Sunday, 18 December 2011

I'd Hope My Life Would Read Rather Better

Hmm.  I have to say I was somewhat underwhelmed by this Ted Chiang collection, considering the amount of praise that's been heaped upon it.  The rear cover promises much: "Here are stories that explore the boundaries between science and religion, between determinism and our ability to choose, between words and the entities they describe." 
That's not entirely inaccurate, insofar as there is a story about how science and religion would view very differently the ability to animate entities by discovering their "true names".  Indeed, that story - "Seventy-Two Letters" - is almost certainly the best of the seven on offer here (I'm discounting "The Evolution of Human Science", which at three pages is simply a nod to what could be a story rather than a narrative in itself).  This tale is base on two excellent and solid concepts. First is that the method by which the golems of Jewish myth is both real and obeys rigid logical laws, allowing it to be studied as both a scientific discipline, and as a method for unveiling the secret code through which God fashioned Creation. 

The second is the idea that the capacity for all life was brought into being at the same time - that foetuses are not created, merely enlarged, generation after generation being already prepacked and stored like Russian dolls.   The drive of the story is the discovery made by French scientists that humanity's supply of foetuses is five generations away from drying up entirely.

This concern with the difference between form and life and energy and control is used to great effect, and manages to say some quite interesting things about the way humanity views the world along the way.  More importantly, however, it's genuinely a story, with a beginning, a strong impetus, a revelation and a conclusion.

Not every story here is constructed so well.  "Division By Zero" simply stops, apparently because Chiang believes he's made his point.  Said point is this: mathematicians would probably go completely bonkers with misery were arithmetic to be proven to not be consistent (essentially, that 1+1 need not equal 2).  Obviously, I have no problem believing that to be the case, but it might have saved some time had Chiang simply told us that straight out rather than trying to fashion a story from it.  Indeed, Chiang does say it in the story notes that conclude the collection, rendering the entire exercise (interesting mathematical asides notwithstanding) seem rather pointless.

"Story of your Life", too, also simply seems to peter out once The Big Idea (spoiler: that learning a language which can only be read holistically would give one the ability to perfectly predict the future, which I assume is why the above blurb refers - somewhat disingenously - to deerminism vs free will) has been fully deployed.  There's some intellectual challenge in realising that that is what's going on, and in piecing together the purposefully jumbled narrative, but in order to set up his good-but-not-that-good payoff, Chiang introduces a fascinating cultural exchange between an equally absorbing alien race who visit Earth, and then simply disappear at the story's conclusion. I suspect this in particular is simply down to personal taste, but it does feel like the most interesting aspect of the story - the how and why of these delightfully impossible creatures - has been hastily jettisoned once they're no longer needed for Chiang's pet idea.

It also doesn't help that Chiang's technique isn't really good enough to overcome the obvious difficulty of describing languages and attendant concepts that exist beyond what we can readily conceive.  "Understand" suffers to an even greater degree from the same problem - a first-person story about a super-intelligent human attempting to assemble the perfect language which is written in English is problematic enough, and Chiang's rather utilitarian prose simply compounds the issue.  

Worse still, there's really nothing particularly original in the tale, either.  "The Tower of Babylon" is better, with some nice ideas about the nature of a tower tall enough to include multiple settlements with their own lifestyles, but the language isn't good enough to sustain the journey, nor the ending sufficiently strong to impress with its arrival. 

The collection does pick up in the second half.  We've discussed "Seventy-Two Letters" already, but there's also "Hell is the Absence of God" and "Liking What you See: a Documentary".   The former is built around a rock-solid core: even if God's existence s irrefutable, it still wouldn't make it simple to love someone so unpredictable and seemingly disinterested in your welfare.  The latter features multiple testimonials about the possibilities offered by a method that blinds one to human beauty, but ultimately takes a left turn and becomes something far more interesting. 

Even so, the same problems resurface: uninspiring prose, and a significant difficulty in avoiding bland info-dumps.  Even within the confines of a fictional documentary, the exposition feels too thick to easily swallow.  In the end, I rather suspect whether or not one likes any of these stories is based entirely on how interesting one finds the one (or if you're very lucky, two) ideas Chiang is spinning out.  There's simply too little else here to hang your interest on.

1 comment:

Pause said...

While I agree that Seventy-Two Letters is the best tale on offer here, I still think that, as a story about the secret language of Creation, it works best as a metaphor for the discovery and subsequent manipulation of DNA than anything Chiang had intended.

Otherwise I guess I ranked the stories more or less in the same order you seem to have. I wish the foreseeing aliens had hung around longer, too.