Understand by Ted Chiang

★★★★☆ (4/5)

“Understand” is another short from Ted Chiang’s “Stories of Your Life and Others”. Leon Greco, the protagonist, is injected with an experimental drug of hormone K to heal brain damage incurred by an accident. The drug regenerates his neural network resulting in advanced intelligence on all levels of cognition, sensory and motor skills. As he gets more cerebral he becomes a target for government agencies and has to thwart their plans of capturing him. Later on in the story Leon meets Reynolds, another human with super-intelligence who had been injected with the drug. The two super-beings meet in adversity as they stand on opposite side of spectrum in regards to their motivations and what they hope to achieve through this immense brain power.

One element of Ted Chiang’s writing that stands out is how adept he is at infusing hard science with simple story-telling. This is a story seeped in science fiction, yet the reader does not feel alienated at any point since the author has refrained from using overtly technical terms. Of course psychologists and programmers are at a better position to discern the underlying implications of a few mathematical and psychological concepts, but the simple syntax of the story can very well be comprehended by any general reader.

Another aspect of Ted Chiang’s writings is the striking imagery aroused by arrangement of words in sentences so much so that every scenario seems plausible and can be pictured vividly in mind’s eye. “Tower of Babylon” created sense of immense height and vertigo whilst confronting a creation of magnanimous consequence. “Understand” creates a sense of perpetual film-like rush as we traverse the plane of intelligence briskly, from Leon comprehending internal biological changes during a conversation, to reprogramming his own mind to face hostility, from creating his own language that can better convey his fast-paced thoughts to fleeing capture by the CIA. Leon’s heightened perceptions and ability to recognize inherent structure, meaning and order in everything around him run parallel to the rapid yet compact arrangement of this story.

The only repose in narrative style is offered during Leon’s encounter with Reynolds when both super-humans delve into each other’s intelligence to conclude what can be done by this power both possess. Leon has been self-centric in utilizing this potential, tending towards activities only beneficial for himself. Reynolds, on the other hand, aims to make use of his capabilities for betterment of the world at large. Hence both characters are pitted against each other in fight for ultimate survival. Reynolds claims run contrary to his actions since he doesn’t flinch from taking lives in order to create minions who could assist him in improving the human condition. This seems despotic. Leon states that whilst his inclinations were towards beauty and aesthetics of natural systems, Reynolds were towards enlightening of humanity and society in order to solve their problems. Yet roles are reversed in the last instant when Reynolds doesn’t hesitate in killing Leon. Through designing a murder in order to attain his goals, Reynolds invalidates his own stance of being a saviour for entire mankind. He survives the battle of wits, but at the cost of sacrificing all moral obligation, of which human life is the most important. Leon contrives mercenary use of his powers without causing external harm, but fails to be of service to anyone other than himself.

Overall “Understand” is an exciting and engaging story, reflecting on the limits imposed by nature on the most super-human of abilities.

I’m designing a new language. I’ve reached the limits of conventional languages, and now they frustrate my attempts to progress further. They lack the power to express concepts that I need, and even in their own domain, they’re imprecise and unwieldy. They’re hardly fit for speech, let alone thought.

I acquire years of education each week, assembling ever-larger patterns. I view the tapestry of human knowledge from a broader perspective than anyone ever has before; I can fill gaps in the design where scholars never even noticed a lack, and enrich the texture in places that they felt were complete.

Pattern recognition again, but this time it’s of a mundane variety. Thousands of pages of reports, memos, correspondence; each one is a dot of color in a pointillist painting. I step back from this panorama, watching for lines and edges to emerge and create a pattern

I’m reminded of the Confucian concept of ren: inadequately conveyed by “benevolence,” that quality which is quintessentially human, which can only be cultivated through interaction with others, and which a solitary person cannot manifest. It’s one of many such qualities. And here am I, with people, people everywhere, yet not a one to interact with. I’m only a fraction of what a complete individual with my intelligence could be.

I’m closing in on the ultimate gestalt: the context in which all knowledge fits and is illuminated, a mandala, the music of the spheres, kosmos.

The individuals are tragically like marionettes, independently animate but bound by a web they choose not to see; they could resist if they wished, but so few of them do.

We continue. We are like two bards, each cueing the other to extemporize another stanza, jointly composing an epic poem of knowledge

3 thoughts on “Understand by Ted Chiang

  1. Vee says:

    Ever hear of leading off with “spoiler alert” when you’re going to reveal the ending? I was really looking forward to reading this story–thanks a lot!


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