The Bridge Between Truth/Death and Power/Knowledge: Ted Chiang's "Seventy-two Letters"
By Greg Beatty
16 April 2001
From time to time a new writer appears in the firmament of the science fiction universe like a new star, a star that shines with surprising brightness. Ted Chiang is one of those stars. In 1990, Chiang's first published story, "Tower of Babylon," won the Nebula for best novelette. Each story since has been striking; most have debuted in high profile venues and immediately been reprinted, some winning the author more awards along the way, most recently last year's Nebula for best novella for "Story of Your Life." However, no critic has yet attempted to explain what makes Ted Chiang's work special. I'd like to open that discussion here. I will focus on one of Chiang's most recent stories, "Seventy-two Letters," in order to explain the power of Chiang's fiction, and to show how Chiang draws on generic strengths to address contemporary anxieties about humanity's place in the world.
"Seventy-two Letters" is one of the finest representations of the SF subgenre of steampunk. As the "-punk" suffix suggests, steampunk, like cyberpunk, is a neologism, describing a fairly coherent collection of works which first emerged in the late 1980s. However, while cyberpunk works in a setting of late capitalist decay and anarchy, with computer technology as its primary trope, steampunk revisits nineteenth century capitalism, especially in Britain, and its primary trope is the steam engine. Chiang's work, like that of dominant authors of steampunk such as James Blaylock and Tim Powers, shares a pleasure in the game-like aspects of reworking known history; but Chiang transcends most works in the genre by starting his revision of history much earlier, reworking the entire industrial revolution in ways that manage to show us our world in new and startling ways.
Published in 2000, in Ellen Datlow's anthology Vanishing Acts, "Seventy-two Letters" is recognizable as an alternative history story and genre-specific puzzle from the first paragraphs. These paragraphs immediately establish that we are in a recognizable near-past setting. A boy is sprawled on the carpet playing with a doll while beyond him in the garden adults can be heard discussing the ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne, and Chartist demands for reform; this is England, 1837 or 1838, and we are in the home of an informed upper-class family who follow politics. Then we are told that Robert would follow the doll, which "could do nothing but walk forward," and watch it as "the diminutive clay figure kept marching until it gradually mashed its arms and legs into misshapen flippers" and that "Once the doll's limbs were thoroughly distorted, he'd pick the toy up and pull the name out, stopping its motion in mid-stride."
A child's toy mashing its own limbs into flippers? A small boy pulling "the name out" of a toy to stop it? Like the image of the star burning into the side of the clay tower in Chiang's "Tower of Babylon," this image, at once vivid and grotesque, signals genre readers that this is not the world we know, and entices them to figure out just what the rules of the world are. And, as in "Tower of Babylon," Chiang here evokes images and expectations from older shared narratives and allows them to resonate throughout the story. In "Babylon," knowledge drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition reminds readers that the tower of Babel was destroyed for hubris; this is combined with endless images of building under the scorching suns of the Middle East culled from Hollywood movies. In this story, Chiang calls on similarly ancient narrative tropes with the man-like figure made of clay. Robert's doll evokes the Biblical Adam, but is considerably closer to Jewish legends of the golem. The doll also possesses the plasticity of cartoon images that smack into mountain sides and pop back into shape under the artist's pen.1
Drawing on these disparate sources, which range literally from the sublime to the ridiculous, allows Chiang to position science fiction as a genre central to the literary tradition, almost as a meta-literature, rather than the marginal genre it has long been. His work suggests that the scope of science fiction's concerns are properly the whole of human knowledge. He assumes that a reader will be literate not only in high and mass culture traditions, but also in specific science fiction subgenres such as the alternative history story, and specifically steampunk in the case of "Seventy-two Letters." This allows him to sketch his background cultures into being with a few broad strokes, to know that his readers will fill in the details of London from other stories, and to be sure that they will greet the few details he provides -- a pamphlet agitating for reform, child labor in cloth factories -- as marks on a bas-relief that both locate him within the steampunk lineage and distinguish his story from it.2
This makes his fiction extremely economical, and allows Chiang to focus instead on his core concerns, which are the relationships of his point of view characters to their societies and the physical universe, relationships which are always intimately interwoven and mediated by complex conceptual frames. Chiang's main characters explore their universes on profound levels, and in each story striking images mark a place where the fundamental laws of the universe must be re-examined, and communicate this need on the metaphoric level to both the character and the reader. That this need is fundamentally science-fictional is communicated through the primacy of conceptual structures in all of these stories; the most striking example of this in Chiang's earlier work is the mathematician in "Division by Zero," who holds up a series of propositions written on a piece of paper, gripped by despair because she has shown that math isn't valid, and therefore her life is not valid. Concepts matter; understanding shapes the world, the society, and the human heart in Chiang's fiction.
