise that the postracial is a melancholy transcendence. The melancholic reproduction of the excluded object obviates the very possibility of speculation, insofar as it returns us to a certain reality. Parabasis in Chiang's fiction is thus as permanent as the present of simultaneous consciousness.68

In "Understand," Leon pursues the mise-en-abyme of self-reflexive thought as an aesthetic project that threatens to colonize humanity and homogenize it as a race of cyborgs conscripted into the production of "the ultimate gestalts ... the [merging] of subject and object: the zero experience."69 This is an apt description of melancholy transcendence: the conflation of the "ultimate gestalts" and the "zero experience," of subject and object, of everything and nothing, that results from turning from one of these positions to the other. This also describes a postracial theory that posits race as everything and nothing, subject and object, as well as the constant, cognitive vacillation from one of these positions to the other. "Understand" pushes parabasis to the extremes of self-absorption, and thus implodes in an anti-mimetic agency signaled by the paradox of Leon's statement, "I dissolve": Does he dissolve as he is saying or thinking this, or just after? Is this a performative or constative statement? Saldívar's theorization of postracial fiction would have it that this is, somehow, a performative statement that is homologous, or even identical, to a "content of justice." "Story of Your Life," in contrast, moves beyond the mere description of a paradox in order to perform an agency that at once realizes itself amidst the competition between performance and performativity, subject and object, sequential and simultaneous consciousness, but also realizes that transcending this competition will only return one to it.

When Louise claims her daughter on the day of her birth, she initiates the paradox of parenthood: The knowledge that one is at every moment losing one's child. That the security one provides as a guardian is mortgaged by a tormenting, permanent risk of loss. That "She's mine," which is the fundamental claim of a parent is, like all performatives, only true under very specific conditions, and is ultimately false. One's child is always-already charting an independent trajectory to an inevitable death. Language brings Louise's daughter into a kind of ontological being, but the brute fact is that it can never bring her back to life. Between the story's two focal pointsfrom "'She's mine'" to "She's mine"in the midst of its rotation from the quoted to the unquoted, from human to human-heptapod hybrid, from the two cultures antinomy to its sublation, we perceive the permanent parabasis of an Asian American postracial aesthetics. Louise's daughter's name, which we never learn, transcends the story's narration in Heptapod B, hovering over it as the antecedent to the title's pronoun. But her life and death are in thrall to her mother's facility in an impossible language.

 

Christopher T. Fan is a PhD candidate in English at UC Berkeley, where he is completing his dissertation, American Techno-Orientalism: Speculative Fiction and the Rise of China. He is also a contributing editor at Hyphen magazine, which he co-founded. His writing has appeared there as well as The New Inquiry, and the Journal of Transnational American Studies.

 


 

  1. My thanks to Post45's editors Merve Emre and Palmer Rampell, research assistant Daniel Murphy, the editorial board, and the anonymous reviewer for their guidance and helpful comments on this article. Thanks also to Colleen Lye, Takeo Rivera, Stephen Sohn, and Sunny Xiang for their feedback on earlier drafts. This article is dedicated to Eliot and Casey, my little bipods. []
  2. Not incidentally, a bidding war at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival ended with Paramount Pictures signing a $20 million contract for the rights to a film version of Chiang's "Story of Your Life." Mike Fleming, Jr., "UPDATE: Cannes: Paramount Confirms 'Story Of Your Life' Acquisition; $20 Million Is Fest Record Deal," Deadline Hollywood, May 14, 2014. []
  3. Yoonmee Chang, Writing the Ghetto: Class, Authorship, and the Asian American Ethnic Enclave (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 201. []
  4. For a reading of Aloft through the optic of racial form, see Mark Jerng, "Nowhere in Particular: Perceiving Race, Chang-rae Lee's Aloft, and the Question of Asian American Fiction," Modern Fiction Studies 56.1 (Spring 2010). []
  5. Stephen Hong Sohn, Racial Asymmetries: Asian American Fictional Worlds (New York: New York University Press, 2014). []
  6. Lin's novel Taipei (New York: Vintage Contemporaries Original, 2013) includes a scene at the Asian American Writers Workshop, in which his protagonist, a semi-autobiographical Taiwanese American writer named Paul, looks around and mutters to his companion, "I feel like I hate everyone," 133. Frank Chin's patrolling of the divide between "real" and "fake" Asian American literature (Chinese American in particular) has offered one of the foundational antinomies of Asian American literary studies. See Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Shawn Wong, Lawson Fusao Inada, eds., "Preface," Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974), and Frank Chin, "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake," The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature, eds. Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Shawn Wong, Lawson Fusao Inada (New York: Meridian, 1991). []
  7. Viet Thanh Nguyen, Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). []
  8. See Colleen Lye, "Racial Form," Representations 104 (Fall 2008): 92-101. []
  9. I borrow the temporal conflation of the "indicated" and "concealed" from Chiang's story, "Tower of Babylon." There, the protagonist Hillalum is the first of a team of miners to break through the cosmic firmament, up to which the mythical tower has been built. After climbing through the breach, he is shocked to discover that he has emerged back on Earth, not far from the base of the tower. He thus realizes that the universe is in fact unrolled like a print made by a seal cylinder:

