BASS 2016: Ted Chiang, “The Great Silence” from e-flux, 5/2015

Images from The Great Silence: a video installation by Allora, Calzadilla, & Chiang

Images from The Great Silence: a video installation by Allora, Calzadilla, & Chiang

The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe.
But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?
We’re a non-human species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?

~~ Available online at e-flux

I was sobbing like a baby by the last sentence on this one (the first tears I’ve cried over this year’s BASS). I’ve burst into tears three or four times since, just remembering it. I’d assumed it was my own personal reaction, but I see lots of other readers around the internet have had the same reaction. Junot Diaz mentioned in his Introduction that this was his favorite story of this anthology. Thing is, I had no idea, when I was done reading, what technique of craft, what deftness of language, what structure, what character development made this so effective.

It wasn’t even written as a story: it was the text to accompany a video installation by artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Much has been written about both the installation and the story; I had a good idea of what I would be reading via Karen Joy Fowler’s introduction in Electric Literature before I even knew the story had been selected for BASS.

I’m late to the Ted Chiang party. I only heard about him a couple of months ago, when one of my moocbuddies mentioned “Story of your Life” as his favorite science fiction story. I checked the collection out of the library and I could see why (the film version, “Arrival”, is due for release in a few weeks). So I was very happy to see him included in this anthology; while BASS has included science fiction several times (and, by the way, the last Diaz story I read was science fiction, part of an in-progress novel), the literary fiction community in general has long had a bug up its ass about anything that smells like science fiction, and I’m always happy to see signs of that changing.

Because of the enormous emotional impact, and my inability to explain it, I asked the same mooc friends who recommended Chiang to give me their impressions. One person, who preferred the theme to the writing, mentioned “[t]he juxtaposition of very simple language with a complex topic”. I think the language, since it is the expression of the parrot, had to be simple; it’s grammatical, but a bit atypical. On reflection, I also noticed the short paragraphs of equal size, and equated that to a bird’s repetitive chirp (which is a stretch, as it is probably more about the original video-installation setting of the piece).

Shawn Urban pointed out the irony of “[t]elling this story from the perspective of one of those things we have that is disappearing, particularly while pointing out how worthwhile and like us this thing is, is inspired. I like all the implications (sound, breath, hope) tied to the parrots and man’s scanning for things (extraterrestrials) he does not have. These implications have double, poignant meanings in the story. The irony and dramatic irony are subtle yet sharp.” Yes, that’s good, the irony of looking so hard yet ignoring what’s right in front of us, and all, in a twist of the ironic knife, revealed to us by that which is, by being overlooked, about to be destroyed.

We seem very determined to maintain the belief that humans are the only source of intelligence on earth. While a few researchers look in other directions, psychology, philosophy, and medicine are quite adept at changing the definition of intelligence when it seems possible that other creatures may share this quality with us, in order to maintain our uniqueness. But would this make me cry?

Then Paul Oldroyd wrote: “But the central message of random, unwitting violence by a species that is nonetheless the subject of unconditional love is what gets me. We have such greatness and arrogance within us.” Yes, that unconditional love. A grace so rich, the trespass goes unseen. Put side-by-side with our ongoing refusal to see, let alone acknowledge, our responsibility: this very well might be what starts the tears, even now. Add to that a single victim with a story, rather than a parade of abstract statistics about rainforest destruction, and you’ve got a recipe for affective engagement.

I’m not that much of an environmentalist, I’m not particularly fixated on extraterrestrial life, I don’t have any particular connection to parrots, and still Chiang knocked me off my feet. People yammer all the time, saying whatever is instrumental to their purpose at the moment, but once in a while, a human-created non-human voice touches me deeply – whether it’s Jade Rabbit or fictional parrot – when it speaks its truth, simply to speak it. All we have to do is listen. I hear you, little bird. Hang in there. “You be good. I love you.”

5 responses to “BASS 2016: Ted Chiang, “The Great Silence” from e-flux, 5/2015

  1. I found it fairly emotional, too. I didn’t quite cry, but I had a reaction. It reminded me of Vonnegut’s _Galapagos_, or really, anything by Vonnegut. Humanity’s exquisite and divine beauty is juxtaposed with our own stupid and vulgar propensity to destroy everything we touch. In the end, we wreck everything, including ourselves, because we just can’t help it, but our divine and beautiful side never goes away while we annihilate everything. The emotional response from reading this is much like one would get if one was watching a child walking toward a cliff. You scream and scream at the child, but he can’t hear you. He just smiles his innocent little smile at you. He chases his ball off the edge as your voice cuts off in disbelief. Then, you realize that the child is all of us.

    I note with a bit of wry glee that the story most people actually relate to in this anthology is the least “literary” story in here. Like you, I can’t understand why science fiction is so despised when considering “great” fiction. I also can’t understand why half the stories in any lit journal are so inaccessible. I mean, I’m a lit major who went to grad school in English, and I’m not going to put the time in to crack the code of a lot of these stories. If not me, who will?

    This story plays with science. So did Andrea Barrett’s. Which one is considered “better” literature? But which one would most people find moving? Which one will you remember in a year?

    All this is true even thought THIS ISN’T EVEN REALLY A STORY. I mean, nothing happens in it. It’s an extended monologue understood to be part of the story of life on Earth near the closing act. It’s short fiction, but not really a short story. But it’s still effective at doing what a story does.

    • If it’s effective at doing what a story does, can it be anything but a story? Isn’t that what modernism is – “Make it new”, find new ways of saying things. Dogears, card catalogs, erasures, sounds can be poems. Lists, indices can be stories (Jonathan Safer Foer told a doozie of a story with a glossary). Not traditional narratives, but they still tell stories, and this piece likewise tells a story, and a true one at that. Maybe that’s it, that we’ve gotten so used to traditional journalism and essays on rainforest devastation, it takes a different approproach to get through our cynicism. Defamiliarization, defamiliarized.

      And yet I’m still happy with a traditional narrative as well, as long as it finds a way into my heart or my mind. Make me feel, make me think, and I’m down with it.

  2. I now need to go back and look at the thread that I missed. His “Story of Your Life” is one of the best things I’ve ever read. I love the economy and emotional punch of his writing..

  3. Pingback: BASS 2016: Just What I Needed Right Now | A Just Recompense

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