But what of the image of young Robert pulling the name from the doll's head in "Seventy-two Letters"? This is the first introduction to the science of nomenclature, and for a genre reader, half of the wonder of the story is the grace with which Chiang spins nomenclature into being as an alternative science with its own internal logic and striking beauty. He does so by structuring the story around the career of Robert Stratton, the young boy at play who grows up to study the science of nomenclature at a time when this science is engaged in two fundamental changes. The first is an external change; nomenclature is powering an industrial revolution in England, with all of the political and economic upheavals that this implies. However, in place of the steam engine beloved of steampunk, nomenclature provides England with an army of "automata," silent, insensate laborers shaped from clay and animated by the principles of natural philosophy. The second change is internal to the science of nomenclature. Nomenclature used to be based in theology, and as such, was accompanied by a pedagogy built around Thomist scholasticism and explanatory structures still defined by Aristotelian attempts to find first causes for the nature of things. However, as early as Robert's first grammar school lessons in the field, nomenclature is undergoing a sea change. One of his fellow students is engaging in private (and secret) experiments; when Robert gets to Cambridge, unorthodox and perhaps heretical texts circulate privately among the students. The change is as profound as any of the paradigm shifts Kuhn describes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, but may in fact be more profound than any of them, more akin to the Copernican or Newtonian revolution; nomenclature is being reestablished as a secular, experimental science.
However -- and here Chiang's distance from most steampunk is most evident -- "Seventy-two Letters" is built around a teleological crisis that makes it difficult to fully accept nomenclature as non-supernatural. The crux of the story is as follows. Robert Stratton, trained at Cambridge, is a promising young nomenclator. Like many around him, he researches the names of things. These names are formed by combining seventy-two letters into sets known as epithets. These epithets designate specific qualities, and combine according to principles that are still being discovered to make names. These names can then be added to inanimate matter (usually clay, but sometimes ceramic or iron) to call specific qualities of essence or action into being.3
This is a complex task, and the results are at once wondrous and limited. For example, automata lack individuated digits. They can perform only crude tasks (lifting heavy loads, etc.), or specialized tasks, for which their extremities must be permanently designed, such as the automata whose limbs end in pickaxes.
Automata are therefore both limited and expensive. Robert is a humanitarian; he dreams of making automata dexterous, so that they might execute a wider range of tasks and, eventually, take part in reproducing themselves, lowering their costs and freeing children and the poor from the crushing labor they currently perform in factories, by re-instituting cottage industry. He would liberate humanity by providing mindless, tireless, slaves.
However, the sculptors in his factory meet this proposal with dismay. Like the Luddites and other historical opponents of mechanization, the skilled laborers see in more advanced automata only a threat to their livelihoods. They refuse to cast the new automata, and Stratton is temporarily at a loss. However, his research was being observed by Lord Fieldhurst, a nobleman who is funding highly ambitious, but secret, nomenclature research. When Fieldhurst recruits Stratton, the reason he shares for the secrecy is disturbing. The chief scientist in Fieldhurst's research is Nicholas Ashbourne, one of Stratton's finest former professors at Cambridge. While doing research on the fixity of species, Ashbourne discovered a terrifying fact: "that 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." Our universe and Stratton's exist in an uncanny synchronization, for this announcement is made roughly the same year (by extrapolation) that the Linnean Society in London first heard a paper from Wallace and Darwin arguing for the survival of the fittest (1858). The following year Darwin published his book on the subject, the often-forgotten full title of which is On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.
This death sentence for the human race is explained according to the laws of nomenclature, which draw upon theories of human biology that now seem more like magical thinking than scientific theory, except that in this fictional world, they work, and fit together seamlessly with the physical laws Chiang has not altered. According to these theories, all known species were created at the same time, and each contains within its reproductive cells tiny copies of itself; Stratton's childhood friend's experiments had induced the homunculi found in human sperm to grow so large that they were visible to the naked eye. All such copies were inherent in the living beings -- written into them, if you will -- when all biological life came into being at the same (undetermined) instant in the past. Given the laws of thermodynamics, which are the same in both our universe and Stratton's, the universe tends towards disorder. Since humanity is the most highly ordered species, we will have the shortest run on the world. Never stated, but everywhere implicit within this vision, is a biological doom as eerie as the empty world Wells's time traveler found on his trip to the most distant future, a world in which species would simply disappear one at a time, first humans, then dolphins and chimpanzees, until at last amoebae swarm silent and alone in an empty world full of rusting Victorian machinery.
