Just discovered not one but TWO interviews with one of my favorite authors, Ted Chiang! If you don't know Ted Chiang, you are missing out on some truly stunning work. He's a technical writer by trade, but on the side a writer of science fiction or possibly fantasy or perhaps speculative fiction, depending on your definition). A consistent theme of his work is the interplay between science, religion and magic, and many of his stories explore the places where these three intersect or blur into one another. This also happens to be a big interest of mine, so of course I devour anything he writes. As someone famous
once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" and Chiang's stories often play with this idea, pushing the boundaries or rather showing that the boundaries are perhaps fuzzier than we think. You can read several of his stories, including the wonderful "Hell is the Absence of God," here
In the first interview
, he says this:
There is a similarity between science and religion in that they're both attempts to understand the universe, and there was a time in the past when science and religion were not seen as incompatible, when it made perfect sense to be both a scientist and a religious person. Nowadays there is much more of an attitude that the two are incompatible. I think that's sort of a 20th century phenomenon.
I find this an interesting observation. Time was, in the not-so-distant past, one could be both a good Christian and a good scientist (*koff*Jesuits*koff*). Even during the Enlightenment, a scientist working diligently to fully understand the natural world was not (necessarily) seen as a threat to belief in God but as paying tribute to it, by uncovering new marvels and demonstrating the incredible complexity and beauty therein. Likewise, no scientist felt obligated to denounce religion as a bunch of hokum and say that anybody who believed it was a fool. But these days it's not uncommon to run across some fairly strong rhetoric that makes the two seem fundamentally (ha ha) incompatible, such as the anti-science stance of some on the far right
On the other hand, just last week I learned that my former home state is trying to remove evolution from the curriculum on the grounds that science IS a religion
, so perhaps the two are closer than we think...
But I digress. I was talking about how masterfully Chiang explores this in his writing. I don't want to give away any spoilers (because I REALLY want everyone I know to go and read him for themselves!), but the best examples are in his collection Stories of Your Life and Others
. The title story manages to combine alien linguistics with the problem of free will AND will make you cry, an impressive feat for a single story. "Tower of Babylon" and "Seventy-Two Letters" are excellent examples of the religion of magic, or the magic of science, or the science of religion, however you want to think about it, each with a twist at the end that makes you go "woa..."
To leave questions of religion aside, the last story in the book is particularly pertinent to women, I think, since we live in a society that places an abnormal priority on female beauty, and one narrow form of it to boot, with photo-shopped models and the constant selling of beauty products. The story is called "Liking What You See: A Documentary" and is about a near-future invention that allows people to switch off their perception of whether a person is beautiful or not. (This is not as far-fetched as it sounds -- scientists are increasingly fine-tuning their knowledge of where in the brain things happen.) The story is written as a documentary, with interviews with college students, parents, scientists, religious figures, business people (advertising!), etc. all arguing for or against it on one or another grounds. All of the interviews are interesting, but the most poignant is perhaps the main character, a college-age girl trying to decide which is right for her. Like most of Chiang's stories, the purpose is more to make
you think rather than convince of a certain way
of thinking. It's fascinating and eerie and discomfiting all at once.
In the second interview
, which actually was first since it was in 2002 and the other one was in 2010, he has this to say:
[M]agic is always esoteric, whereas science and technology are fundamentally egalitarian. Magic's something for the few, the elect, the anointed, or someone who has a gift, but science is ultimately amenable to mass production, so we can all enjoy the benefits.
What do you think about this distinction, of magic as elitist and science as egalitarian? If, for example, in the world of Harry Potter, some mutation made everyone magical, would it no longer be magic since it's available to everyone? Or what if magic were attainable by anyone willing to work really hard, or pay a certain price?