Seventy-Two Letters by Ted Chiang

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” from his short story collection “Stories of Your Life and Others” represents the steampunk genre in which nineteenth century capitalism is exploited under the light of science fiction. This requires amendments in inherent rules of history which has already played out in reality. Much like in “Tower of Babylon”, this story resides in a universe with new set of rules, using a Victorian background to embolden technology which dictates societal change from the fringes. In this fictional Victorian world, magical theories which might be attributed to being unscientific or simply supernatural are fully functional.

Robert Stratton is a Victorian-era scientist working on the science of robotics and nomenclatures. The concept of “names” works akin to a magic spell, rendering an inanimate work of ceramics or clay (golems) with an essence or soul, so to speak. As a researcher, Robert has discovered such spells to give robotic hands an almost human-like dexterity. He aims to create automatons that can assist the poor with their labour, but this idea is met with resistance. Later he is acquainted with Lord Fieldhurst, an influential nobleman, who recruits Robert on a clandestine project he has been working on which aims to, essentially, create animated human beings just by using the spell. Having forecasted earlier the limit of generations human beings can survive to, new ways of procuring “names” are to be employed if human survival is to be ensured. From thereon, the direction in which human evolution proceeds can be dictated by those who hold the power to these “names.”

The reasons for employing the concept of nomenclatures in this narrative is two-fold. Firstly, it gives rise to the interminable debate of mass-production versus unemployment and labour rights. Secondly, it solicits consideration for the line between Creator and Creation which may be blurred due to rapid technological advancements. Stratton infers that human beings would lose their ability to procreate naturally about the same time machinery would gain capabilities for self-induced reproduction. The primal threat of this science is humanity losing its essence to automatons.

Once again, Ted Chiang synthesis hard science with narrative skill to play on human anxieties which have remained more or less similar in all of history. Since this was my first brush with the steampunk genre, dense usage of some concepts left me in the dark for which I had to do ample research (but not extensive enough to warrant me credible in a discussion). However, the string of debate pitting science in light of religion and vice versa is stimulating. Without delving deeper into religious examples, Ted Chiang sets religion as a back-story upon which fundamentals of science are questioned. Many would disagree with this assessment but the continuous strain of religion in his stories so far show the author’s inclinations towards accepting it as a truth rather than formally negating it all together. Religion and science coalesce to give human form their essence of intrigue and curiosity, and discrediting either leads to nothing but manifestation of ignorance.

  • Your desire for reform does you credit. Let me suggest, however, that there are simpler cures for the social ills you cite: a reduction in working hours, or the improvement of conditions. You do not need to disrupt our entire system of manufacturing.
  • The human species has the potential to exist for only a fixed number of generations, and we are within five generations of the final one
  • Cataclysms are not responsible for mass extinctions, but rather generate new species in their wake
  • The lexical order of an amulet reinforces the order a body already possesses, thus providing protection against damage
  • The hand’s dexterity is the physical manifestation of the mind’s ingenuity
  • What kind of victory would we achieve if the continuation of life meant ignoring this opportunity
  • If the name were to become available to such women, they might establish a commune of some sort that reproduced via parthenogenesis. Would such a society flourish by magnifying the finer sensibilities of the gentle sex, or would it collapse under the unrestrained pathology of its membership? It was impossible to guess
  • You ‘nomenclators’ steal techniques meant to honor God and use them to aggrandize yourselves. Your entire industry prostitutes the techniques of yezirah. You are in no position to speak of fairness

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