Science Fiction v. Fantasy

This is the first of several posts about Ken Liu’sSingle-Bit Error,” published in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology. The story provides fertile ground for a variety of discussions–on its central questions about faith and rationality, on the nature of science fiction, and on its relationship to the other works that have influenced it. I got in touch with Ken to ask some questions about the story, and I’ll be sharing some quotes from our conversation in future posts.

For now, I want to focus on how the story’s genre affects its treatment of its premise. SPOILERS FOLLOW. One of Liu’s influences was Ted Chiang’s story “Hell is the Absence of God.” Like Chiang’s story, “Single-Bit Error” asks whether someone who does not have faith can somehow work into having it. In both stories, the main character is motivated to try to have faith by the death of a beloved woman who was a believer. Liu’s story explains it this way:

If Tyler were religious, he could have been comforted by the promise of reuniting with Lydia in Heaven. Or he could have been angry with God, and railed against Him until he could come to accept his life the way Job accepted his. But Tyler did not believe in Heaven or God.

But neither could his lack of faith give him comfort, for he loved Lydia for that light in her, and he had no name or explanation for that light except what Lydia told him. Her faith was what he loved.

To continue in his lack of faith would be to assert that Lydia’s joy was an illusion, and that would kill the very heart of his memory of her. But to believe would require him to break down the barriers between fantasy and reality in his mind and embrace as fact what seemed to him a hallucination. While Lydia was alive he could delay that decision for as long as he was in love, but her death meant that he had to choose.

I believe that Chiang’s story is fantasy, and Liu’s is science fiction, and that this difference influences how the stories play out from here.

In Chiang’s story, the angelic visitations are treated as fact, and the main character must come to terms with them. His problem of faith isn’t exactly that he can’t believe in God, but that he can’t bring himself to love God. He goes on a quest to ensure that his soul will go to heaven, and so he exists entirely within the frame of reference of the religious setting. When he comes to a point of resolution, it is a definite resolution. There is a sense of transcendent mystery in Chiang’s ending–God is ineffable, and his ways are poorly understood. There is no sense of uncertainty about God’s existence.


In Liu’s story, the main character would like to believe in the angelic visitations, but suspects that they might be caused by a “single-bit error” in the brain. The story sets up plenty of justification for Tyler’s suspicion. Early in life, Tyler learns that human memory is unreliable when he realizes that a shameful incident that he remembers vividly could not possibly have occurred. Later, the death of his beloved, Lydia, is caused by a strange error in his car’s cruise-control system. Tyler comes to believe that a similar error could occur in the brain, and he sets out to use that to feel closer to Lydia:

If a single-bit error on a circuit board could breach the mathematically perfect type system of a programming language, Tyler reasoned, wasn’t it conceivable that a single-bit error in the brain could break down the system of distinctions between nurses and angels? All it would take was for one neural connection to be broken and randomly reattached somewhere else, somewhere it had no business to be connected to, and all the walls between the types of memories would come crumbling down.

Lydia’s vision of Ambriel, and indeed her faith, was then simply the consequence of a misfiring of the neurons, a misfiring that could have been triggered by fatigue, by stress, by a stray elementary particle, indeed, by anything at all, on that long ago day in the clinic in Boston. It was really the same process that had conjured up his memory of making his grandmother cry.

In order to reason your way to faith, Tyler thought, all you needed was a single-bit error.

Contrary to what you might expect, this theory did not cheapen or degrade Lydia’s faith in Tyler’s mind. For this explanation allowed Tyler to understand, rationally, Lydia’s life. Calling Lydia’s faith an error was a level of indirection that bridged the gap between their worlds.

Moreover, errors, once understood, could be induced. The technically proficient could breach the best software security systems by deliberately inducing errors in the hardware. Couldn’t the rational induce faith in themselves the same way?

Liu’s story ends on a note of uncertainty. Tyler experiences an angelic visitation, but ends up deciding that it was a single-bit error. The story doesn’t reveal what the “truth” of the matter was.

The sense of mystery in Liu’s story isn’t just in Tyler’s questions about God and angels. It also lies in his recognition of the mystery that’s still contained in systems designed to be predictable–such as cruise-control systems. To me, that’s deeply rooted in the traditions of science fiction.


2 responses to “Science Fiction v. Fantasy

  1. Pingback: Scifi Picks » Science Fiction v. Fantasy « Words, Words, Words

  2. Pingback: Not Fan Fiction « Words, Words, Words

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