    When rolled upon a tablet of soft clay, the carved cylinder left an imprint that formed a picture. Two figures might appear at opposite ends of the tablet, though they stood side by side on the surface of the cylinder. (28)

    This becomes a description of the empirical closure and spiritual foreclosure of the universe, and one of the most efficient moments of melancholy transcendence in Chiang's oeuvre: "By this construction, Yahweh's work was indicated, and Yahweh's work was concealed. Thus would men know their place." "Tower of Babylon," Stories of Your Life and Others (2002; repr., Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2010). []

  10. Sherryl Vint, "Notes and Correspondence: Suggested Further Readings in the Slipstream," Science Fiction Studies 38.1 (March 2011) []
  11. China Miéville, "Wonder Boy," The Guardian (UK), April 23, 2004. []
  12. John Clute and Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (New York: Doubleday, 1979). []
  13. Ted Chiang, interview with Vandana Singh, "The Occasional Writer: An Interview with Science Fiction Author Ted Chiang," The Margins, The Asian American Writers Workshop, October 3, 2012. []
  14. Ted Chiang, "Understand," Stories of Your Life and Others, 55. Miéville appears to mean "melancholy" in the colloquial sense of pervasive sadness, as opposed to the pathological depression Freud contrasts with the healthier process of mourning. There is nonetheless a structural similarity between the two. A transcendence is implied when Freud narrates the process of melancholia: "Thus the shadow of the object fell across the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were the object, the forsaken object," "Mourning and Melancholia," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, trans. James Strachey (1917; trans., London: Hogarth Press, 1953), 249. Melancholia, like melancholy transcendence, is what happens when an outside becomes an inside. This is Anne Cheng's point of departure in her reconfiguration of racialized subjectivity as a mode of melancholia in which the subject's otherness to itself is mediated by racism, in The Melancholy of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). []
  15. Ted Chiang, interview with Betsy Huang, "Interview: Ted Chiang," The Asian American Literary Review, May 24, 2013. []
  16. Ibid. []
  17. Ted Chiang, interview with Jeremy Smith, "The Absence of God, an Interview with Ted Chiang," Interzone 182 (September 2002). A character in Chiang's story "Liking What You See: A Documentary" (2002) appears to ventriloquize this position: "There's no neural pathway that specifically handles resentment toward immigrants, any more than there's one for Marxist doctrine or foot fetishism. If we ever get true mind programming, we'll be able to create 'race blindness,' but until then, education is our best hope," "Liking What You See: A Documentary," Stories of Your Life and Others, 258. []
  18. Chiang, interview with Vandana Singh. []
  19. Chiang, interview with Betsy Huang. []
  20. See Ramón Saldívar, "Historical Fantasy, Speculative Realism, and Postrace Aesthetics in Contemporary American Fiction," American Literary History 23.3 (Fall 2011), and "The Second Elevation of the Novel: Race, Form, and the Postrace Aesthetic in Contemporary Narrative," Narrative 21.1 (January 2013); Elena Machado Saez and Raphael Dalleo, The Latino/a Canon and the Emergence of Post-Sixties Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Min Hyoung Song, The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, As an Asian American (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); Kenneth Warren, What Was African American Literature? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); Touré, Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now (New York: Free Press, 2011). []
  21. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva offers one of the paradigmatic theorizations of postrace in his book Racism without Racists (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003). []
  22. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012), 2. []
  23. Ibid., 13 []
  24. Ibid., 12 []
  25. Lye and Warren make similar claims in regard to Asian and African American literature, respectively. []
  26. Song, 207. []
  27. Song, 101 []
  28. Saldívar shares this view but then proceeds to develop the most sophisticated formal analysis that we yet have of postracial aesthetics. In fact, to some extent his formal attention comes at the cost of a fuller analysis of "the goal of [postracial] ethnic writers to imagine a state of achieved social justice [through their] protest stories," "Historical Fantasy," 593. []
