Other Natures, Different Laws

Other Natures, Different Laws January 23, 2020

I recently finished Ted Chiang’s first short-story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, and after a long fallow period I think I’m in love with science fiction again. This collection’s thrills comes from the working out of an idea. Chiang can make your mind turn a corner–and stop and stare in awe. It is true that his characters are perfunctory at best. I can’t even complain that they’re all the same person, because none of them feel like actual people. They’re spaces in which events take place which illustrate certain imaginable possibilities or ideas. But those possibilities are themselves so rooted in human longings, hopes, and fears that the stories (almost) never feel chilly.

The title story is the basis for the film Arrival, but I would like to tell you about three and a half others. The book starts with “Tower of Babel,” a delightful weird, hard story about builders trying to reach Heaven. “Steampunk” has always been a sort of cutesy, misleading word (what is punk about it really, for one thing) but you will still get some of the flavor of this story if I say it is steampunk but for pyramids. These characters assume that their world is explained by religious doctrine, and they build their lives in the crevices of this doctrine; as always human ingenuity flourishes in the spaces around the hard truths. There’s a touch of casuistry here (what can I get away with?), and the kludgey, sincere worship which leads to questions like, “Is a muskrat a fish for purposes of Friday abstinence?”

Several of these stories look at the off-label uses of religious truths or mystical practices. Once the supernatural has rules, it risks devolving into technology. “Tower of Babel,” by contrast, is about the mystery which remains after all experiment and exploration. After all diligence is exhausted, either an encounter–or, equally shattering, an absence.

“Seventy-Two Letters” takes place in a world where many abandoned theories of natural philosophy–or mysticism–really work. Human conception occurs when the homunculus encapsulated in a man’s sperm meets the vital forces of the nurturing ovum. Names animate clay. Factory workers conduct industrial sabotage against the golem/robots who might be about to steal their jobs. The whole world is so enthrallingly weird! And then the actual story turns out not to be about meaning (the meaning of names/words, the meaning of what makes life), it’s really more of a puzzle story with a solution. The rabbi who wishes only to contemplate the names must cede his place to the inventor. The inventor’s solution does have a poetic resonance–you can say that we ourselves are made of ladders of words–but the story is not about that resonance, I think.

Even the most disappointing (for me) story suggests Chiang’s great strength. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” is a preachy tale about the injustice of physical beauty. The “documentary” conceit means it’s all dialogue, making it impossible to ignore the flimsiness of Chiang’s people. But even in this heavyhanded story there’s a brief bit about how people in this world can have the same neural responses to individual cows, or different makes of car, that they have to human faces. And I felt like a door had opened onto a story that would fascinate me: What if people thought they had disabled their response to human beauty, but they’d only disabled their response to the beauty of those they could recognize as human? What if suddenly the only facial beauty they could see was that of people they’d previously dehumanized?

And all these stories are like that–doors opening onto strange new questions, which you might get to explore but which will provoke you even if all you get to do is glimpse.

My favorite thing in this was “Hell Is the Absence of God.” This is a ferocious tale about a world where angels appear all the time, visions of Heaven and Hell are commonplace, and miracles strike like lightning bolts, bringing disaster as well as healing. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

God’s character can be discerned from His miracles. We know that miraculous pregnancies happen, but in spite of some exxxxxtremely unapproved Irish legends, there are no miracle abortions. The miracles we trust in as Christians are miracles of healing and beauty. There are weird and troubling aspects of some of them: Why were the Gerasene swine made sacrificial lambs? Did they accept that as an honor, that this was to be their role in the possessed man’s liberation? And I admit I just don’t know what to make of Elisha and the bears. But as a general rule miracles, in our actual world, don’t hurt people; they don’t injure bystanders; they have a discernible relationship to the natural law, and in fact help us see the outlines of this law, the outlines of our own nature. I included a miracle in Punishment and I am still not 100% sure it really works, because miracles have, I think, patterns, because they express truths about the beauty and happiness which God wants for us.

But notice that little bit I threw in about Elisha. “Hell Is the Absence of God” is about a world where God is totally unyoked from the natural law. God’s miracles seem to have very little relationship to any plan God might have for our happiness. And this is how Christian practice feels a lot of the time. We trust that He wants our happiness, but does that mean this is what happiness is? If God is love… is this what love means?

There are so many places where my own faith suddenly stumbles from the sun-dappled meadows, where He leadeth me beside the sweet waters, and into a night full of blank starless ravines and huge rough outcroppings with no intelligible shape. “Hell Is the Absence of God” is a story about human-scale kludges, about gambles and best guesses; but it takes place in a God-scale world.

Angel with extremely sharp sword via Wikipedia.


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