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Friday, March 10, 2017

"Understand" by Ted Chiang

First appeared in Gardner Dozois's Asimov's, reprinted by Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, and Kathryn Cramer. It won the Asimov's Readers' Poll and was up for the Hugo and Locus awards.
Leon has fallen into a lake that's frozen over. He awakes from a coma after having been given an experimental drug, Hormone K, that revitalizes his lost neurons. The drug does far better than expected. In fact, he soon learns that his intelligence has surpassed what it was previously. The doctors are so amazed they put Leon through new experimental dosages to test Hormone K's effect. Even the CIA takes an interest in his case.
Commentary with Spoilers:
Like "Story of Your Life" which has an homage to Samuel Delaney's Babel-17, the opening sequences pays homage to Daniel Keyes's classic "Flowers for Algernon".

The strengths of the tale is its escalating sense of wonder and gestalt. While some of the plot tinkers with Leon outwitting the likes of the CIA, much relies on simple wish fulfillment. Who wouldn't want to be smarter?

While arrogance underlies Leon behavior toward his inferiors, he also fights for the freedom of his former girlfriend and spares the lives of his temporary enemies: CIA members and its director. As his intelligence grows, his thoughts grow ever more abstract for some length (which, while cool, could be reined in). Finally, he meets his new nemesis who appears to have a head start on Leon's ever-blooming genius.

A segment in the Peter Orullian interview with Ted Chiang struck me as relevant:
PO: [Y]ou could chose to write from the POV of a rather reprehensible person and attempt to make them sympathetic, should you? 
TC: [W]e as authors have to consider the moral dimension of what we write. If you think fiction can have a positive effect on how readers conduct their lives, then you have to acknowledge the possibility of a negative effect, too.... To me, where a writer draws the line is usually less important than the fact that the writer has thought about the issue. 
While most of Chiang's work seems thought out, this feels like it's composed on the fly. Each part is cool in itself, but some assembly is required. A sudden antagonist appears--who initially calls himself Greco (allusion to the painter?). Leon has grown too big for his britches and needs a slap-down. When you compartmentalize the sections--Birth, Battle for Independence, Gestalt, Showdown--the relationship or progression as a story is not clear. Why these parts and not others?

The story ends with the repetition of "dissolving". Dissolving involves the redistribution of parts throughout a solution, so through what substance is Leon redistributing in each case? In the end, he is losing his superman status to mere mortal--or perhaps a dead one? In the beginning, it was his descent into death as he lost consciousness and presumed death if someone had not saved him, kept him alive while he was in a coma and given him the Hormone K therapy to recover. Are we to suppose this is a loop? That he will end up in the hospital again and start the journey all over? Probably not. Presumably, his nemesis, Greco or Reynolds, would not allow a repeat performance, not to mention the CIA and doctors.

Perhaps dissolving bears a light throughout the text that illuminate another interpretative possibility.

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