Mar 17, 2017

stories of your life and others, a review

i just finished ted chiang's book of short stories, aptly titled stories of your life and others.  it's a masterpiece, not so much in the telling of the stories, but in the characters and the conceits.  the framing is impeccable. unfortunately, the dialog and cadence is not -- often the narrative feels driven by the underlying message more than a natural progression.  that Chiang's vision overcomes the obvious weaknesses in his prose speaks strongly to clarity and unbridled compulsion behind his tales.

broadly speaking, these stores are amatuerish prose driving deep, biting, provocative thoughts.

technical mastery aside, several of the stories circle the theme of the limits of intelligence, and what alternative forms of perception might feel like.

what he reveals says much, in my own estimation, of how we perceive and understand intelligence.  chiang's collection could be seen through the lens of really questioning the limits of human cognition, driving at what about human interactions changes when we move the boundaries of intellect.  what struck me the most forcefully about his projections was how much forms of 'more' or 'less' intelligence relied on barriers between the levels; a character's perception is as much defined by another's lack.

what is intelligence? is it speed of thought?  ability to see patterns? capacity for recollection?  in what ways do these skills become more or less important, depending on context?

ultimately, intelligence *is* context driven; pushing the boundaries of how we think is a test of how permeable and transposable that context is.  chaing's tales reminded me of an anecdote I read years ago, probably from one of Jared Diamond's books, of how IQ and SAT tests and the like would roundly be failed by an aboriginal or Papa New Guinea native; conversely a man who had done well on the SAT had little chance of surviving for long in the outback without assistance.  Forest dwellers can identify plants and tell what way is north with an acuity that 'civilization' dwellers find uncanny.  what you know is only as important as the requirements of the environment you find yourself.

ted chiang's construction and description of intelligence, while acknowledging the contextual nature of any intelligence, still insists on creating a world where 'higher order' thoughts become unintelligible.  there's a boundary at which thoughts of a higher order require a faculty that most do not possess.

however, such a construction is in direct contradiction to what we can observe about intelligence in the real world: that while new ideas contain within them the power to alter our fundamental understanding of the world (a point that Chiang hits with remarkable clarity), the ability to clearly and concisely communicate them in such a way that they are readily dissemenable is a hallmark of the genius.  Richard Feynman's diagrams often come to mind.  what chiang then seems to be proposing is a future where the context of our selves has shifted such that we cannot communicate.

and perhaps this future is not as far off as it seems.


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