Even if you haven’t ready any of Ted Chiang’s stories, you may already be familiar with his Nebula and Hugo Award-winning work “Story of Your Life,” which was adapted into the Academy Award-nominated film Arrival. I haven’t read that story (yet), but the concepts in the film intrigued me enough that when I heard about this new collection, I was eager to read it.
If you have seen Arrival, you won’t be surprised that Chiang’s writing continues to explore ideas about time, free will, responsibility, and artificial intelligence. The collection comprises nine stories: two of them, “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” and “Omphalos,” are new and award nominees in their own right, while the other seven have been previously published. I enjoyed some stories more than others, but I honestly wouldn’t say there are any in the collection that aren’t worthwhile in some respect.
The title of my review comes from a story called “What’s Expected of Us.” At just over three pages, it’s the shortest in the collection and begins with the line, “This is a warning. Please read carefully.” It goes on to explain how a gimmicky invention called a Predictor has demonstrated that our choices are not our own, that there’s no such thing as free will. It so effectively illustrates this fact that people who are initially charmed by the idea of the Predictor eventually lose all will to live and have to be hospitalized because they enter a state of akinetic mutism. It’s a simple tale about whether free will matters as long as we believe it matters; yet I couldn’t help seeing undercurrents about technology and how we are bound to invent something, eventually, that is going to drive us all mad.
The 2011 Hugo Award winner for best novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” begins on familiar ground, demonstrating the life of artificially intelligent beings called digients. Existing initially in a virtual space, the digients are able to experience the “real” world by use of robotic bodies. Because they learn as they grow, their owners become increasingly attached to them, and when their virtual world is threatened with shutting down, the dedicated owners become desperate to find a way to port them into a new virtual space. These ideas are fairly familiar so far: the ethics of giving life to something, the responsibility of continuing to care for something that is artificial. Where the story really becomes interesting is when a company called Binary Desire offers to provide the group the money they need to port their digients to a new virtual space in exchange for allowing them to make copies of the digients for (and this is important) consensual sex with its customers. Now the ethical question becomes one of allowing digients (who, from the owners’ points of view, are their children) to make their own decisions, and also the question of which feelings are real and which are fabricated. In the company’s proposal, part of the process would be to make the experience enjoyable for both parties. When an owner objects that artificially stimulating the digients isn’t “real,” the corporation’s representative challenges her. “How is it not?” she asks. “Your feelings for your digients are real; their feelings for you are real. If you and your digient can have a non-sexual connection that’s real, why should a sexual connection between a human and a diligent be any less real?”
For me, the winner in this collection is “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” which comprises two related tales. The first takes place in a not-so-distant future, where technology allows people to record and relieve every memory or experience they have ever had, not unlike the premise of the excellent Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You.” It explores the dangers of remembering everything, and yet, unlike Black Mirror, its conclusion is more ambiguous. Common wisdom would suggest that remembering every detail of an argument and playing it back to the other party isn’t necessarily going to lead to harmony. But are there times when that actually could help a relationship? On a parallel path unfolds the story of a young African boy named Jijingi, whose village is visited by a European missionary. Initially cautious, Jijingi decides he’d like to learn to write. What follows is a story about oral vs. written history; what is written may be factually correct, but does it make the intent of the memory less true? Is it better to be factually correct, the way technology may someday allow us, or to remember the feeling? Chiang doesn’t give us a definitive answer. Additionally, and probably the main reason “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” rose to the top, Chiang probes the process of writing and its relationship to thought: “Words were not just the pieces of speaking; they were the pieces of thinking. When you wrote them down you could grasp your thoughts like bricks in your hand and push them into different arrangements. Writing let you look at your thoughts in a way you couldn’t if you were just talking, and having seen them, you could improve them, make them stronger and more elaborate.”
This is probably one of the strongest overall collection of science fiction stories I’ve read. Having read these stories, I’m hungry for more: more of Chiang’s words, of his feelings, and of his thoughts. Highly recommend!