  29. Lisa Lowe, "Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Asian American Differences," Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996). []
  30. Saldívar, "Second Elevation of the Novel," 3. See also Jeff Chang's cultural history of the post-Civil Rights era and the postracial, Who We Be: The Colorization of America (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2014). My review of Chang's book elaborates on some of the historiographical problems posed by the postracial, "Jeff Chang's History of Multiculturalism," Hyphen, October 21, 2014 []
  31. C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959) []
  32. Post-1965 occupational segregation occurred swiftly and decisively. Paul Ong and John M. Liu observe that "In 1964, out of 5,762 immigrant scientists and engineers, only 14 percent came from Asia... By 1970, the absolute number had increased to 13,337, with Asians comprising 62 percent of the total... A similar change occurred in medicine. Of the 2,012 foreign medical graduates (FMGs) entering as permanent residents in 1965, 10 percent came from Asia... by 1972... Asians [accounted] for 70 percent of the total FMG population," "U.S. Immigration Policies and Asian Migration," in The New Asian Immigration in Los Angeles and Global Restructuring, eds. Paul Ong, Edna Bonacich, and Lucie Cheng (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 58. According to the 2013 Pew Research Center's survey of Asian Americans, Asians receive roughly three-quarters of H-1B temporary worker visas, which are overwhelmingly awarded to workers in technical fields. Moreover, Asian Americans enter science and engineering fields at nearly three times the rate of the general population. "The Rise of Asian Americans," ed. Paul Taylor (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 19 June 2012), 27, 65. []
  33. Olga Alonso-Villar, Coral Del Rio, Carlos Gradin, "The Extent of Occupational Segregation in the United States: Differences by Race, Ethnicity, and Gender," Industrial Relations 51.2 (April 2012): 189, 191. Importantly, these professions represent only one pole around which Asian American occupational segregation accumulates. The other, according to Alonso-Villar, et al, consists of "low-paid occupations (such as "miscellaneous personal appearance workers," "tailors, dressmakers, and sewers," and "sewing machine operators")," 11. []
  34. Chiang, "Understand," 70. []
  35. Colleen Lye, America's Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 5. []
  36. "Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S.," U.S. News and World Report, December 26, 1966. []
  37. To be sure, a similar article appeared in the New York Timesalso in 1966that credited education ("almost never in the liberal arts") for the post-internment rebound of the Japanese American community. Along with the U.S. News article, these articles might be said to represent the pre- and post-1965 model minority stereotypes, with the Times article, as I have been arguing, becoming our current paradigm. William Peterson, "Success Story, Japanese-American Style," The New York Times, January 9, 1966. []
  38. Laurence Yep's "The Selchey Kids," If 18, no. 2, issue 123 (February 1968), in which San Francisco falls into the ocean after an earthquake, was the first SF short story published by an Asian American. The first novel published by an Asian American was Yep's Sweetwater (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), a young adult, off-planet SF story in which human-alien racial conflict metaphorizes Yep's feelings of alienation as a Chinese American growing up in a black neighborhood in San Francisco. Prior to Ted Chiang's 1990 Nebula, the only Asian American ever nominated for a major SF award was William F. Wu. After 1990, Asian Americans have either won or been nominated for more than 80 of these awards. The ratio of Asian American SF publications (mostly short fiction) before and after 1990 registers a similar explosion. []
  39. Ted Chiang, interview with Adam Israel, "Interview: Ted Chiang," The Clarion Foundation Blog, February 7, 2012. []
  40. There is a great deal of overlap between what I have been describing as the two cultures of Asian American SF and the "technomodernism" that Mark McGurl describes as the generic form extending from the overlap of scientific and artistic priorities as complimentary modes of "creativity" in the postwar American university. To be clear, what gives Asian American SF its specificity is the degree to which post-1965 immigration's racial/national/professional priorities have shaped its internalized tension between aesthetic freedom and the ethnographic imperative. Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009). []
