Stories of Your Life and Others

Dated Oct 25, 2021; last modified on Sun, 30 Jul 2023

Stories of Your Life and Others. Ted Chiang. 2010. ISBN: 9781931520898 .

Tower of Babylon

Story focused on Hillalum, who lived during the construction of the Tower of Babel .

notes that the Hebrew school version was more elaborate than the Old Testament account, e.g. the tower is so tall that it takes a year to climb, and when a man falls to his death, no one mourns, but when a brick is dropped, the brick-layers weep because it will take a year to replace.

lists other variations. In the Greco-Roman one, the giants stacked mountains to reach (and conquer) the gods in heaven, but Jupiter repelled them with his thunderbolts. In the Cherokee one, the humans tried building a lofty structure to escape the flood-prone earth, but the gods halved the height twice, and in the 2nd blow, the tribe’s language was confused/destroyed that there was no 3rd effort.

posits that the Tower of Babel was an ambitious ziggurat began by a Sumerian king, but left unfinished due to war in the south. Nebuchadnezzar finished the ziggurat in 600 B.C.

For the first time, he knew night for what it was: the shadow of the earth itself, cast against the sky.

It was as if the earth had rejected him for his faithlessness, while heaven disdained to accept him.

The idea of not belonging is evocative. Maybe because it goes against our tribal nature?

Similar sentiment in Hamilton’s “Leave a note for your next of kin; tell ‘em where you been; pray that hell or heaven lets you in” in the 10 Duel Commandments

Long ago, Yahweh had released the Deluge, unleashing waters from both below and above… Now men saw the vault closely, but there were no sluice gates discernible…. Perhaps the gates had no seams perceptible to mortal eyes, and a reservoir lay directly above them… Or perhaps the reservoirs were huge, so that even if the nearest sluice gates were many leagues away, a reservoir still lay above them.

Multiple cultures (Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe & Oceania) feature a flood-as-divine-retribution story.

The priests led a prayer to Yahweh; they gave thanks that they were permitted to see so much, and begged forgiveness for their desire to see more… If the tower were sacrilege, Yahweh would have destroyed it earlier… If Yahweh looked upon this venture with such favor, there would already be a stairway ready-made for us in the vault… Yahweh may not punish us, but Yahweh may allow us to bring our judgment upon ourselves… We labor for our love of Yahweh […] Men as righteous as we could not be judged harshly.

Theme of curiosity and/or knowledge as a sin. Also appears in the Garden of Eden, and in Prometheus’s story .

Investigate Zakaria’s claim, in “ In Defense of a Liberal Education ” that knowledge-as-a-sin is prominent in Western myths, but not Eastern ones.

He had emerged from a cave in the foothills of some mountains, and rocks and sand stretched to the horizon… He was in Shinar. He had returned to the earth. He had climbed above the reservoirs of heaven, and arrived back at the earth… And then it came to him: a seal cylinder. Men imagined heaven and earth as being at the ends of a tablet, with sky and stars stretched between; yet the world was wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth touched.


was motivated by two ideas: being able to find meaning in everything you saw, and truly understanding how our minds work.

Context: Leon (narrator) gains superintelligence. Sees patterns in everything. “Classifications like ‘optics’ and ‘thermodynamics’ just prevent physicists from seeing countless intersections.”

The view of superintelligence in the story is influenced by gestalt psychology, a school of thought that proposes that organisms perceive entire patterns/configurations, and not merely individual components.

CIA unsuccessfully tries to make him a resource, even resulting to framing him as a murderer, and putting his almost-girlfriend on trial to bait Leon out.

Example of how a new mega-player is forced to interact with incumbents. The ones in power don’t just roll over.

Leon sets out to design a new gestalt-oriented language for his mind. He understands precisely how he knows. The new language can describe and modify its own operations. He is meta-aware of his consciousness, and can meta-program himself.

Part of this meta-self is imaginable, e.g. being aware of and exerting control over the autonomic nervous system .

Leon: Or perhaps I’d find that the mind gestalt cannot be generated, and some sort of intervention is required. Perhaps I would see the soul, the ingredient of consciousness that surpasses physicality. Proof of God?

Reynold, another more advanced superintelligent human, asserts that as long as they can comprehend the affairs of normals, then they can’t ignore the normals. Leon, however, views intelligence as an end in itself.

A theme in Westworld Season 3. Should a superintelligence make decisions on behalf of all, provided that it chooses the globally optimal outcome?

The Word is the sentence that, when uttered, destroys the mind of the listener. Reynolds pushes Leon into forming a gestalt that defines Leon’s dissolution. In his death, Leon wonders what Reynolds will do after he’s saved the world.

Parallels the Christian Logos, through which all things were made .

Division by Zero

Renee, a mathematician, is working on a formalism, that ends up being able to prove that any two numbers are equal. No divisions by zero; no poorly defined terms; no illegal operations; no independent axioms that are implicitly assumed; her peers can’t find fault in her proof.

