Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review of Seventy-Two Letters by Ted Chiang

Explored pointedly in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, reproduction is a fundamental aspect of being human, but one which is mutable.  There are moments it is planned, and moments it is unplanned, and oscillating between these two points the species has propagated itself through the millennia—at least as far as we know (*wink*).  Though the approach is entirely different than Huxley’s, Ted Chiang’s 2000 Seventy-Two Letters is another story bringing into focus the significance and responsibility of the human creative act.

Imagery and backdrop residing ever-so-close to what most perceive as the core of the sub-genre, Seventy-Two Letters is undoubtedly steampunk, though with a strong fantasy edge.  Set in pre-industrial Britain circa the mid 1800s, the novella is the story of Robert Stratton, a nomenclator working in a factory that produces golems.  Made of clay, the anthropomorphic objects are animated with codes, called names, that are written on pieces of paper and inserted into the neck.  Each golem able to perform a limited number of actions based on the coding, Stratton has grand plans for the reduction of manual labor through the introduction of a new model he has recently developed with opposable digits.  But when a pair of scientists approach him regarding the application of his knowledge on human fetuses, Stratton’s research into the application of names takes him into uncharted territory for the human race.

Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein is a deeply personal look at two humans: a creator and createe.  Seventy-Two Letters goes a step further, taking Shelley’s idea of the createe to the level of mass-production.  Employing his own imaginative artifice as to the manner in which humans are unnaturally created, Chiang nevertheless keeps his focus on the human condition, that is, rather than descending into the sensationalism and base entertainment that plague adaptations of Shelley’s work.  The novella largely an exercise in world building, or in this case perhaps better to write ‘theory building’, a significant portion of the text details the fantastic science underpinning the main conceit, namely the manner in which 19 th century British scientists vat-grow people, and the implications thereof.

But the idea of ‘name’ is the root of the story.  Derived from Judaism (as if the title and golems weren’t enough of a hint), the animative power Stratton wields with paper codes comes indirectly from kabbalistic studies of the cosmos and the imagined society’s understanding of spirituality.  Chiang appropriating the fantastical elements but never entering into commentary or discussion on the religion, it remains for the denouement—a powerful handful of paragraphs—to spell out the universal nature of his spiritual, and as it were, human concern.  A bold statement, Chiang accounts for the ideas’s shortcomings prior yet remains adamant as to its veracity upon the conclusion.  (It will be a joy for the reader to discover the actual details behind this vague statement.)  

In the end, Seventy-Two Letters is a novella that exists at the intersection of Frankenstein, and The Difference Engine.  An intentionally pseudo-scientific story that is more concerned with the direction of humanity’s evolution, the superficial elements—golems, Judaism, the Industrial Revolution, and vat grown humans—are only the doorway to discussion on the some of the most basic ideas surrounding human procreation, most particularly the role mankind plays in the process.

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