This story starts off very well, but quickly degenerates. Initially into the escape & survival of a "not criminal" man hunted by CIA that is abusing it government powers. Later of a long & boring litany of improvement to human consciousness possible if neurons in the brain had more interconnections. And an uninspiring & extraneous ending.
You can download the full text of the story here.
Story summary.Leon Greco has been through an accident that destroyed a lot of his brain cells. He gets a new & experimental "hormone K treatment". Not only does the treatment rejuvenate the killed cells, but also creates far more dendrites (connections between neurons, the "thinking cells" of brain).
Result is a super-smart & all new Leon. After getting cured, he is enrolled into further drug trial programs, & gets more shots of "hormone K". Very quickly, he is an intellectual superman - way beyond the ordinary folks. That is when CIA gets interested in him. And he easily outsmarts them - thanks to his newly acquired intellectual powers.
Then follows a long litany of great additional discoveries he is making about himself & environment, & wonders of enhanced consciousness. Until we come to silly ending.
Turns out there is another superman created by the same program, one Reynolds - but treated a few days before Leon, so he is intellectually Leon's slight superior. But the two have different philosophies to life. Leon wants to live his own enhanced life quietly. Reynolds is sold as a world savior, but came across (at least to me) as a despot - he claims to be working to better the life of humanity, what if he has to kill a few people on the way as experimental guinea pigs!
End is killing of Leon by Reynolds, Chiang's model superman.
We are told anyone can be killed by pronouncing a mantra to him - possibly after preparing the subject's mind to self-destruct on receiving the mantra. Title of the story comes from the mantra whose full text is "Understand" - planted in the mind of Leon as self-destruct command by Reynolds, & eventually used as the weapon to kill him!
- Ted Chiang's "Stories of Your Life and Others".
Fact sheet."Understand", short story, review
First published: Asimov's, August 1991.
Related: All stories of Ted Chiang.
- Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon" (1959): Obviously an inspiration for this story, & much better at that, though I haven't seen credits given.
- Brian Stableford's "The Trial": Another story of a drug trial that drastically improves the intellectual competence of the subjects. But it doesn't turn them into anything approaching supermen of Chiang.