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Understand by Ted Chiang

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“Understand” is a 1991 science fiction novelette by Ted Chiang. It is about a man whose use of an experimental drug makes him super intelligent.

Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:

The Sun in ultravioletLeon Greco is recovering from a traumatic near-drowning experience and the coma in which it left him. In fact he would have been dead if it hadn’t been for the new experimental drug, hormone K, which regenerated his damaged neurons and brought him back into the realm of the conscious. Isn’t medical science great! There is something peculiar going on though – Leon’s memory and ability to multi-task have greatly improved. As his drug therapy continues Leon’s intellect and motor skills keep getting better and better until he eventually attracts the attention of research scientists, the government and intelligence organizations. The good times continue until one day he is sent a disturbingly subtle message from a person he never imagined could have existed.

Suddenly it occurs to me what’s just happened. I’ve never been able to do any editing while talking on the phone. But this time I had no trouble keeping my mind on both things at once.

Will the surprises never end? Once the nightmares were gone and I could relax, the first thing I noticed was the increase in my reading speed and comprehension. I was actually able to read the books on my shelves that I’d always meant to get around to, but never had the time; even the more difficult, technical material. Back in college, I’d accepted the fact that I couldn’t study everything that interested me. It’s exhilarating to discover that maybe I can; I was positively gleeful when I bought an armload of books the other day.

My Two Cents:

• The good:

  • Wow – this is an amazing story! The story line is very intriguing, and Ted Chiang’s ability to put highly abstract concepts into easily understandable language is nothing short of genius. Genius I tell you!
  • Although I have seen this concept of “person-gets-super-smart” before (Flowers for Algernon, or the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Nth Degree” about Lt. Barclay) I was still engaged by this story and amazed as Leon described the things that he was able to understand and do.
  • A sure sign of a good story is how much I think about it after reading it. “Understand”, which is part cerebral-thriller and part intellectual philosophy, certainly lives up to those criteria as I spent days pondering what I read, and actually felt a bit inspired by the story.

• The bad:

  • Although I enjoyed every aspect of “Understand”, it is possible that some people may not enjoy the deep thinking required when reading it. Here’s a simple test: if you’re not too bright then you may want to skip this story.

Fact Sheet:
• Page Count: 30
• Word Count: 13,371
“Understand” garnered the following awards:

  • It won the 1992 Asimov’s Reader Poll for best novelette.
  • It was nominated for the 1992 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
  • It placed 13th in the 1992 Locus poll.

Where you can find “Understand”:

  • This novelette first appeared in the August 1991 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.
  • “Understand” is included in the excellent Ted Chiang collection Stories of Your Life and Others .
  • You can read a free online version of “Understand” at Infinity Plus.

Some Interesting Links:

  • Did you know that Ted Chiang, the author of “Understand”, has a degree in computer science and very little actual training in linguistics? Yep. Check out this very cool interview with Ted Chiang conducted by Infinity Plus.

Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you might also like Story of Your Life, about a linguist who struggles to learn an alien language, and the unique side effect it produces, by Ted Chiang.

2 thoughts to “Understand by Ted Chiang”

  1. “Here’s a simple test: if you’re not too bright then you may want to skip this story.”

    Ha ha – nice touch! I happen to be one of those who didn’t like it. And I am generally a Chiang fan.

  2. Whoops! I’ll have to be more careful about what I say! It is entirely possible to be a smart person and still not like this story… like you Tinkoo! 🙂

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