Fieldhurst's proposal is that Stratton join them in their attempt to save the world by discovering the "euonym" of humanity and learning how to write it into unfertilized ova, so that the human race can reproduce itself "lexically" and thereby retain its status as one of the "favored species in the struggle for life" that Darwin describes -- or is it to attain such a status for the first time? Needless to say, Stratton accepts.
When the nomenclators make advances that convince them that they will discover the necessary euonym, Lord Fieldhurst lets it drop that when this name is available, it will be used to control the indiscriminate breeding of the lower classes. Rather than liberating humanity from a doom imposed on them by nature, it will indenture the lower classes forever to their futures. Horrified, Ashbourne and Stratton form a secret alliance to find a name which bears in itself the quality of self-reproduction, so that once it was (secretly) distributed, the lower classes would be able to go on writing themselves into existence. Stratton eventually discovers the key to an epithet in the notebook dropped by a kabbalistic scholar, who had once approached Stratton in hopes of gaining access to his names so that the kabbalists might meditate upon them in order gain a better understanding of the nature of God. This scholar is killed by an assassin who was looking for Stratton with the intention of preventing the manufacture of dexterous automata.
The question of what makes this story work is bound up with the nature of steampunk. Various critics have speculated on why the steampunk movement exists, and especially why the Victorian era holds such an attraction for contemporary authors. Journalist Douglas Featherling has said that steampunk imagines "how the past would have been different if the future had happened sooner." This suggests that authors may set works in an earlier time to deal with anxiety over the pace of technological change by displacing it . This is possible, but leaves the question of "why Victorian England?" The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests the Victorian milieu, especially London, is appealing because writers see clear and crucial historical turning points occurring then, and that it is the first time the issues that define our modern political economy come to the fore: calculation, collective estimates of social trade-offs, pollution, and social divisions driven by technology.
Steffen Hantke offers a more ambitious and pertinent interpretation. Hantke suggests that readers recognize themselves in the Victorians specifically because there is no intimate connection between the textual universes evoked by steampunk authors and our own world; rather than even reflecting directly on our own world, steampunk is attractive because it is alienated and self-contained, a puzzle upon which readers can meditate, a history whose beginning and end they can contemplate. Because it distances readers from historical reality, steampunk serves as an allegory for postmodernity. As I suggested above, Chiang's creation is quite distinct from other steampunk works. Chiang uses his transfigured Victorian society not as an allegory, but as the other half of the comparison in a metaphor, a metaphor not just of postmodernity, but of the human condition.
The core metaphors of "Seventy-two Letters" are the automaton, the modern golem, and the accompanying science of nomenclature. From the first scene of the story, in which young Robert's mindless clay doll entertains him by walking into walls, through the final climactic flight from the assassin who would kill Stratton to prevent him from developing his dexterous automata, in which Stratton "renames" an automaton while on the run to defend himself, the image of the golem hangs over this story like the tower does in "Tower of Babylon." Such tropes are the key to Chiang's power in all of his fiction.
Many mythic traditions speak of automated servants; in Greek mythology, for example, Hephestus, god of fire, fashioned golden female servants to serve him in his workshop. However, the golem is more powerfully integrated into human need; in most legends, it was created to protect the Jewish community from pogroms in the Prague ghettos. Three aspects of the legends are especially pertinent here. First, the golem is brought to life by magical ritual, but also by an "equation"; it moves on its own only after a set of letters in Hebrew is inscribed upon its brow. In one version of the story, the golem comes to life when the word "truth" is written on the creature's forehead, and is only returned to its inanimate state when the conjuring rabbi erases one character, so that the word no longer reads "truth" but instead "death." Change the equation, or the name, and one changes the results. Second, there are three characteristics that traditionally belong to humanity which are forbidden to the golem: it is forbidden any inclination to good or evil, it is denied the soul associated with language, and it is denied the power to engender. The centrality of these traditional constraints on the activities proper to an artificial being can be seen in Frankenstein, where the monster's creator abandons it, forcing it to learn both language and morality on its own, and where Victor Frankenstein is fully horrified by his actions only when he almost creates a mate for the creature, so that it could reproduce itself. Third and finally, the shift in need that produces automata in these stories, rather than the golems of legend, is the shift from a need which is community-specific (the pogroms) to a need shared by the whole race. In both cases, the threat is extinction, and nomenclature is the answer.
