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Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Seventy-Two Letters" by Ted Chiang

First appeared in Ellen Datlow's Vanishing Acts, reprinting by David G. Hartwell, Ann VanderMeer, and Jeff VanderMeer. It won the Sidewise award and was up for the Hugo, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Locus, and Seiun Awards.
Even as a precocious child, Robert Stratton put various Hebrew words in the mouths of clay dolls to watch them animate and see what they would do. He learns his precocious buddy has isolated and grown "preformed" spermatozoa to child-size.

When Stratton gets older, he creates the first golems who can manipulate objects with his hands. The idea was to ease the burden off the poor. His boss is horrified, however. He sees it as a way to put sculptors out of a job, and he will block Stratton every step of the way.

Meanwhile, a Kabbalist stops by wanting to exchange information. He knows the word to golems to feed themselves their own words. It's a no-deal.

Finally, Stratton learns there's a whole secret society existing to perpetuate experiments the public may not approve of. Their scientists have learned that society is doomed within five generations.
Commentary with Spoilers:
The homunculus--the idea that humans exist in a microscopic form in either the egg or sperm--is not a new device in SF, but it must certainly be a new take. Here the "preformed" were made at the beginning of creation and the number of preformed generations is about to end. This, they say, explains the cataclysmic end of earlier Earth species.

Add to that the idea that biological beings can be animated like the golems, and you have Chiang's resolution to the idea that humanity's preformation crisis. Humanity will live on with the word's inside them that allows them to live. The ending satisfies although an iota of power leeches away due to the undramatic nature of what must occur.

This may be one of Chiang's best. The characters are more striking. The rich ideas play out their complexity in a fresh and surprising manner. In some ways the plot mirrors the earlier "Understand", where scenes seem to appear just for the purpose of developing ideas; however, the dilemma behind the ideas unite the scenes so that transitions feel integral.

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