Review of “Seventy-Two Letters” (2000)


Ted Chiang (writer).

Read in 2017.

A worthy thought experiment akin to The Difference Engine (1990), with the same climactic discovery (recursion), inferior period immersion, and vastly larger premisses that include consistent, exploitable violations of thermodynamics. A rather silly set of coincidences leading to an action set piece take the place of the exploration of historical differences. For instance, theological developments are ignored except for the suggestion that scientific methods do not actually rely on divinity, a more pointedly reductive version of the word magic in A Wizard of Earthsea (1968).

There is no hint of how Christianity developed close enough to history to produce Victorian morality despite efficacious kabbalism. In fact, the whole story seems to be an attempt to take a period of time and rebuild a little of the world beneath it along theological lines, taking the final product as a given. This resembles the reasoning of a lazy, poorly informed historian. It’s fun, but Chiang does it better in “Tower of Babylon” (1990). Terry Pratchett had a looser, even less self-consistent version of a golem-based industrial revolution, in Feet of Clay (1996).

text fiction