“The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang

Before on this blog, we’ve recommended non-fiction books, articles on business operations, or particularly salient video interviews. “The Great Silence,” by Ted Chiang, is our first fiction recommendation.

I first discovered this story at a Selected Shorts performance, an evening event celebrating the release of the Best American Short Stories 2016 collection, guest edited this year by Junot Díaz. Chiang’s story, only four pages long, was read aloud by Renée Elise Goldsberry of Broadway’s Hamilton fame. I was utterly floored. 

In a mere four pages, the story spans the Fermi paradox, the Arecibo Observatory, and Hindu mythology, all told from the voice of an African Gray Parrot, one of the last of his kind as the species nears extinction. 

In the collection’s introduction, Díaz names “The Great Silence” as his favorite of the bunch. Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and This is How You Lose Her, is known for his encyclopedic recall of the science fiction canon, and as an advocate for diverse voices in contemporary literature. A Dominican-American, Díaz has often commented through his fiction and in interviews on the intersection between alien races and alien immigrants, both considered as societal “Others.” In “The Great Silence,” though, the sentient/intelligent “Other” is an old species of parrot, one that has been here all along; humans simply haven’t listened close enough to know this.

I recommend the whole collection, but “The Great Silence” I implore you to read. It is, at the very least, a reminder to listen often and listen well. And to anyone tinkering in AI, it will serve as a cautionary tale to stay curious about the nature of intelligence and our own understanding of it.