I’ve been contributing to a discussion over at Torque Control about Ted Chiang’s BSFA- and Hugo-nominated story ‘Exhalation’, which I liked, but was not as enthusiastic about as some people, including the blog’s own Niall Harrison. ‘[F]or those who are less keen on “Exhalation”: how do you feel about “Understand“?’ Niall asked in the comments. I’ve answered him over there, but thought that a longer post here would also be useful.
Ted Chiang, if the name is unfamiliar, is a science fiction writer who has published relatively little (eleven pieces of short fiction since 1990), but has nevertheless been very highly acclaimed. ‘Exhalation’ was my first encounter with Chiang’s work; the 1991 novelette ‘Understand’ was my second — and now I really begin to see the reason for all the acclaim.
A holographic designer named Leon Greco is revived from a deep coma by treatment with ‘hormone K’, which restores damaged neurons. An unexpected side-effect of the treatment is increased intelligence, with the increase in direct proportion to the amount of brain damage originally sustained. Leon’s brain damage was more severe than anyone else treated with hormone K; and, sure enough, he finds his intelligence growing to levels unprecedented in humanity. Presently, Leon starts to see the patterns underlying everything, and becomes able to do pretty much anything he wishes, including evading the authorities who see him as a danger to [insert name of your choice]. He is master of his self and his destiny — until he detects the presence of a comparable human intelligence…
It seems to me that Chiang set himself a remarkably difficult task with this story: to enable his readers imagine the unimaginable, and then to make doing so for an extended period feel worthwhile — it wouild be quite easy for a reader to turn around and say, ‘Okay, I understand that he’s working on projects entirely beyond my comprehension, so please can you stop trying to describe them, and move on?’ There’s no need for that here: Chiang gets the balance right, giving us enough to get a flavour of how Leon uses his new-found abilities, but not so much that it becomes tedious.
We also see how Leon’s intelligence changes him — subtly at first, then increasingly less so; from quite a sympathetic character to something nigh-on un- (or in-) human, motivated by only knowledge and aesthetics. As the story progresses and Leon makes new discoveries, there’s a constant momentum driving us forward and forward, until… BANG! And Chiang manages to keep it grounded; even the final showdown between Leon and his hyper-intelligent nemesis — which is, in a sense, two gods hurling thunderbolts at each other across mountains — has a vital air of authenticity (as much as it could ever have one!).
‘Understand’ also poses interesting moral questions. If it were possible to ‘grow out’ of normal human intelligence, would one also grow out of human morality? Would that even be desirable? Leon and his nemesis adhere to two different post-human moral frameworks, neither of which seem particularly good to me. But that’s my human morality talking.
In sum, I found much to think about in ‘Understand’, and much to enjoy. And I have another nine Ted Chiang stories to go yet.