Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ted Chiang's "Understand": Clash of two supermen

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!

Collected in.

  1. Ted Chiang's "Stories of Your Life and Others".

Fact sheet.

"Understand", short story, review
First published: Asimov's, August 1991.
Rating: B
Related: All stories of Ted Chiang.

See also.

  1. Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon" (1959): Obviously an inspiration for this story, & much better at that, though I haven't seen credits given.
  2. 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.


Anonymous said...

I can't fault your assessment of this story, but your implied criteria of what is worthwhile in a story seems hidebound to mechanics, and totally ignores what is often really great about Ted Chiang's stuff -- the integration of hard science and narrative. This story in particular, crams a whale load of actual science topics dealing with the nature of intelligence and philosophy, and manages to do so without the obfuscated techno-babble that stereotypically plagues SF. Some of these topics are indeed ridiculous-seeming and boring, but they are genuine intellectual topics in the fields. Flowers for Algernon, by comparison, has no science aspect at all (other than the initial conceit), and it is telling that it was a successful mainstream Broadway play, so of course it passes the traditional metrics of excellence, but at the same time it offers no exploration of the S part of SF. Understand is certainly clumsy and overwrought as you say, but it deserves to have more than just those faults brought into consideration.

Tinkoo said...

I actually love several of the Chiang stories. But some of his works leave me untouched - including this one.

I guess somewhere the personal prejudices against certain kinds of choices might be at work. I certainly wasn't entertained by this story, nor come back any wiser. "Flowers for Algernon", on the other hand, touched a deep emotional cord.

"manages to do so without the obfuscated techno-babble that stereotypically plagues SF. Some of these topics are indeed ridiculous-seeming and boring, but they are genuine intellectual topics in the fields.": I'm very much with you here. That still doesn't make me like this story, though.

"S part of SF": Care to elaborate how this story does it better than "Flowers for Algernon"?

Anonymous said...

I wish Chiang would do "DVD commentary" for some of his stories, but here is my attempt:

[He goes to the terminal and taps at the numeric keypad. "Try this one." He reads a fourteen-digit number, and I repeat it back to him. "You think you can do it backwards?" I recite the digits in reverse order. He frowns, and starts typing something into my file.]

This likely refers to the short term memory of 5 plus/minus 2 objects that humans supposedly are capable of recalling (hence the 7 digit limit on phone numbers).

[More nightmares. They're not all actually violent, but they're the most bizarre, mind-blowing dreams I've ever had, often with nothing in them that I recognize. I often wake up screaming, flailing around in bed. But this time, I know they'll pass.]

One theory behind sleep is it is the time where several key stages of learning-retention takes place.

[However, during one of my forays into number theory, I found a lovely technique for factoring extremely large numbers. With this technique, a supercomputer could break this encryption scheme in a matter of hours.]

Prime numbers are the basis of most all computer encryption, and there is believed (but not proven) to be no efficient way of factoring them.

[I understand the mechanism of my own thinking. I know precisely how I know, and my understanding is recursive. I understand the infinite regress of this self-knowing, not by proceeding step by step endlessly, but by apprehending the limit. The nature of recursive cognition is clear to me. A new meaning of the term "self-aware."]

This relates to an overlapping series of topics in philosophy/mathematics/linguistics/epistemology which deals with machines/languages that model themselves.

[He didn't design the command to be spoken; it's not a sensory trigger at all. It's a memory trigger: the command is made out of a string of perceptions, individually harmless, that he planted in my brain like time bombs. The mental structures that were formed as a result of those memories are now resolving into a pattern, forming a gestalt that defines my dissolution. I'm intuiting the Word myself.]

At a basic level, this resembles a computer virus, but Chiang seems to be referencing the philosophical underpinnings behind computer viruses, and tying that into linguistic and religious philosophy. (Chiang revisits the subject with a different approach in a later story about Golems.)

I picked a few, but practically every paragraph in this story is rooted in some established topic of science. You say you have come back none the wiser for having read this story, but perhaps if you visit or revisit the underlying topics in the future, you may find yourself apprehending certain patterns in the back of your mind suggested here.

[No matter what I study, I can see patterns. I see the gestalt, the melody within the notes, in everything: mathematics and science, art and music, psychology and sociology. As I read the texts, I can think only that the authors are plodding along from one point to the next, groping for connections that they can't see.]

If you take the POV of author as narrator, then Chiang comes across as a self-proclaimed genius here, which is surely embarrassing and clumsy a thing to do as a writer, but this is a meta-summary of the story itself: bringing connections to a set of seemingly disparate topics.

Flowers for Algernon is a fine classic, but it doesn't hinge on any science topics at all (for example, Charlie could easily gain and lose his intelligence through a demonic Faustian bargain instead of surgery with little alteration to the story). Here, the entire story rests on these topics. I think what Chiang was trying to go for was to mirror in the reader what was happening to the protagonist in the story, for the reader to "Understand" from the various seeds implanted by the preceding paragraphs. Maybe it's a failure, but I think it deserves applause for having tried, and I can't think of any other story that has attempted to do so in a comparable way.

Sherry said...

I have to admit that this is one of the most memorable stories of the 30 years I've been reading Asimov's and Analog. While Flowers for Algernon was moving and memorable in a Lifetime movie of the week sort of way, I found Understand so much more inspiring. Comparing the two is almost like comparing a new car brochure and the shop manual. Along with Alan Dean Foster's The I Inside, it is one of the first stories that got me thinking about the exact nature of our consciousness, our limits, and what makes us us.