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Joe Gonzales

Professor Heim

Writing 39B

MWF 4-4:50 pm

Universal Complex

Science fiction is often associated with futuristic utopias in which humanity engages in a

conflict where their survival is at stake. Yet, the reality is that the genre delves much deeper,

covering the meaning behind “mankind and his status in the universe… [especially within a]

confused state of knowledge” (Anders). The human mind and the daily processes it undergoes is

considered one of the most complex phenomenon, undergoing heavy research to this day. One of

the most recent fields of interest is the concept and applications of human enhancement: the use

of substances to enhance one’s mental and physical limits, efficiency, and capabilities, usually

above those of the average human being. Yet, the use of human test subjects, usually acquired

without their consent, to expand human capabilities illustrates man’s unquenchable desire to

obtain absolute supremacy. The character development of Leon in Ted Chiang’s short story,

Understand, highlights that this desire originates from the human flaw of hubris. After enduring

a serious head injury from hiking, Leon is prescribed the experimental drug, Hormone K.

Subsequently, the side effects of the drug enhance Leon into a superhuman. After escaping

captivity and actively avoiding the authorities hunting him down, Leon’s primary goal is to

constantly improve his cognitive abilities and stay one step ahead of everyone else searching for

him. Yet, the constant need for more power to remain at his superior stature results in the desire

to improve more to transform into an endless obsession to satisfy his ego. Hubris is not only

present within Leon, but it extends from the readers themselves to the current institutions
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operating in modern day society, illustrating its prominence and downgrading effects to this day.

The combination of pastoral and spiritual imagery, sense of chaos, and intellectual based plot

Chiang creates throughout Understand advocates the human flaw of hubris and want for absolute

power is mankind’s ultimate downfall as it prevents one from experiencing true serenity.

The sense of disorder and dual imagery from Chiang’s writing style highlights Leon’s

obsession for superior status forms as a result of his hubris, leading to his inevitable demise.

After Leon escapes the hospital he was recovering at, he describes his first boost of Hormone K

as “Fiat logos…[understanding his] mind in terms of a language more expressive than

any…previously imagined. Like God creating order from chaos” (Chiang 53). The religious

imagery alluding to God’s immeasurable power of creation defines the magnitude of Leon’s

initial desire to continue achieving more abilities after acknowledging the initial enhancements

of Hormone K. However, attempting to reach the same stature of God illustrates Leon’s hubris

starting to dominate, transforming the desire to enhance his abilities into an endless obsession of

becoming a deity. This will commence an inner conflict within Leon, preventing him from

experiencing serenity and entering a state of disarray. Ironically, Leon expected any future

enhancements to his cognitive abilities to be “[enlightening]…euphoric to experience” (Chiang

59). Leon’s belief that further enhancement from Hormone K will be “euphoric”, full of intense

excitement, reinforces Leon’s hubris dominating over his reason. The use of extreme diction

highlights Leon’s mind becoming obsessed upon maximizing his intellectual powers without

taking into the account the negative consequences of his actions. In fact, Leon learns the hard

way as he describes further cognitive enhancement as being “cramped inside a bamboo cage…If

[he tires] to relax…then agony, madness” (Chiang 58). The pastoral imagery of being trapped

within a “bamboo cage” creates the sensory image of being held prisoner in an isolated jungle,
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illustrating how far astray Leon has fallen during his journey to further enhance his abilities.

Instead of feeling “euphoric”, Leon is now dominated by emotions of “agony” and “madness”,

further building up the sense of disorder that Leon has become entwined within. Despite

enduring such intense pain, his hubris continues to feed his need to improve his superiority,

driving him to seek further enhancements. This drive proves this flaw and the need for absolute

power to be his downfall. At the end, Leon finally encounters a second superhuman which offers

him the immeasurable knowledge and power he has been seeking. Unfortunately, Leon is

“overwhelmed by all this input, paralyzed with awareness of [him] self” (Chiang 54). Leon being

“paralyzed” by immense knowledge and enhancements signifies Leon’s desire to be the most

superior being has pushed and entrapped him down a destructive path. Ironically, this is exact

opposite experience Leon had expected when finally achieving this moment. The sense of

immense disorder and pain Leon has put on himself reinforces hubris’ damaging nature, blinding

Leon from the negative consequences his desires exhibited. Too late to save himself and ever

regain a sense of balance or serenity, Leon accepts his fate in which he “[comprehends] the

Word, and the means by which it operates”, causing himself to “dissolve” (Chiang 70). The fact

Leon continues to view enhancements as “the Word” or ultimate truth argues the human flaw of

hubris consumes any ability to reason or experience serenity within one’s current state, urging

them always to improve no matter the consequences. From the start, Leon’s hubris got the best of

him and as a result, his greatest aspects ironically ended up being his greatest undoing.