The golem is a wonderful master metaphor precisely because of its plasticity, its blankness, and its historical silence: it must be spoken for, its blankness filled. It is impossible not to see the automata as slave labor, and the complete absence of slavery from the story underscores this. The human shape borne by the automata reminds readers raised amidst machinery just how magical the labor machines provide is, while the distortions of their limbs remind us how hard labor marks human flesh in our world.
Beyond the marks of labor, the automata are defined by the other core metaphor of the story, language (as manipulated by nomenclature). The golem wore its magical markings on its forehead like the mark of Cain. The seat of its identity was marked with its designation as outsider. In the London Stratton inhabits, one inserts names into an automaton from behind, leaving the forehead smooth and unmarked suggesting a superficial and insidious freedom. Being unmarked from the front makes it harder for an automaton to know itself. Even if an automaton could gain sufficient autonomy to somehow see itself, as Frankenstein's creation did, it would not be able to see its programming.
The links between Stratton's London and contemporary America are everywhere visible. Rather than the direct allegory that Hantke suggests other milieus function as for steampunk readers, this magical Victorian England is the other side of a metaphor. It is what we are being compared to, via the golem and nomenclature, so that we can reconceptualize two things in our own time: the economy, and science on the broadest level. Like the Victorians, our economy is going through a tremendous transformation; like the Victorians, we don't know where it will end up. And, in a manner similar to that of nomenclature as we see it practiced in this story, we are making new things by recombining the old. Thus far our best attempts to name the age have been addenda to the ages we know: postmodernity, post-industrial society, late capitalism.
Our discoveries are not the clean and obvious breakthroughs that Golden Age science fiction promised. Cloning is and isn't reproductive technology; publishing electronically is and isn't publishing a book. And in each case, the nature of property is a lot closer to the magical/terrifying world of Robert Stratton than we might have seen otherwise. The changes afoot in our age make self-replication a great possibility; they also threaten to dissolve the foundations of original selves. This threatens us directly, as with the idea of identity theft via computer piracy, as well as on a philosophical level. And, appropriately, the revolutionary discoveries of the story dissolve the clear distinctions between human and automata. Humans lose their ability to reproduce naturally at precisely the same point that automata would gain it by Stratton's science, much as cybernetics and genetics dissolve essential humanity from the mental and biological ends here. (The parallels between nomenclature and the Human Genome Project, which utilizes computer-based technologies to map our genetic names, are too numerous to catalog.) And here is the core of Chiang's power: he gives us our anxieties, but displaces them metaphorically so we can face them. He does so in a way that is appropriate for the age (the sculptor's guild in such a society would fight dexterous automata), realistic for the historical England we know (the nobles did complain about the reproductive practices of the poor), and a shocking reflection of our own.
The solution to the threat of extinction is for humanity to learn to reproduce itself lexically; the threat that this carries is that humanity would lose its essence. In the catechism Stratton learned at Cambridge, all names are "reflections of the divine name" of God. And kabbalistic studies, which still seek such metaphysical first causes, are acknowledged as the progenitors of nomenclature. However, the changing nature of the world is signaled emphatically by Chiang's handling of the death of Benjamin Roth, the kabbalistic scholar; he is killed offstage, almost casually. Roth offers techniques that nomenclature can use, and will therefore be forever a part of the euonymic solution to the threat, but he cannot live on entire, for he insists on being the only solution. Without ever stating it in words, Chiang here metaphorically suggests the role that religion must play in the new millennium: that which is good in it must be abstracted and made everywhere available. The defining epithet -- which in this story is reflexivity, or self-knowledge -- is to be integrated into all of us, while the grasping, the close-mindedness, the prejudice of religion is to be left behind. Roth's function in the story is to provide techniques that nomenclature can use. He will therefore be part of the euonymic solution to the threat of extinction, but neither he nor religion can live on unchanged, for they insist on being the only solution.
Said that way, it sounds stupid. But many profundities sound stupid when stripped of their metaphoric garb. "Christ died for your sins." Me? He didn't even know me. "My love is like a rose." Really? Vegetative and short-lived, cloyingly sweet, or bearing pointed barbs on her limbs? But as metaphors, these sentiments reshape lives and guide relationships.