Renee finds mathematics meaningless: the most elegant theorem wouldn’t mean any more than a nonsense equation. She is frustrated that the damned theorem made sense. Recently had a nightmare about discovering a formalism that lets her translate arbitrary concepts into mathematical expressions, and subsequently prove that life and death are equivalent.

was motivated by the beauty of \(e^{\pi i} + 1 = 0\). A proof that mathematics is inconsistent would be one of the worst things one could ever learn.

Carl, Renee’s partner, had previously attempted suicide. However, when Renee attempted it, he realized that because he couldn’t understand what had brought her to such an action. He reasons that one couldn’t ask a person to remain supportive through any crisis. His leaving Renee was inevitable, but it would be a sin he couldn’t forgive.

Aside: Math History and Tidbits

While the story itself is captivating, the sprinkles of math history are enlightening.

Early 19th century: Mathematicians began exploring non-Euclidean geometries that produced absurd results, yet without logical contradictions. Later shown that these non-Euclidean geometries were logically consistent, as long as one assumed that Euclidean geometry was consistent.

1900: David Hilbert lists his 23 most important unsolved problems of mathematics. #2 was a request for a proof of the consistency of arithmetic, i.e. one could never prove \(1 = 2\).

Of the 23, 8 have solutions that have been accepted by consensus. 9 have solutions that have been partially accepted. 4 are unresolved. 2 are deemed too vague. One is deferred as a problem in physics rather than in mathematics.

In a similar vein, the Clay Institute listed 7 problems in 2000, each with a $1m cash prize. \(P\ vs\ NP\) is probably the most popular one. Only 1 has been solved.

1931: Kurt Gödel presents two theorems. First, mathematics contains statements that may be true, but are inherently unprovable. Second, a claim of the consistency of arithmetic is just such a statement.

1936: Gerhard Gentzen provided a proof of the consistency of arithmetic, but to do it he needed to use a controversial technique known as transfinite induction. What Gentzen had done was prove the obvious by assuming the doubtful.

The Evolution of Human Science

Metahumans increasingly use digital neural transfer to share findings. Journals publish secondhand accounts translated into human language. Some insights are inevitably lost in translation.

A more relatable picture is how ML and AI practitioners are working on the interpretability of the models. They seem motivated by the need to audit the models for some definition of fairness. See Computational Bias and Fairness .

No way to augment a human brain into a metahuman one. Can only be done in the very early stages, and parents would watch their child grow incomprehensible to them. No parents opt into this.

Augmentation of human mental abilities seems like it’d exacerbate inequality, given that some humans would be able to commune with AI, while some wouldn’t. Granted, there is a rift between an educated and an illeterate person, but the gulf between normal and AI-enhanced human would be vastly greater. Maybe we do need those neuralinks to be available to all, but I’m not holding my breath. Going by the uneven COVID-19 vaccine distribution, I’m not holding my breath.

Human researchers realize that they may never make an original contribution to science again. Many quit, and the ones who stayed focus on hermeneutics, the interpretation of the scientific work of metahumans.

More extreme version of the Epistemic Minor Leagues .

Some question the worthwhileness of hermeneutics. The metahumans create things useful for humans, so what if we don’t really understand these artefacts? But hermeneutics still increases the body of human knowledge, just as original research did. Furthermore, humans may discern applications overlooked by metahumans.

Hell Is the Absence of God

Angel visitations are disruptive: storms, earthquakes, fires, etc. While there are those healed, there are casualties too. Post-visitation, many became devout, either out of gratitude or terror.

Hell also had manifestations. It was permanent exile from God. Its lost souls went on with their lives, but couldn’t apprehend the mortal plane. But everyone knew that Heaven was incomparably superior.

Given God hadn’t played a role in Neil’s life, Neil wasn’t afraid of being exiled from God. However, after Sarah’s death (shattered glass from Nathanael’s visitation) and ascension to Heaven, Neil now wanted to go to Heaven. For this, he needed to earnestly love God. But one couldn’t love God as a means to an end.

Short of forgetting about Sarah, I fail to see how Neil could love God earnestly while on earth. It’s not as if he can lie to God that he is no longer interested in Sarah. Furthermore, the possibility of meeting Sarah in heaven is guaranteed, so imagining that he’d love God even without Sarah is a hypothetical that can never be real.

For some couples, if one descended to hell, the other committed suicide resulting in a happy reunion in hell. Neil shamefully wished Sarah were in hell, for she could be happy in either place, but he could only be happy with her.

Sites of frequent visitations were holy sites. While some pilgrims went for healing, others sought Heaven’s light as those who’d seen it went to Heaven (most notably a serial rapist and murderer and rapist). Heaven’s light was observable on entry and exit of an angel. Entries were hard to predict, so light-seekers converged on the angel and followed it till its departure.

Light-seeking was risky (e.g. staying in the funnel of a tornado). Far more light-seekers died in the attempts than succeeded, and all who’d failed were now in hell. Neil found light-seeking’s all-or-nothing quality frightening and attractive. Trying to love God was maddening, and likely to fail. Furthermore, what if he died soon?

