“Hexagrammaton,” by Hanuš Seiner

Hexagrammaton, by Hanus Seiner
Illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love

“Hexagrammaton,” by Hanuš Seiner. Translated from Czech by Julie Nováková.
Novelette. Published in Tor.Com, May 2017.

This one grabbed me from the start; it wasn’t until I started writing this post that I realized it was by Hanuš Seiner, whose “Terra Nullius” I’d found so intriguing a few months ago.

(And hey, sorry for the unannounced hiatus, everybody! Things have been cuh-razy. I’m back, scouring the web for stories that catch my eye and look fun to talk about!)

Maria Haskins recommends this story highly:

I’m not sure I can even properly describe the premise of this unique and captivating story. Aliens have visited the solar system. They have infected? blessed? some humans with a virus that rewrites their genetic code into…something else. The aliens have left, but the infected humans are stuck, halfway to their ultimate metamorphosis. Now, a woman might have found something that will change everything. Mathematics, genetic reprogramming, fear, loneliness, a longing to explore the universe… All I can say is: read it. It’s a trippy, disorienting story that is well worth savouring.

Charles Payseur calls this “a strange story full of hauntingly lovely possibilities.” In his review, he discusses the themes of ciphers and translations:

I love the layers of the story. There are sections told in a journal that parallel those told by the main character, a man who in the journals was part of the Vaían movement and in the other was not. And the story really to me becomes about movement and possibilities. It’s about codes and ciphers, with reality itself being no more than a code that, with the right key, can be translated into something else. So the journal portion of the story translates into the story of the man taking this traveler to the ships, becomes something else entirely. The idea that reality can be translated in that way is fascinating and it creates the possibilities by which the story can find a way for humans to push out into the stars.  It just lingers on this idea that with a code so complex as reality, each translation loses the code that came before, erases it in the act of translation, and so you have to commit to it fully in order to create this new text.
It’s a beautiful story that changes with each reading, with each new interpretation, and it’s an amazing experience. 

Rocket Stack Rank does not recommend. While it feels “there are lots of really interesting ideas in here,” overall “The whole story is a confused mess. (…) What really happened here? It’s way too long to be this confused.”

What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

8 thoughts on ““Hexagrammaton,” by Hanuš Seiner”

  1. My first thought is that the central concept of this story leans way too heavily on “Story of Your Life.” But if you’re going to borrow from a story, better make it a really famous one, so that no one can accuse you of sneakiness in theft.

    I am having trouble figuring out what went on in the dual timelines, though. In the timeline where the ambassador is in prison, there is no hexagrammaton, right? Arvin only explains the theory. So does the moment when the ambassador becomes aware of the other timeline correspond to the moment when the other version of him is infected with the hexagrammaton? And who is the “devil’s martyr” and who is the devil?

    To be honest, I am feeling exceptionally stupid today, and maybe shouldn’t have read this until I was more awake.

    1. I feel like “dual timelines” isn’t quite the right way to look at this. Like the ship has many names (rather than the ship having different names in different timelines), I read the differing realities as different aspects of one thing. I think of them as being juxtaposed. And, as in the ship names, none of them is more or less real than the other — they’re all real, and that’s a lot of the point.

      Consider how in the conclusion, the crew realize that the ship has already been flying. They haven’t changed timelines; reality has shifted… to expose something related, analogous, connected, yet also utterly different.

  2. I feel like there’s a cipher key that will transform this story in Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” and re-applying it will get you Borges’s “Library of Babel.”

    The foundational premise is that any text inherently holds multiple meanings — and therefore, in a way, reality itself is more than one thing at once. Part of me loves this premise. There’s great beauty in this idea; an acknowledgement of life’s richness, its complexity, and the way even the most unremarkable things prove multifaceted.

    The other part of me dislikes it intensely, because this premise feels so very, very broken. The claim here is that any text has multiple variant meanings, and that all of those meanings are deeply significant. The implications of that are insane.

    Here’s what needs to be true, according to this setting’s rules:
    – Every phone book, fast food menu and instruction manual has a hexagrammaton which gives it new meaning. That meaning needs to be comprehensible, legible, significant, if only “as significant” as the original text itself.
    – Minute changes to those texts need to be enough to substantially change the result of a hexagrammaton. (They say specifically that HEX(text) bears no relation to HEX(text+something extra at the end.) So adding an item onto the end of a McDonald’s menu would be enough to change the corresponding text entirely — you’d need a new text, also significant.
    – All this is going on naturally, organically within the language. Everything just naturally works. Somebody makes up a new word; it’s already got cyphered significance. Somebody makes up a new name because they like the sound of it; no problem; it’s already taken into account.

    The story says:

    Human linguists and cryptologists have always been amazed by the Vaían Elders’ ability to spontaneously create texts with several simultaneous meanings. According to Arvin, they had no choice! The Vaían language has a self-ciphering tendency, he says; it’s a closed algebra, a self-contained universe of texts. Whatever is written in it necessarily has several meanings. The Vaían didn’t create texts containing multiple meanings. They wrote one and then searched for the cipher keys using simple algorithms.

    …and I can only read this in one of two ways:

    One option is that this Vaian language truly maps one set of words onto another, but it does so without understanding or significance. That would be the Borgesian, Library-of-Babel option — everything has some hidden meaning, but the amount of random noise makes it impenetrable and useless.

