Ted Chiang and Fictional Examples of Concepts Considered in English 4574

So far in English 4574, my classmates and I have read about all sorts of science-fiction-sounding concepts. Wood’s ideas about the incorporation of artificially intelligent virtual assistants into our daily lives (think Siri, Alexa). The idea that picto-, ideo-, and logograms are all unique ways humans communicate, as discussed by Schmandt-Besserat. Young people’s increasing reliance on “smart” or assistive technology like word processors as showcased by Grabhill et all.

If you’re anything like me, then you might feel that although these concepts are intriguing to consider, they’re sometimes difficult to imagine happening. Either that, or their consequences have yet to fully play out in our world. We as a society are still in the throes of dozens of issues like the ones above. Issues of privacy, memory, self-expression, and communication all tied up in the realms of English composition, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and probably more to come. We’re living through history. The issues discussed by the academics we read are ours to tackle.

But, again, if you’re anything like me, you don’t exactly know where to start. Or, you think the issues themselves are interesting–entertaining, even–and want to read more about them. Allow me to introduce you to the works of Ted Chiang.

Ted Chiang is an American author famous for his thought-provoking science fiction short stories and novellas. Amazon.com: Arrival 11x17 Inch Movie POSTER: Posters & PrintsYou might be familiar with the movie version one of his more famous works: Arrival. The movie is based on Chiang’s short story titled “The Story of Your Life.” The plot centers around a linguistics professor named Louise Banks who is tasked with deciphering the complex language of aliens who have just arrived in Earth’s orbit. The story delves into ideas about cultural anthropology, the three “-grams”, and the paradigms of memory.

But wait! There’s more! Chiang has written two collections worth of short stories over the course of his career, and language/communication seems to be a favorite topic of his. His story “Seventy-Two Letters” dives into archaic ideas of names having intrinsic power. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is a twist on our usual artificial intelligence story: instead of Siri or Alexa, scientists create semi-sentient digital “pets” called Digients. The story examines how humans interact with and treat these Digients, and what that says about us.

My favorite of Chiang’s language-related stories is probably “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Fiction”. This story harkens back to Plato’s ideas about memory and writing, but brings these concepts into a fictionalized version of our not-so-distant future. Characters in the story use a technology called Remem as a sort of constant life log. Every moment of their lives is recorded and sorted into categories, essentially externalizing human memory; exactly what Plato feared.

TLDR: Chiang’s stories provide excellent examples of the sorts of concepts we’ve been considering in class. Chiang’s prose is characteristically moving and lyrical while simultaneously drawing upon real scientific theories. If you haven’t read any of his work before, I highly recommend you do.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *