Beauty is one of the most fascinating subjects relative to humanity. Both subjective (‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’) and objective (refer to the principles of advertizing), it is a quintessential aspect of human motivation, and conversely, de-motivation. Playing with the idea as only science fiction can, Ted Chiang’s 2002 novella-length Liking What You See: A Documentary is an equally fascinating examination of the concept. Dismantling beauty, then building it back up again in relation to other human characteristics, the novella remains unparalleled in the genre.
Liking What You See: A Documentary is centered around Tamara Lyons, a first year university student at Pembleton who has recently had her calliagnosia deactivated. ‘Calli’ is a neurological means of turning off a person’s ability to see beauty in the human face, and Tamara, after spending her entire youth with the non-invasive procedure in place, is starting her undergraduate studies getting used to the idea of seeing the aesthetics of the people around her. This is not to say everyone used to look like a lemming, rather that the specific node of the brain which registers beauty and ugliness was turned off, facial characteristics still completely visible. Being in public, seeing her friends at school, and most importantly, looking in the mirror through the lens of beauty/ugliness are now entirely different experiences for Tamara. It is thus when a student organization proposes that every student at the university be made to go through the calliagnosia process that Tamara is forced to consider whether she was better off before or after.
As indicated by the title, Liking What You See: A Documentary is truly structured like a journalistic effort. Transitions are noted like subtitles of the interviewee’s name, content thereafter either informative or opinionated. Through this approach Chiang is able to explore the aspects of beauty as it is able to be switched on and off from a variety of human perspectives, as well as the repercussions of public and personal reaction. Cleverly bringing consumerism into the mix, a story happening in Tamara’s background is the media war being waged between cosmetics companies and proponents of the student group’s proposition. Tamara’s parents, friends, school mates, industry executives, and supporters of calliagnosia are all given face time (ha!) in presenting the differing facets and factions—like any good documentary.
Like many documentaries, Chiang also places a subtle spin on matters. Something the unobservant may miss, the novella is pointed in a certain direction. I will leave it for readers to discover how, but suffice to say the concept of being able to turn off beauty/ugliness yet retain cognizance of people’s physical features is fascinating, and the manner in which Chiang unpacks the idea only proves it—for romantics and aesthetes.