⚡️ Peering into the Paracosm
How Ted Chiang's science fictional worlds help us challenge our own
A few months ago, Reboot community member Maggie Pan organized a book club around Stories of Your Life and Others, a collection of short science fiction stories by Ted Chiang.
In today’s guest essay, Maggie reflects not only on her philosophical takeaways, but also on the value of working through these questions with a community of peers. She notes that “Surprisingly, we barely talked about the stories themselves; instead, our discussions were filled with debates on free will, moral obligation, careers and motivations, and countless what ifs.”
🌍 peering into the paracosm
Often, I attribute my childhood to a time of novelty and excitement; now, the present feels ridden with routine. But in the worlds created and restructured by science fiction authors, I feel escape from this mundanity. I take their words and peer into these paracosms — these strange but somehow familiar worlds.
models of our world
Science fiction models the phenomenological reality we know. Of course, the extent of this relation varies: in Division by Zero, the world is exactly the same as ours and its characters are ordinarily human; in Hell is the Absence of God, the world includes visits by angels, miracles, and souls that can be seen transcending into Heaven or falling into Hell. If we play along, we can see glimpses of our own society at the foundations of this fictional world. In Seventy-Two Letters, political practices and social elitism mean that science and technology are developed primarily by the rich for the rich (and to the detriment of the lower class) — a familiar mirror to the problems in our world.
Science fiction doesn’t just model the world: it models ourselves as well. Regardless of setting, characters’ behaviors, worries, and motivations are realistic and human-like, giving rise to propositions about the essence of humanity. For example, we often chase power in the form of knowledge. In Tower of Babylon, humanity comes together to construct a tower to reach the Vault of Heaven, motivated by pride as well as a curiosity for some divine truth: ”a stair that men might ascend to see the works of Yahweh and that and that Yahweh might descend to see the works of men.” In Understand, Leon uses his superintelligence, motivated by self-enlightenment and aesthetic, to uncover the “ultimate gestalt: the context in which all knowledge fits and is illuminated, a mandala, the music of spheres, kosmos.”
The power of reading a science fiction collection lies in seeing these themes manifest in different ways, through different characters and situations, over and over again. Discovering these patterns independently and through discussions makes these themes more salient, memorable, and truthful than just being told a summary. Without reading, exogenous ideas remain loose and abstract; they float around and eventually dissipate into oblivion. Reading grounds philosophical ideas in concrete narratives; having an endogenous source embeds these ideas in the mind, rendering them timeless.
caricatures of our world
While science fiction depicts a version of the world we know, it also contains elements — physical appearances, behaviors, situations, social structures, and more — that are foreign to us. These strange additions, alterations, and subtractions show us what we take for granted while making us question what is “normal."
The Evolution of Human Science presents a future where a new branch of superintelligent “metahumans” emerges from human evolution. These metahumans make their research findings available only through “digital neural transfer” (DNT), which is incomprehensible to ordinary humans who are forced to shift their research focus to “hermeneutics: interpreting the scientific work of metahumans” instead. Metahumans and DNT raises critical questions: who gets to benefit from new technology, and who are we leaving behind? Personally, these are the questions I wonder when thinking about tech literacy for the older generation (because of the invention of phones, computers, etc.) and our current generation (someone motivate me to learn about cryptocurrency).
In Story of Your Life, when aliens come to earth, linguist Dr. Louise Banks learns the aliens' semasiographic language to communicate and exchange ideas. Our book club’s discussion centered on the role of language and free will: how has language shaped our perception of the world, and how do we understand the role of free will in our own life? Some noted that choices are made by a mixture of uncontrollable factors (e.g. temperament, time pressure, social atmosphere), while others acknowledged this, yet wanted to believe in free will because it enabled active, emotional participation in the present. We decided that the illusion of free will — the feeling of agency — is important regardless of its existence: to quote a book club member, “your belief in something existing makes it exist, whether or not it actually does.”
temporal and positional buffers
Despite being rooted in our world, science fiction ultimately provides a temporal and a positional buffer: it introduces a future that we can analyze as a third-party observer.
Understand showcases the gradual development of superintelligence from hormone K therapy, and Liking What You See: A Documentary outlines personal experiences and debates of “calli,” a medical procedure that induces visual agnosia of beauty. These futuristic technologies allow us to comfortably label that world as “not our own." However, the resemblance to our world is unshakeable. In reading Understand and Liking What You See, we discussed the limits of intelligence, analyzed the contrast between aesthetic/theory versus functionality/application, saw parallels between calliagnosia and digital touch-ups, and shared the effects of the concept of beauty in our personal lives.
The truth hurts, but not so much when we still feel far removed; we can protect our egos when we criticize these fictional mirrors. We can reflect on the story's trajectory, then project those same questions onto ourselves: If I were in this situation, what would I do? These hypotheticals push us to our moral limits: What are my moral boundaries? My values for life, a relationship, a career? What would I do, and why?
inspiration, emotion, and motivation
To this point, I've portrayed science fiction stories as simply hypothesis tests that can motivate preventative or reactive actions. But science fiction is also generative: a source of inspiration and motivation. In reading Tower of Babylon, I couldn't help but feel a sense of wonder and hope. I was in awe at the unification of humanity, inspired by their grand mission to reach the vault of heaven, curious to find what was on the other side. I cried during the poignant and heart-wrenching Story of Your Life, and felt angry and fearful reading Seventy-Two Letters.
Science fiction makes us feel more human. It may give us warning and glimpses of unwanted dystopias, but it also inspires us and reminds us of our humanity — our connection to those around us. It provides us with technological inspiration that can become reality (the International Space Station, autonomous vehicles, virtual reality), while telling us to be more aware of what we create, decide, and use.
Science fiction doesn't give us solutions, but it encourages both internal and external reflection. It gives us a path to becoming more introspective, more caring, more inspired, and more optimistic. It gives us an idea of a better world we would want to live in and work toward.
Maggie Pan (she/her) is a psychology student at Duke, where she is an undergraduate researcher at the ECC Lab, thinking about imagination, free will, and robots. She is an incoming product design intern at Hellosaurus and loves baking, Russian literature, and autumn.
If you had to pick a favorite story in the collection, what would it be and why?
Tower of Babylon is especially close to my heart because it was the first Ted Chiang story I read! I was so impressed with how clever and intricate the plot and world-building were. It’s a brilliant, awe-inspiring, albeit somewhat disturbing story with themes of limits, pride, the pursuit of truth, and curiosity of the unknown.
What is speculative design? How does science/speculative fiction shape your practice as a designer?
Speculative design uses imagination and thought experiments to prompt us to think about the impacts of a product or technology. The idea is to answer the 'should’ before the ‘how.’ Instead of “How might we…?” questions, we can ask “What if…?” questions.
Speculative design is closely tied to science fiction because it helps us simulate possible futures, criticize their risks, and make adjustments in the present — choosing to delete or refine a concept — to guide our technological and societal trajectories. For example, Frankenstein is a clear demonstration of why we should consider the impacts of what we put out into the world.
In practice, I’ve become a lot more careful in the earlier parts of the design process, like ideation. I start by reading up on existing research (e.g. previous design studies, psychology research papers) before designing concept boards, which are then presented to others.
What else should we be reading?
In addition to Stories of Your Life and Others, I highly, highly recommend Ted Chiang’s second short story collection Exhalation. For some longer reads, I recommend my two all-time favorite books that just so happen to be science fiction: the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.
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Take a look in the mirror,