Unfortunately, this flaw is not only exhibited through Leon, as the readers themselves unveil

how prominent this behavioral pattern truly is.

Paralleling Leon, the expectations and critiques readers shared regarding the short story

reinforces that even the sensation of power, specifically through knowledge, prevents one from
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experiencing true satisfaction. Research argues that obtaining more knowledge “has profound

implications for the development of a wide variety of cognitive capabilities” (Bridges).

Unfortunately, it fails to take into account how the human flaw of hubris can take advantage,

even on a smaller scale. Though several readers appreciated the message and intellectual driven

plot Chiang incorporated, one reader commented that the plot line “was missing elements that

made it a complete story” (Goodreads). Just as Leon desired enhancement and further

knowledge, the critique of Chiang’s lack of detail causes fans of science fiction to go down a

similar path. Usually, science fiction is expected to be an action-packed thriller full of conflict in

which the motives of both the protagonist and antagonist are explained. However, Chiang’s

emphasis upon Leon’s character and intellectual development is meant to point out his flaws and

inner conflict, which connects more to the central message more than any man to man conflict

would. This reader was unable to fully commit and analyze Chiang’s intentions due to their dire

need for more details and action based plot, reinforcing Chiang’s central message without even

realizing. Similarly, another reader critiqued about the “distinct lack of plausibility with regards

to the non-POV characters’ motivation and actions” (Goodreads). Again, even though a central

conflict between Leon and another character would fulfill the audience’s expectations, it would

completely miss the central message of the damaging effects of obtaining immeasurable

knowledge. In fact, examining such comments illustrate the relevance of this flaw and how many

are failing to self-reflect about their own human nature. As a result, many are allowing personal

desires that allow a sense of empowerment to be obtained to dominate over reason. Yet, the

reality is that the applications of Chiang’s message extend even further from his audience to the

modern-day institutions that make up our society.

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The desire for absolute power and high stature is clearly present in modern-day

institutions, but the consequences are much direr than the inability to experience true serenity,

illustrating the importance of comprehending and spreading Chiang’s message. Many from the

scientific community argue that human enhancement is necessary since it can transform any

average person into “an ideal one or even a perfect one, as one wishes to enhance towards her

ideal self” (Roduit). Yet, hubris and human flaw is an aspect often ignored as branches such as

the military, FBI, or CIA are always looking for advantages to exploit in order to stay one step

ahead of a hostile nation or organization. Leon is merely Chiang’s creation that exemplifies how

such agencies wish to utilize human enhancement. Unfortunately, this situation is a reality in our

society as the Department of Defense has directly stated “cutting-edge technologies [will] make

U.S. troops faster, smarter and more resilient than their normal selves” (Harper). The goal of

enhancing human cognitive and physical capabilities will be used only to make our nation

superior above the rest, offering “tremendous operational advantages” (Harper). Unfortunately,

the longer this obsession for more enhanced, perfect humans is supported, the more divided and

violent mankind will become rather than focusing towards achieving global unification. If

readers and world leaders alike keep failing to self-reflect upon their goals and mindsets, man

kind’s timeline is now limited, paralleling Leon’s inevitable downfall.

Even though being average is often looked down upon in today’s high-tech, fast paced

society, the events within such a lifestyle often lead to happiness and content. Wanting more is

not necessarily better as the key to experiencing serenity is balance. Leon, the readers, and world

leaders are so focused on their desire for absolute power by achieving superior stature above

everyone else that they forget to acknowledge the aspects of life that truly matter. Chiang’s

message might seem like a method of bringing a short story to a quick end, but much like other
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science fiction stores, it was intended to make us reflect upon what makes us human and how we

are applying these traits within our society. Balancing out our desire to become superior than

everybody else and working together to make up for each other’s weaknesses will truly result in

forming the ideal, unified society. Everyone has their own set of unique gifts; do not be afraid to

use them to your advantage as long as the intentions are in favor of the common good.
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Works Cited

Anders, Charlie Jane. “How many definitions of science fiction are there?” io9,,

27 Aug. 2010. Web. 15 Feb. 2018

Bridges, Lois. “The Joy and Power of Reading.” California English, vol. 20, no. 2, Nov. 2014,

pp. 7-9. EBSCOhost. Web. 20 Feb. 2018

Chiang, Ted. Story of Your Life. Macmillan Publisher, New York, 2002. Text.

Harper, Jon. "How Technology Could Create 'Super Soldiers'." National Defense, 2016.

EBSCOhost. Web. 4 Feb. 2018.

Roduit, Johann A R, et al. "Ideas of Perfection and the Ethics of Human Enhancement."

Bioethics, vol. 29, no. 9, Nov. 2015, pp. 622-630. EBSCOhost. Web. 14 Feb. 2018

“Understand”. Goodreads, Goodreads Inc., 3 Oct. 2010. Web. 4 Feb. 2018.