Characters who are smarter than the smartest human are notoriously difficult to write well. It’s relatively easy to get away with gods and the like in have bit-parts, constraining their appearances in the story enough that all they need to do is sprout a few wise aphorisms. It’s much harder to get away with superhumanly intelligent protagonist, let alone one in the first person.
You can probably guess from this opening that today’s story succeeds at such a character, along with much else.
It starts off with a man, Leon, awaking from a nightmare of being trapped under ice. As it turns out, this really did happen, sending him into a coma with seemingly irreparable brain damage. He was chosen for an experimental hormone to repair brain damage, and this allows him to wake up with no seeming cognitive impairment. In fact, he’s now developed a perfect memory, and after a while he realizes he’s growing more intelligent than he ever used to be.
So far this doesn’t seem too dissimilar to an intelligence-enhancing wish-fulfillment plot. Except this story, for the most part, is fascinatingly uninterested in conventional drama. Oh, Leon soon realizes the CIA are taking an interest and he starts hiding his brilliance, and later has to go on the run and hide from them. But these activities aren’t presented as being any great threat. By this point Leon’s grown so adept at outwitting people, and at hacking anything electronic, that at no point does he ever feel like he is in peril. They are ants concocting pathetically transparent schemes against him, and every so often he has to foil them so completely that they won’t try again for a while.
No, the main drama of the story is about Leon’s increasing enlightenment. It’s a gradual shift, from unexpectedly realizing he can multitask, to devouring and comprehending and retaining any textbook he comes across. Each new datum deepens his understanding how everything in the universe relatives to everything else.
I could be studying a new class of equation, or the grammar of a foreign language, or the operation of an engine; in each case, everything fits together, all the elements cooperate beautifully. In each case, I don’t have to consciously memorize rules, and then apply them mechanically. I just perceive how the system behaves as a whole, as an entity. Of course, I’m aware of all the details and individual steps, but they require so little concentration that they almost feel intuitive.
The force of the story comes from Leon’s joy at successively discovering new vistas of pursuits, the joy of learning new things itself. And that’s an emotional core I see all too rarely in stories.
Understand by Ted Chiang
Availability: free online, print, e-book
Word count: 13,400
Awards: Hugo Award nominee, Asimov Readers’ Poll winner
First published: Asimov’s magazine, Aug 1991
Where to find it: It is available from Infinity Plus here
Supermen, edited by Gardner Dozois, 2002, St Martin’s Press
Stories of Your Life and Others, collection, 2010, Small Beer Press (available from Weightless Books here)
The Hard SF Renaissance, edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer, 2002, Tor