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Justin Lee

Ted Chiang’s Impersonal Universe

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second or perhaps less; I don’t know how many birds I saw. Were they a definite or an indefinite number? This problem involves the question of the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because how many birds I saw is known to God. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because nobody was able to take count. In this case, I saw fewer than ten birds (let’s say) and more than one; but I did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, but not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That number, as a whole number, is inconceivable; ergo, God exists.

— Jorge Luis Borges, “Argumentum Ornithologicum”

Ted Chiang 1Jorge Luis Borges is one of a handful of writers whose every work fills me with awe and envy. I’m awed by the precision of his paradoxes, his ability to usher me into mysteries at once beautiful and haunting. I’m envious because his aesthetics so resonate with me that I feel as if each story I read is a story I’ll never get to write.

Ted Chiang is another such writer. Like Borges, his craft is as precise as clockwork. The elegant inevitability of his plots, which unfold as if mapped upon some narrative Golden Mean, suggests an orderliness to reality without diminishing its mystery. Take, for instance, “Tower of Babylon,” in which the biblical story of Babel is reimagined sans-idolatry: an entire civilization is organized around the desire to be nearer to God Most High. When the hero at last pierces the vault of heaven and enters the “waters above,” he swims upwards until breaking the surface—and finds himself on Earth again, just outside the city, swimming in the “waters below.” The structure of reality is precise, circular, self-contained—and for that reason, unfathomable.

“Argumentum Ornithologicum” is but one of many pieces that illustrate the kinship between Borges and Chiang—their passion for the ambiguities of language and mathematics, their careful, laconic rendering of complex ideas. It is also emblematic of their greatest divergence: Borges was a mystic; Chiang is a materialist.

I had the opportunity to hear Chiang speak this past spring at the University of California at Irvine, where I teach. Students in our Rhetoric and Writing courses had been reading Chiang’s collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, and were primed to listen and engage. Chiang’s subject was the differing worldviews of science fiction and fantasy, which dovetailed nicely with the focus of our courses. It was a fascinating, astute analysis of the political and moral implications of genre. More interestingly, the talk and subsequent Q&A session revealed important tensions in Chiang’s own work.

He opened his talk with a well-worn Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” While superficially true, Chiang argued, vast differences exist between the technological wonders of science fiction and the magic of fantasy stories, the most significant difference being that in fantasy the universe is presumed to be personal, whereas in science fiction it is impersonal.

Chiang offered a short discursus on the history of science. In his telling, the pivotal moment was the emergence of chemistry—a genuine science—from the magical discipline of alchemy. The latter involved the purification of the soul alongside the purification of a base metal into nobility, while the former was grounded in observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and systematizing. Alchemy failed and chemistry prevailed, said Chiang, because the soul is of no consequence.

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