  41. Cheng, xi, 20. []
  42. Judith Butler, quoted in Cheng, 51. See Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993), 12-13. []
  43. Cheng, 59. []
  44. Allen Steele, "Hard Again," The New York Review of Science Fiction 4.46 (June 1992). []
  45. For example, the story never explicitly mentions the theory of "block time," but instead explains the simultaneity experienced by the heptapods through an analogy to Fermat's principle of least time, which posits that "the route that [a] light ray takes is always the fastest possible one" (118). []
  46. Betsy Huang also notes this feature of Chiang's work: its "integration of two distinctive types of SFthe academic exercise of 'hard' SF with the human interests of the 'soft' variety," Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 108. []
  47. H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (New York: Norton, 2009). Philosophers of metaphysics trace the origin of the "block universe" theory to J. E. McTaggart's temporal concepts of the "A-," "B-," and "C-series," from his seminal article, "The Unreality of Time," Mind 17 (1908). []
  48. Chris Swoyer, "The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2003). []
  49. Chiang, "Seventy-Two Letters," in Stories of Your Life and Others, 149-50. []
  50. Ted Chiang, "The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling," Subterranean Press (Fall 2013). []
  51. This is Song's reading of Chiang: "It may be more productive to wonder what Chiang's works, when read as Asian American literature, are able to contribute to an imagining of difference as such" (101). While I agree this is an interesting and productive approach to Chiang's work, I would emphasize that my approach moves in a diametrically opposite direction: towards the specific, rather than the general (even metaphysical). []
  52. We might say here that Chiang's narrative representation of simultaneous consciousness reflects the postsocialist transformation of the stereotype of Asian futuritya transformation that collapses its temporality into an inescapable present. []
  53. See Samuel Beckett, "Dante... Bruno. Vico... Joyce," Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (Paris: Shakespeare & Co., 1929). []
  54. Preceded, of course, by his creative translations of Chinese poetry in Cathay (1915). []
  55. According to Josephine Park, "Ezra Pound fashioned an American Orient which believed in a singular consonance across the Pacific; and the East provided him with a voice and a landscape which ultimately resonated with generations of American poets who echoed the precision of his longing, cultivated in the light of a Chinese sun," in Apparitions of Asia: Modernist Form and Asian American Poetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 25. See also Steven Yao, Foreign Accents: Chinese American Verse from Exclusion to Postethnicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). []
  56. Chiang, "Understand," 58, 59. []
  57. Ibid., 64 []
  58. Ibid., 70 []
  59. Ibid., 70 []
  60. Karen Shimakawa, National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 3. []
  61. Josephine Lee, Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 90. []
  62. Song, 101 []
  63. Huang, Contesting Genres, 113. []
  64. Quoted in Huang, Contesting Genres, 105. See John Huntington, "Science Fiction and the Future," in Science Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Mark Rose (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976), 161. The best recent formal account of SF is Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.'s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), which should not be read without equal attention to Darko Suvin's foundational Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979). []
  65. Hazel Rose Markus and Paula M. L. Moya, eds., Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2010). []
  66. See Park []
  67. Saldívar, "Historical Fantasy," 581, 593-4, original emphases. []
  68. While Saldívar also draws from Friedrich Schlegel's definition of irony as a "permanent parabasis [eine permanente Parekbase]," "Historical Fantasy," 581, to characterize postracial fiction, the teleological commitment to the "content of social justice" he attributes to that fiction undermines the permanence of its parabasis, and thus its irony. My argument is that Chiang's fiction is committed, for lack of a better word, to the postracial itself, rather than the possibility of moving beyond it. []
  69. Chiang, "Understand," 58. []