Ted writes surgically precise sci-fi, and he does it by blending credible science and deeply human emotional beats. Its effects did inspire less imagination in me than JLB's work, however.
It is a short story collection, and since I recently took to jotting down my thoughts directly on the paper of the book I will just re-tell them here, albeit a little fleshed out.
Tower of Babylon
This story breathes surgical precision in formulations and plot structure.
It appears to me as a clever metaphor for the goallessness of life. What are we striving towards but the never-ending build of a tower to reach the heavens. The main character is surprised to see people living in the tower without ever having set foot on the earth, but this is us. We are born amidst a moving world, never having witnessed fundamental creation. We are obsessed with striving towards ideals---a perfect self, a peaceful and plentiful world---but we die before reaching any. We live somewhere along the impossibly tall tower of Babylon.
The conclusion felt a bit "tell", with the main character just acting as a mouthpiece of the author. But after all, this is only Ted's first published story.
An ingenious exploration of a realistically enhanced human, this story has great potential for unreliable-narrator vibes. The narrator is ADHD-esque, obsessed with his own possibilities, hopping from thing to thing, excited about his capacities.
There is so much more for me to learn about the human body. E.g., pheromones actually exist, but they sound exceptionally sci-fi.
This story reminds me that I should read that book by Bill Bryson: The Body: A guide of occupants.
Division by zero
Beautiful exploration of mental hardships in a relationship, with a mathematically-flavoured theme.
Is this even science fiction? Yes, though some people might not expect it. Science fiction is not just a genre; it includes all existing genres within itself. Kind of like the Universal set, leading to Russell's paradox.
Story of your life
This is the short story that was adapted into Denis Villeneuve's Arrival. I re-watched the film and then read this story.
The story is beautiful. Ted's precise style works incredibly well for it. Expertly woven threads, of which I trust that they will be resolved in entanglement to great satisfaction.
It just feels very secure to be guided through the story by Ted, thanks to his mastery of writing.
The conclusion of the film did feel unelegantly expository. The ending of the text makes more "sense", but is a bit sizzly---as in, it slowly extinguishes without a big, satisfying climax.
Actually, the text's ending feels weirdly unsatisfactory, where the film gives some kind of purpose to the heptapods that fit their nature very well. The text does nothing to interpret the heptapods' motivation.
Very nicely built up to a chilling turn in pseudo-scientific racial directions, when Lord Fieldhurst reveals his deeper motives of which he is internally convinced will serve only benign goals.
Made me think a bit on how Ted writes. At some point, he might have developed a fascinating, subversive idea, but to make it work in a story, he has to build it up. In comes the human, with motivations of their own, but still relatively ignorant of some greater implications of the system. This gives a good framework for thinking about stories. The exploration of your sci-fi worlds will flow naturally.
Hell is the absence of god
Practical realism and fundamental inequality in the world of god and angels. When god becomes concrete and palpable, the world does not actually become a better place. The randomness introduced by miracles perpetuates inequality, suffering, and rivalry. Angel visitations are natural disasters with all respectively ensuing shenanigans.
Liking what you see: a documentary
Framing this story as a documentary---a sequence of short monologues of in-world people---is a great way to slowly expose the worldbuilding.
The agnosia for voice intonations and facial expressions already become way more dystopian. Especially because of this underexplored subset of deepfake technology to optimize and refine persuasive qualities of a recording of one's voice or body.
The main argument around which this story revolves is a familiar one. In the same way that refined coca leaves turn into the highly addictive cocaine that hijacks our bodies much more effectively, Ted's story argues that natural beauty of human faces can be hypertuned by commercial industries to exploit our human psychological inclinations.
We were never meant to see so much beauty in our lives.