Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Great Silence, by Ted Chiang

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(SF) While human beings try to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligences, parrots wonder why we're not trying to talk to them. (1,298 words; Time: 04m)

Rating: ★★☆☆☆, Not Recommended

This story is not Hugo-eligible because it originally appeared in an art exhibit in 2014 and has been free online at e-flux Journal since 2015. F&SF credits Allora & Calzadilla as co-authors, but they are actually the artists.
"," by , appeared in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction issue 05-06|16, published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: The story is deeply moving. "Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, but I don't blame them for it. They didn't do it maliciously. They just weren't paying attention. . . . But before we go, we are sending a message to humanity. . . You be good. I love you."

People inspired by the story may want to look into supporting the World Parrot Trust, a charity which really is trying to save endangered Puerto Rican parrots.

Con: There isn't a story here. It's a political piece whose message is "save the parrots!" A worthy message, but not much of a story.

The claims it makes for animal intelligence are overblown. Anyone interested in an excellent technical discussion on the difference between animal intelligence and animal cognition should read Are Dolphins Really Smart?: The Mammal Behind the Myth, by Justin Gregg. It discusses the story of Alex the parrot (irreproducible) as well as the various failed attempts to teach sign language to apes.

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3 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. The magic of the story is in the connections it draws, odd but compelling.

    I agree it might not be much of a story, but it's a doozy of a poem.

    I definitely don't see it as a "Save the Parrots" story. Space exploration is as much a part of the story as the parrots. It's a piece questioning humankind's desire to expand outward, while often ignoring how much there is left to explore, to shore up, and to care for right under our noses. It's also a meditation on what we actually are looking for, what we might expect to find, how prepared we really are to deal with the unexpected.

    All in all, I think a piece should be judged by its goals. This was part of an art installation - and taken as art made of pure text, I think "The Great Silence" is quite remarkable. The way it weaves such weighty ideas into short, straightforward, self-contained snippets is simply fantastic.

  2. (Another technical note: The F&SF reprint isn't even the first publication of the text on its own; the text was published here in, I believe, 2015.)

  3. Thanks for the extra info! Yes, there's something very pretty about the work. I can agree that it's a "prose poem," like "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," but I didn't like that one very much either. :-)