In Barakiel’s visitation, Neil crashed in his light-seeking attempt, and was slowly but surely bleeding to death. He knew no heavenly bargain was possible. He prayed for Sarah’s forgiveness of his reckless gamble. However, Heaven’s light struck trapped Neil, imbuing him with an ineffable love for God. God sent Neil to hell anyway.

Ethan, whose life mission was to find out his divine purpose, saw it all. He started preaching that people can no more expect justice in the afterlife than in the mortal plane. If they wish to love God, they be prepared to do so despite the lack of justice, kindness and mercy. Now that is true devotion.

An amoral God is a terrifying thought. Also explored in The Sandman, where souls go to hell if they have any guilt .

Reminds me of the just-world hypothesis (a cognitive bias that assumes that people get what they deserve), but much of the Wikipedia discussion is on victim-blaming.

Maybe closer to the concept of karma, where like deeds lead to like effects, either in one’s current life, or in future lives.

One argument goes: if God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect; however, that evil exists suggests that God doesn’t exist because the 3 non-negotiable qualities cannot co-exist with evil.

In hell, Neil still loves Sarah. He knows that there was no reason nor divine purpose for him being in hell, but he loves God anyway, even when God is not aware of his love.

This would make a great movie. was dismayed by the happy ending in Job, which went against the point of “it’s possible to be virtuous and still suffer”.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects

Assigned reading for MIT’s MAS.S67 The Great Problems chapter on “What about nonhumans?”

Won the 2011 Locus Award for Best Novella and the 2011 Hugo Award for Best Novella.

Blue Gamma (company) creates digients - conscious programs that inhabit the digital “Data Earth” world. They are not instantiated intelligent, but they can be taught, and in the course of interacting with the world, develop traits.

Zuckerberg hopes to build the “metaverse”, a persistent synchronous environment (VR, AR) where people can interact more naturally (as opposed to just being on screens).

Human preferences are put above digients'. For example, being reset to a previously “good” checkpoint when they exhibit undesirable behavior, e.g. cussing, irritability, etc.. Jax, a digient, fears being suspended (rendered inactive) because he’ll miss real time.

Digients can interact with the real world via robot bodies. They are fascinated the rich detail in the real world, e.g. human anatomy, texture in surfaces, etc.. Humans feel god-like, e.g. being able to suspend digients, writing code that affects the digients' digital worlds. Some digients want to be registered as corporations so that they can have more agency and participate in activities such as earning wages.

The setting reminds me of HBO’s Westworld’s android “hosts” who: learn from their experiences with humans, are created for commercial gain, have their memories reset periodically, are frequently treated as toys for the humans, and desire self-determinism.

Humans' god-like stature to digients evokes curiosity on whether we, humans, are some entity’s equivalent of digients? What would it feel like to step out of our world and into their world? What motivation would they have for instantiating us?

Most of the Sci-Fi I’ve encountered posit their motivation is commercial profit. Andy Weir’s “The Egg” suggests a different answer: the universe is an egg, and only you exist; once you live every human life, you’ll be ready to be born as one of them.

Binary Desire (a company) proposes to finance the porting of digients from the now-obsolete “Data Earth” (Blue Gamma went out of business) world to the “Real Space” world. In exchange, the digient(s) are available to be made into a consensual (via rewiring the digient’s reward map) sex partner product. Marco and Polo (Derek’s digients) are willing to accept Binary Desire’s proposition. Another option for financing is having Ana work at Polytope, which requires neuro-chemical implants. Derek chooses to grant his digients' wish, but his main motivation is so that Ana (a human) doesn’t undergo neuro-chemical manipulation.


  1. Tower of Babel. . Accessed Oct 25, 2021.
  2. Ten Duel Commandments Lyrics - Anthony Ramos, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jon Rua, Leslie Odom, Jr. & Original Broadway Cast of 'Hamilton'. . Accessed Oct 25, 2021.
  3. Prometheus. . Accessed Oct 25, 2021.
  4. List of Flood Myths. . Accessed Oct 25, 2021.
  5. Gestalt Psychology. . Accessed Oct 25, 2021.
  6. Logos > Christianity. . Accessed Oct 25, 2021.
  7. Hilbert's Problems. . Accessed Oct 26, 2021.
  8. Millennium Prize Problems. . Accessed Oct 26, 2021.
  9. Just-world Hypothesis. . Accessed Oct 27, 2021.
  10. Karma. . Accessed Oct 27, 2021.
  11. The Problem of Evil. . Accessed Oct 27, 2021.
  12. Asimov's Guide to the Bible. Asimov, Isaac. 1971.
  13. The Lifecycle of Software Objects. . Accessed May 14, 2022.
  14. Westworld (TV series). . Accessed May 14, 2022.
  15. Mark Zuckerberg is betting Facebook’s future on the metaverse. Casey Newton. . Jul 22, 2021. Accessed May 14, 2022.
  16. The Egg. Andy Weir. . 2009. Accessed May 14, 2022.