Gene Wolfe on Gmail predictive text

by Henry Farrell on October 19, 2018

From this story, though it was the shortest and the most simple too of all those I have recorded in this book, I feel that I learned several things of some importance. First of all, how much of our speech, which we think freshly minted in our own mouths, consists of set locutions. The Ascian seemed to speak only in sentences he had learned by rote, though until he used each for the first time we had never heard them. Foila seemed to speak as women commonly do, and if I had been asked whether she employed such tags, I would have said that she did not – but how often one might have predicted the ends of her sentences from their beginnings.



Bill Benzon 10.19.18 at 7:47 pm

But see a recent post by Cosma Shalizi, which I’ve excerpted here:

In particular, “Rodney Brooks, one of the Revered Elders of artificial intelligence, puts it nicely recently, saying that the performances of these systems give us a very misleading idea of their competences.”

FWIW, the ‘performance/competence’ distinction is due to Chomsky.


maidhc 10.20.18 at 2:13 am


mpzrd 10.20.18 at 4:08 am


“The people of Ascia were reduced to speaking only with their masters’ voice; but they had made of it a new tongue, and I had no doubt, after hearing the Ascian, that by it he could express whatever thought he wished.”

So not different than other languages, then. And other languages are not different than Ascian (says GW): Semantically empty, yet communicative. As Huang Po put it, what’s really going on is the direct transmission of Mind with Mind. That is, most of the time I can guess what you’re thinking with very slim cues. But who can guess the Mind of the Google, or ken what the Google guesses about me?


David Evans 10.20.18 at 4:10 pm

Gene Wolfe is a great writer, but not always a great guide. I do not think it is possible to express the thoughts “I shall be driving to Cardiff tomorrow” and “I shall be driving to Beijing tomorrow” by speaking only complete sentences from any one book. If by sheer accident it were possible using a particular book, one could easily defeat that book by using different place names.


William S Berry 10.20.18 at 6:07 pm

@David Evans:

Right. The book could never change in any way; no updates of place names or actions whatsoever. Anything added would have to be created outside the rules of the language.

Not for the first time I wonder if GW was acquainted with the linguistic musings of Borges. There seem to be some very Borgesian conundrums involved here.


Richard A Melvin 10.21.18 at 12:05 pm

> I shall be driving to Cardiff tomorrow

There is no such thing as society;
The future belongs to those who act.
Anyone who finds them-self on a bus after the age of thirty is a failure.
The enemy within;
their fortress;
cheap tin trays.
A new dawn, a bold dawn


Henry Farrell 10.23.18 at 4:13 pm

Not for the first time I wonder if GW was acquainted with the linguistic musings of Borges. There seem to be some very Borgesian conundrums involved here.

He most certainly was. There are explicit references to Borges’ work throughout – the torture method called “Humbaba’s stick;” the tear like shape that can be seen in Master Inire’s mirror – for starters. And blind Master Ultan is very plausibly a stand-in for Borges.


William S Berry 10.23.18 at 4:22 pm

Awesome. It has been (quite) a few years since I read “New Sun”. Maybe I should tackle it again, with an eye to paying closer attention to the references/ allusions.

Can anyone recommend a good annotative work on the text?

Thx, WSB

Comments on this entry are closed.