Monday, June 18, 2007

A modern Borges?

As you can probably guess, I read a ton of science fiction when I was a kid. There was a time when I could walk into a book shop and recognize every title in the sci fi section. But I stopped reading it about the time I reached high school, and, except for the occasional guilty pleasure (e.g., stuff by Vernor Vinge), haven't kept up since. Being a physicist makes it tough to read science fiction -- I particularly hate it when the sci fi assumptions or their implications aren't self-consistent or at least treated in an sophisticated way. It's also true that there is very little new under the sun (I suppose this applies to all literature). Every time I pick up a new title I can more or less recall several stories of which it is derivative. Sometimes I wonder if the author knows this.

Recently I came across the short fiction of Ted Chiang. It's the first really good science fiction I've read since I was a kid. I guess others agree, because Chiang has already won 3 Nebulas and a Hugo, despite having only published a dozen or so stories. (Read the reviews at Amazon for his one published collection here.)

This is probably over the top, but he reminds me of Philip K. Dick and even Borges. Some will violently disagree with me, but I think Chiang really understands the scientific or metaphysical concepts that appear in his stories, while at times I feel Borges is just alluding without deep understanding.

Here are some of his stories, available online.

Division by Zero. A mathematician has a mental breakdown when she constructs formal machinery showing the internal inconsistency of mathematics. The theme is eerily reminiscent of these comments by Greg Chaitin!

Understand. A shorter, updated version of Flowers for Algernon?

What's Expected of Us. A brief meditation on time travel and free will :-)


Bob Solovay said...


Are the stories you mention in his published collection?

Steve Hsu said...

The first two are. The third is one is not. It is really short and can be read online without difficulty, I think.

Anonymous said...

"...while at times I feel Borges is just alluding without deep understanding."

Oh man, not you've got me all riled up. My literature thesis at Caltech was on Borges and the Godel's Incompleteness result.

Personally I think Borges had a deep understanding but absolutely no mathematical or "rigorous" understanding. The fact that he saw these ideas (there is considerable debate as to whether Borges knew of Godel's ideas, for example) and was able to write short stories encapslating many of them, prior to their large scale incorporation into even the scientific community is remarkable.

So really I probably will agree with you about not really understanding what he was writing about. But this makes Borges even more impressive in my mind!

Have to read this Ted Chiang guy, though, considering two of my favorite authors are Borges and PKD. Thanks for the pointer!

Steve Hsu said...


I had you in mind when I typed "violently disagree" :-)

I was wrong, though. I think you and I have the same opinion about Borges. I should probably find other words in place of "deep understanding". Borges undoubtedly had an intuitive grasp of many of these things (hence, the writing is allusive), but I think you can tell from Chiang's writing that his is more precise.

Check out the online stories I linked to. The third is really short. I liked Division by Zero a lot, and the beginning of Understand as well (the ending not so much).

Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Greg Egan for similar reasons. His collection "Axiomatic" is my single favorite book. His short story "Luminous", like Chiang's "Division by Zero", explores the idea of mathematics beyond the consistent rules imposed by physical reality. 18 of Egan's short stories are free online.

I also like John Varley.

Thanks for the post, I will definitely check out Ted Chiang!

Anonymous said...

" My literature thesis at Caltech was on Borges and the Godel's Incompleteness result. "

Good lord! Were you trying to be the most stereotypical techer possible?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if having a literature degree from Caltech makes me a stereotypical techer, but am happy if you disagree :)

I just picked up Chiang's collection this morning. Comparisons to Borges and PKD are a great way to sell me a book.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, will have to see if the library has these later this week! Thanks for the tip.

Anonymous said...

No, getting a lit degree at Caltech is not stereotypical.

I was assuming that you had to take a lit class to satisfy a requirement, and fulfilled your requirement by finding some math related literature to do a thesis on, which is stereotypical (that's what I would have done).

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