Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters" (novella): Talking about current issues using a mystical plot device

Quote from short story titled Seventy-Two Letters by Ted ChiangI found it a bit tedious read; took me several days to finish it. But I have this love/hate relationship with Chiang's stories - I find some first rate, others not quite.

Full text of this story is available for download.

Story summary.

Story is set in London - apparently some centuries back, but some things in this world are post-modern.

At the heart of the story is the idea of using a mantra to animate both inanimate matter, & the living stuff - in controlled ways. Mantras are 72-letter "names", letters drawn from Hebrew alphabet.

Groups of researchers are engaged in "discovering" the names that animate stuff in specific ways - sort of generating permutations that work. If you've read Arthur Clarke's "Nine Billion Names of God", the idea will already be familiar.

These names are patented & closely guarded. We get an introduction to aspects of modern patent debate.

A name animates its object by coming in touch with it.
  1. If it is something inanimate - like a statue (golem?) - the thing will have a little cavity set somewhere in its body. You write the name on a piece of paper, & insert it into cavity. And the statue becomes a robot - with qualities granted by name!
  2. In case of living matter - like a human sperm or egg - you impress the name on a tiny needle, & touch the target with name using an elaborate lab procedure. Result will be an embryo with qualities granted by name.
Story has two main tracks.

Story summary: track 1.

Robert Stratton is an idealistic researcher who has discovered a name (or is it many names?) that give the hands of robots almost human dexterity. This is likely to enable automatic production of robots for household chores - leading to major changes in economy, & freeing the not so well off from many routine chores.

Master Willoughby is some kind of a leader of the guild of statue makers. They feel their income threatened. We get some drama, plus introduction to the modern debate of the rights of displaced workers vis-a-vis the relentless march of technology.

Story summary: track 2.

Edward Maitland aka Lord Fieldhurst is a rich & influential nobleman, & has been funding a secret project. Dr Nicholas Ashbourne is a well-known name researcher involved in this project.

Hearing about Robert's work with dexterous robots, Fieldhurst wants to recruit him to this secret project; in return, he will protect Robert from opposition to his ideal of helping the common man.

This secret project is interesting. A human sperm's mating with an egg, & resulting production of an embryo, doesn't involve genes, but names! Names of all the future human generations are already held inside each sperm; that's how subsequent generations differ from their parents.

Species go extinct when the collection of names in their sperms run out! New species come into being by high energy natural phenomena - along with all the names they will ever have, effectively determining the time of their extinction.

Someone has figured out that only 5 more names remain in human sperm. Means humanity will go extinct in 5 generations!! This information has been kept secret to avoid panic, & the object of secret project is to figure out new names & ways of perpetuating the race.

Along the project, Robert & Ashbourne will discover the secret agenda of Fieldhurst. Since the new method will require lab intervention, nobleman & others of his cast will control human breeding, & proper balance between different classes of humanity!!! And decide who can breed, & who cannot!

Of course, the two heroes will work a method out - some way of recursive name impressing on eggs & sperms (or may be it's only one kind?) that will not only allow humanity to continue living, but won't need labs for reproduction. Natural ways of breeding will just work find, denying powers to new would be masters.

Collected in.

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

Fact sheet.

First published: Ellen Datlow (Ed)'s "Vanishing Acts" (2000).
Rating: B
Related: All stories of Ted Chiang.


Dark Wolf said...

I found Ted Chiang's fiction recently and enjoy it a lot.

Tinkoo said...

Agreed. Sometimes he is very good.