    And the other is what Seiner goes with: effectively, divine intervention in people’s diaries and in their fast food menus. Everything just happens to translate clearly and significantly. Like an omniscient being is making poetry out of every scrap of text in the universe.

    It’s too much for me. In “Story Of Your Life,” Chiang brings predestination to life, shows us how it could be a different way of looking at the same thing. Seiner, with far less persuasion, asserts there are infinite ways of looking at anything, and somewhere in the mysterious origins of the Vaians, somebody’s already figured them out for everything.

    It’s basically implying some kind of inherent cosmic megalomania. I’m not sure it even realizes it; it never seems to consider the implications of its premise on the mundane. And that… that’s a lot for me to be willing to swallow.

  3. This story annoyed me a bit by doing the classic Treknobabble thing of using “electromagnetic fields” as if they’re something weird and exotic and scary (it’s light). The perils of reading SF as a physicist…

    This feels a lot like it slots into the “drugs are a path to other realities” subgenre, with the alien virus/language taking the place of the drugs. There’s probably a decent article to be written on the psychological implications of having the virus provided by aliens rather than invented by humans. Personally, I’ve never been hugely fond of the “godlike aliens bestow inscrutable gifts” trope, so together with the EM fields thing, that’s another barrier for the story to overcome.

    In a similar vein, you could probably riff off the fact that this is translated from Czech and go somewhere with that. Is the spooky magic EM fields thing reflecting a gap in the knowledge of the author, or of the translator? Etc.

    I see the parallels with “Story of Your Life,” but I think that does this story a disservice. The big difference between them is that Chiang made me care about his characters much more than Seiner does here. Chiang packs in a lot of little personal details that makes the characters feel real, and it’s that reality that gives the story much of its emotional punch, which matters even more to its success than the high-concept stuff about Lagrangian mechanics and predestination. (It’s something of an outlier among Chiang stories in that regard; his failure mode is sliding into a kind of chillier Borgesian distance, where the characters don’t feel like they’re people outside the direct line of the exposition they provide.) These characters don’t really get fleshed out in quite the same way, and that restricts the success or failure to just the high concept stuff.

    1. I see the parallels with “Story of Your Life,” but I think that does this story a disservice. The big difference between them is that Chiang made me care about his characters much more than Seiner does here.

      The emotion and character in “Story of Your Life” are absolute marvels. There’s no question “Hexagrammaton” is nowhere near that, on those scales. I think the comparisons are in the area of the high-concept, where there’s a lot akin — and I wouldn’t suggest that most stories be judged against wonders like “Story of Your Life”; that’s an immense bar to clear…

      But this is enlightening to consider: even if you see the language and predestination as being the core of “Story Of Your Life,” you can see that using emotion and everyday character was an incredibly effective way to convey those ideas. A more clinical, Borgesian style just wouldn’t have gotten it across as well. “Story Of Your Life” has concept and character, and the two are intertwined brilliantly, supporting each other in every way.

  4. Most probably I should not join this discussion… or at least I always believed that the authors should never join discussions on interpretation of their stories. So I will not do that, I will not try to explain how the -grammatons should work. If it’s not evident from the story itself, seems like I have failed in some respect. Just few comments.

    First of all – many thanks to squee and snark for picking up both my short stories published in English so far. I am really excited to see that my stories initiate discussions. That is what I am aiming at. I am ok with readers saying that they find my stories annoying for this and that reason, but when they still feel they can comment on the stories, it’s pretty good.

    Secondly, in fact I have a PhD in applied physics and am holding an associate professor position in applied physics, so I dare say I know a bit on EM fields. And yes, I am using a bit poetized (you could say trenkobabble) approach. I read lot of SF stuff, and as far as it does not go against some main principles, I am ok with that. (And thanks to Chad Orzel for his comment – I know your book about the dog and the quantum physics, it was translated to Czech, and its great.)

    Finally, let me say something on my inspiration sources for Hexagrammaton.
    1. oh well, The Story of Your Life by Chiang, it is obvious, but maybe the stories are not so similar
    2. the ancient Khmer language, where each word had two different meaning – an ordinary one and a noble/poetic one. I had read a book on the Khmer culture many years before reading the Chiang’s story.
    3. the way how the real viruses mutate – some of them really use something like a ciphering key, they change their structure all the time, but they remain causing the same disease, isn’t it amazing?
    4. and… the whole story is on transforming one text into another, not necessary the realities. I love John Fowles’s novels, most of them tackle somehow the borders between literature and reality – that is also something I wanted to address.

    Hope you enjoyed reading the story. And sorry for my terrible English in this post – at least you can see why I need someone like Julie (she is simply great) for the translations :).

    1. Hello Hanus! Thanks for commenting!

      I share your apprehension about joining a discussion about your own story, but I think you’ve done so with excellent taste 🙂

      The Khmer language sounds fascinating! I’m definitely going to look that up. (If you have any examples you remember I’d love to hear them!)

      The idea of viruses ciphering themselves is an intriguing thought. I’m not clear if you’re saying that, metaphorically, viruses’ ability to change their structure but retain their essence is like ciphering, or whether there are specific viruses which use cipher-like mechanism. But, ummm, both sound really cool, so…

      Lastly, I want to agree wholeheartedly: your stories (that I’ve read so far) are definitely the type to provoke thought and discussion. I’ve enjoyed them both, and that particular quality is one I esteem very highly 🙂

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