What are some stories that are like Ted Chiang's "Understand"?
November 19, 2010 12:21 PM   Subscribe

What are some stories that are like Ted Chiang's "Understand"?

Specifically, I'm interested in stories about two or more super-intelligent archenemies. What I liked about "Understand" was the two evenly matched characters who were each trying to control the world. The intelligence could also take the form of some other kind of mental superpower, such as super-prediction, perhaps. By necessity, this will probably have to be science fiction, but I don't want to limit it: what about fantasy? Mystery? Magical realism, maybe? I'd also be interested in recommendations from other mediums like movies or comic books, or um, real ife?
posted by mumblingmynah to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The Godfather of Kathmandu has not just one but two such pairings. It's the Xth book in a series, but I read it on its own and didn't notice a bit outside of a more-than-regular assumed familiarity with a few characters.
posted by griphus at 12:26 PM on November 19, 2010

In my opinion, this is the basic plot of many William Gibson novels -- however, the stories are never told from the point of view of the super-intelligent arch-enemies.

Vernor Vinge's True Names includes this element.
posted by grobstein at 12:36 PM on November 19, 2010

I recently read The Manual of Detection. The two sides of the battle here are basically order and chaos; each side has different and impressive powers.
posted by mlle valentine at 12:36 PM on November 19, 2010

The Ellimist by K.A. Applegate is a fantasy novel about the last survivor of an alien species who eventually evolves into a godlike entity with enormous power. Towards the end, he comes into conflict with an equally powerful being, and their struggle plays out on a cosmic scale. The book was part of Applegate's Animorphs series, but was more or less standalone when I read it years ago.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:43 PM on November 19, 2010

Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. The answers here cover some similar (but not identical) territory.
posted by Zed at 12:47 PM on November 19, 2010

The film Unbreakable is sort of like this but one of the protagonists doesn't know it.
posted by crocomancer at 1:12 PM on November 19, 2010

Vernor Vinge's Tatja Grimm's World -- the final segment is about exactly this.
posted by grobstein at 1:31 PM on November 19, 2010

Response by poster: Good suggestions all! Interesting that Vinge came up multiple times. I've read Fire Upon the Deep but will have to check out the others.
posted by mumblingmynah at 1:49 PM on November 19, 2010

"Fine Structure" by Sam Hughes sort of fits, although it's not initially obvious.
posted by teraflop at 2:07 PM on November 19, 2010

Akira, maybe? The power is "I WILL DESTROY YOU WITH MY MIND!!!" rather than super-intelligence, but it is the movie/manga about evenly-matched archenemies with wildly strong mental superpowers facing off.
posted by twirlip at 7:51 PM on November 19, 2010

Best answer: You must watch the new Sherlock Holmes TV adaptation that the BBC is producing, which is currently airing in slightly abridged form on PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery" in the States. Only three episodes are out in the first season/series, each ninety minutes long, and three more are supposed to start shooting early next year. The stories have been updated to the present day, instead of being set in the Victorian era, and the writing and acting are superb. You don't have to know anything about the Holmes canon to appreciate the series, but there are plenty of in-jokes and awesome little winks to those who know the books, which is fun. And you'll get three fabulous arch-genius sociopaths (each with varying degrees of morality) to enjoy: crime-obsessed Sherlock, his politically-connected brother Mycroft, and (best of all) his arch-enemy Moriarty.

You can watch all three episodes online at the PBS website until December 7th, but as mentioned, they are slightly abridged from the original BBC versions, so you may want to seek out a torrent of the originals. The first episode is great, the second episode is good, and the third episode is fantastic -- and as someone who is seeking media about super-geniuses facing off, that's also the one that will probably thrill you the most.
posted by Asparagirl at 9:26 PM on November 19, 2010

Best answer: I love Understand too—it's a taught, smart story.

There are probably many stories featuring super-intelligences fighting each other (especially with the recent wave of fiction centering on a post-singularity future), but a couple that come to mind right now are:
  • Ian Bank's Culture books features Minds, ultra-intelligences that sometimes fight each other, though usually the stories are not told from their direct perspective but rather the perspectives of human-like entities that exist in the world the Minds control/affect. However, the book Excession does feature some Mind-against-Mind action.
  • A really good (IMHO) short story called Antibodies in Charles Stross' collection Toast has an element of super intelligences plotting against each other.
  • (Less directly about what you're asking for, but an engaging story, IMHO) Charles Stross's book Iron Sunrise features a super-intelligence (or maybe it's a collective—no one knows for sure), the Eschaton, that discovers there appears to be another super-entity or entities actively plotting against it. Again, the story is not directly about them, but rather about the beings living in their world, and actual interactions with the E are rare. (Iron Sunrise is a sequel to Singularity Sky, but that one involves only the Eschaton, no other apparent super-intelligences. FWIW, I think Singularity Sky is the better book.)

posted by StrawberryPie at 9:32 PM on November 19, 2010

The Lensman series by E.E. "Doc" Smith is the classic of this type. The central plot concerns a galactic war waged between two super-intelligent species over billions of years, largely conducted through client species. It's an enjoyable romp if you can get past the purple prose
posted by Jakey at 1:44 PM on November 20, 2010

Ahem. I meant taut, not taught, in my reply above.
posted by StrawberryPie at 8:20 PM on November 20, 2010

I just remembered the 2009 movie Push is very much like this.
posted by StrawberryPie at 10:15 AM on November 21, 2010

Response by poster: Asparagirl: That sounds right up my alley, I'm a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. Thanks!
posted by mumblingmynah at 3:57 PM on November 21, 2010

'Fulfillment' by A.E. Van Vogt is a neat short-story spin on this. It's in a couple of collections of his stuff, usually found in dollar bins and dumpsters.
posted by carsonb at 7:06 PM on November 21, 2010

"Protector" by Larry Niven
posted by grizzled at 7:28 AM on November 22, 2010

Death Note is a manga you might be interested in. It's been made into movies as well, but I haven't seen those and can't vouch for them.
posted by emeiji at 10:39 AM on November 22, 2010

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