Throughout the 20th century, there was much anxiety over what would happen next and what causes "things" to shift; this anxiety has expressed itself in projects as disparate as Kuhn's study of scientific revolutions, and adaptations of Marx or Hegel that argued for necessary shifts in how society should be organized. In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault offers a more disturbing suggestion. His studies of human knowledge practices across four ages suggest that causality is inaccessible. Things simply change. One age is different from another, so different that we can only guess at how fundamentally differently they saw the world. These different world views, which run through all human knowledge practices, are called epistemes. All of our interpretations of past writings and artwork are at best clumsy translations, drawn with great effort across epistemic breaks.
Foucault disturbs people for many reasons. He suggests that knowledge production is a social practice like any other. As such, it is not only bound up with existing interests; to deploy knowledge is to enact a specific regime of power. This view has been called nihilistic, and Foucault has called himself an anti-humanist. And the conclusion of The Order of Things offers a terrifying suggestion and image: it suggests that man is a conceptual creation like any other, brought into existence by certain conditions and bound to disappear like when conditions shift again, so that under certain conditions "man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea."4
This is a bleak prediction indeed. It is also the universe in which Chiang has set "Seventy-two Letters." Chiang's answer to this prediction is the image of the euonym. Those who read Foucault and despair are those who would cling to humanity in God's image, distinct from the rest of creation. The final pages of Chiang's story might have been written in direct response to the fear of the erasure, which in the story takes the form of extinction. When he realizes that he can use the kabbalist's knowledge to solve his problem, Stratton thinks, "An organism could contain, instead of a tiny analogue of its body, a lexical representation instead. Humanity would become a vehicle for the name as well as a product of it. Each generation would be both content and vessel, an echo in a self-sustaining reverberation."
How austere! How wonderful! To move from a state of kabbalistic knowledge (kabbalah means "received" or "tradition") to a state in which we form ourselves in our own images! To abandon the search for first metaphysical causes as Newton did the search for first physical causes, and to choose instead to take ourselves as models -- to know that will never be pure, never know God, that we will always operate within limits that we did not choose, but that we will, one letter at a time, consciously write ourselves into existence. How marvelous!
There is a pun in "euonym," the same pun that exists in "utopia." There are two ways of spelling the "u" sound in Greek. One, which we spell "eu," means good. The other, usually spelled "u" in English, means "no," so that when spoken, utopia is either the good place or the place that does not exist. Though he spells it "eu," Chiang deploys the same pun; we know that no such "good name" exists that will guarantee we go on. There are no guarantees. But like visions of utopia, the euonym at the climax of "Seventy-two Letters" inspires us. We can't write that name yet, but we can try, and the effort will carry us into the new age of the world, writing our own human stories rather than laboring away like Robert Stratton's misshapen clay doll. This is a metaphor of service to everyone, but one which only science fiction could offer.
This paper was first presented at the 2001 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts.
Greg Beatty recently completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa, where he wrote a dissertation on serial killer novels. He attended Clarion West 2000, and any rumors you've heard about his time there are, unfortunately, probably true.
A bibliography of works by Ted Chiang is located here.
1. All three sources are explicitly referenced in the story; in a fine touch, Chiang refers to the early version of the sorcerer's apprentice and the broom that worked on its own, knowing that contemporary readers would know this story first through its rendition in Disney cartoons.
2. It even allows Chiang to playfully mislead his readers; the story opens the same year that Charles Babbage proposed his analytical engine, a digital calculator that would surpass the difference engine from which Sterling and Gibson took the title for their steampunk novel.
3. Chiang has indicated privately that the original source of the term "golem," meaning unformed, or amorphous, was the reason that living and formerly living tissue resists the powers of nomenclature. The ordered nature of the tissue resists it, which was not true in early theoretical understanding of the ovum.
4. I use Foucault here both for his own theories, and to stand in for the entire post-structuralist project.
Sources and References:
Chiang, Ted. "Division by Zero." Full Spectrum 3. Eds. Lou Aronica, Amy Stout, and Betsy Mitchell. New York: Bantam Books, 1991. 196-211.
---."Seventy-two Letters." Vanishing Acts: A Science Fiction Anthology. Ed. Ellen Datlow. New York: Tor, 2000. 321-377.
---. "Tower of Babylon." Nebula Awards 26: SFWA's Choices for the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. Ed. James Morrow. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992. 58-83.
Clute, John and Peter Nichols, Eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1993.
Delany, Samuel R. Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts & The Politics of the Paraliterary. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.
Hantke, Steffen. "Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk." Extrapolation 40:3 (Fall 1999): 244-254.
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Targowski, Henry W. "Steampunk."