Seventy-Two Letters by Chiang, Ted, 2000

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This story is an amazingly rich steampunk/alternate history/alternate universe story of technology that draws its inspiration from the story of the golem, the creation myth and robots. The story is set in a universe where incubi, unicorns and dragons exist. The time is something akin to early Victorian England, right around the time of the start of the industrial revolution. There are two scientific differences that are key to the story. The first is that England had built up an industrial base in making automatons. Guilds of sculptors craft the bodies of these worker drones, and other individuals, called nomenclators, write on slips of paper the seventy-two letters that make up the name of the automatons. Once the names are written they are put into the bodies of the automatons and they "wake up," and begin to work. The nomenclators are constantly researching to discover new names, which will allow the automatons to do different jobs.

The second major difference has to do with biology, and is a throwback to our own history. Human beings, and all manner of creature for that matter, reproduce sexually, but male sperm contain miniature versions of all their potential offspring, and all future generations of mankind, rather than just 1/2 of the genetics required for reproduction. Males passed this along to other males, while females only provide the eggs that the pre-humans gestated in. This was important to the tale because the French had discovered that at most, only five generations of humanity remain until every successive generation of sperm is used up. This was a catastrophe, because it meant that humans no longer had the ability to procreate. They could only pass along what they have inherited, all the way back from the time of Adam, and were not able to create any new generations save what their fathers had given them. It was as if all the spermatogenesis that ever was to occur happnened to Adam only, and he passed that same genetic package down to all males in his line.

Robert Stratton is a young college graduate who has gotten a job as a nomenclator at an automaton factory. Disgusted with the environmental effects of industrialization and the toll that factory work has taken on the young, Stratton has written new epithets into a name that gives automata manual dexterity: With this skill automata will be able to make new automata, and cheaply at that. Stratton hopes to be able to put an automaton into every home and return England to the cottage economy that it had before industrialization brought the factories. But the guild of sculptors fears the change and will not work with him. Chased from his factory Stratton is picked up by a member of the British science foundation and pressed into service working on the sterility problem. Confident that resolution to both problems is necessary to guarantee the continuation of the English lifestyle, Stratton puts himself to both tasks. That is, he works towards his social goal of ridding the world of industrialization, and falls in with the British team that is trying to write a name that will allow automata to do everything that a man can do. Their plan is to put those names into automata, so that they can carry on in the stead for humans. The only problem is that the group cannot get by the sterility problem: They cannot reinvigorate the loins of the creatures that they have created, though they do eventually figure out how to give the automata one successive generation in them. But the government does not much care, and they see it as a chance once and for all to control the numbers of the poor, by denying certain of them the right to reproduce.

This is probably the most complex of Chiang's stories. The plot went in a few directions during the course of the story, and coupled with the alternate reality, it was a bit too much to handle. But Chiang's ideas were as rich and as well stated as in his other stories. I have noticed in the past that when an alternate history story relies on drastic changes, instead of subtle ones, itís sometimes difficult to remain interested. I did not have that problem here, even though the world it was set in is only barely recognizable. Moreover, the resolution to this story came from an overly convenient deus ex machina-type of element, and personally, I hate that. Give this one a try, though, because its positive elements greatly outweigh the few negative ones.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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