Science Fiction Doesn’t Have to Be Dystopian
When Henry James remarked, in his preface to “The Portrait of a Lady,” that “the house of fiction has . . . not one window, but a million,” he could not have anticipated the genre of fiction to which we have given the inexact term “science fiction.” Still less could he have anticipated the sort of literary-humanist science fiction associated with Ted Chiang, whose début collection, “Stories of Your Life and Others” (2002), garnered multiple awards in the science-fiction community, and contained the beautifully elegiac novella “Story of Your Life,” which reëxamined the phenomena of time and memory in terms of language. (The novella was the basis for the Academy Award-nominated film “Arrival.”) Other stories in the collection reinterpreted the Biblical Tower of Babel, imagined an industrial era powered by Kabbalistic golems, and revisited the oldest of theological arguments regarding the nature of God. Like such eclectic predecessors as Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree, Jr., Jorge Luis Borges, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, China Miéville, and Kazuo Ishiguro, Chiang has explored conventional tropes of science fiction in highly unconventional ways.
In his new collection, “Exhalation” (Knopf), his second, Chiang again presents elaborate thought experiments in narrative modes that initially seem familiar. Contemporary issues relating to bioethics, virtual reality, free will and determinism, time travel, and the uses of robotic forms of A.I. are addressed in plain, forthright prose. If Chiang’s stories can strike us as riddles, concerned with asking rather than with answering difficult questions, there is little ambiguity about his language. When an entire story is metaphorical, focussed on a single surreal image, it’s helpful that individual sentences possess the windowpane transparency that George Orwell advocated as a prose ideal.
The new collection starts with “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” a quirkily original exploration of time travel set in a mythical, ancient Baghdad and told as if it were a tale out of “The Arabian Nights.” Here, Chiang imagines time travel as a “gate” through which one steps into another dimension to confront a past or future self without having the ability to affect anything in that dimension. A series of linked tales-within-the-tale show that the goal of the time traveller must be insight, not intervention. “Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully,” our narrator explains. “My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything. . . . Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.” In an appendix to the collection, headed “Story Notes,” Chiang says that “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” was inspired by the physicist Kip Thorne, who speculated that one might be able to create a time machine that obeyed Einstein’s theory of relativity. The setting in a Muslim civilization had seemed appropriate to Chiang “because acceptance of fate is one of the basic articles of faith in Islam.” That interplay between cutting-edge theory and age-old tradition is a regular feature of Chiang’s imagination.
An ingenious turn-of-the-twentieth-century automaton is the subject of “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which purports to be an excerpt from the catalogue of a museum exhibit titled “Little Defective Adults—Attitudes Toward Children from 1700 to 1950.” The Automatic Nanny, devised by a proponent of “rational child-rearing,” proves all too successful in modelling an ideal parent: a child in its care subsequently languishes under human parenting, craving “not more contact with a person, but more contact with a machine.”
Where that brief story plays with the format of dry catalogue copy, “The Great Silence,” which is even briefer, is the most lyrical and the most heartrending story in the collection. The narrator is a parrot from a forest in Puerto Rico, whose species is facing extinction. “Hundreds of years ago, my kind was so plentiful that the Río Abajo Forest resounded with our voices,” the parrot says. “Now we’re almost gone. Soon this rainforest may be as silent as the rest of the universe.” A larger silence is the mystery that eludes solution:
The universe is so vast that intelligent life must surely have arisen many times. The universe is also so old that even one technological species would have had time to expand and fill the galaxy. Yet there is no sign of life anywhere except on Earth. Humans call this the Fermi Paradox. . . . The Fermi Paradox is sometimes known as the Great Silence. The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices, but instead it is disconcertingly quiet.
Even as humans search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the narrator observes, they can’t hear the messages being sent by an imperilled species on their own planet.
In another small bombshell of a story, “What’s Expected of Us,” a newly developed gadget called a Predictor flashes a green light a second before you press a button, thereby undermining the notion of free will. As it turns out, the Predictor is a sort of miniature time machine. (“The heart of each Predictor is a circuit with a negative time delay; it sends a signal back in time.”) One of the consequences of the Predictor is an existential malaise suffered by people who can no longer believe in their own volition—“akinetic mutism, a kind of waking coma.” The narrator, whose message is being sent “from just over a year in your future,” has urgent advice for the inhabitants of this world:
Pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.
Another sort of civilizational threat is illustrated in the parable “Exhalation,” where we learn that “the great lung of the world, the source of all our nourishment,” is gradually failing. Already, everyone depends upon artificial lungs, regularly refilled with air, for survival. Individuals who have died when their lungs are depleted can be revived by installing full lungs, but, puzzlingly, they fail to retain their old memories. To explore the matter, the narrator, who isn’t exactly human, undertakes to inspect his own brain:
I began by removing the deeply curved plate that formed the back and top of my head. . . . What I saw exposed was my own brain. . . . I could tell it was the most beautifully complex engine I had ever beheld, so far beyond any device man had constructed that it was incontrovertibly of divine origin.
Still, as the “great lung of the world” fails, all life must fail; there is no escaping this common fate—although the tale ends with a sanguine “valediction” to future inhabitants. (“Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.” ) Partly inspired by Philip K. Dick’s “The Electric Ant,” in which the protagonist discovers that he’s a robot whose sense of reality is determined by a punch tape in his torso, “Exhalation” manages to end on a tonal note of uplift very different from Dick’s.
The long, brooding “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” continues these meditations on memory, exploring what happens when digital memory (“Remem”) is introduced into a person’s “lifelog”:
Right now each of us is a private oral culture. We rewrite our pasts to suit our needs and support the story we tell about ourselves. With our memories we are all guilty of a Whig interpretation of our personal histories, seeing our former selves as steps toward our glorious present selves.
But that era is coming to an end. Remem is merely the first of a new generation of memory prostheses, and as these products gain widespread adoption, we will be replacing our malleable organic memories with perfect digital archives.
Once we acquiesce to the digital documentation of what really happened, rather than what we might wish to believe happened, we can no longer take refuge in our “subjective” selves. If this were a dystopian vision of a cyborg future, such a development would reinforce our sense of humankind’s diminishment through scientific technology (as in Orwell’s “1984,” in which Big Brother never fails to keep us in his sight). But Chiang’s vision of the future turns out to be unexpectedly optimistic. After all, the narrator observes, writing itself is a technology, and we became “cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers.”
Of the nine stories in “Exhalation,” the most ambitious is the novella-length “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a painstakingly detailed account, actually a scientist’s log, charting the (erratic, unpredictable) histories of persons intimately involved with developing a new, ingeniously programmed species of virtual robots (“Blue Gamma digients”). A virtual digient can be downloaded into a physical body, and there’s a touching scene in which one such digient, Jax, approaches his human mentor, Ana, startled to see “little hairs” on her arms:
Jax brings up a hand and extends a thumb and forefinger to grab some of the hairs. He makes a couple of attempts, but like the pincers of a claw vending machine, his fingers keep slipping off. Then he pinches her skin and pulls back.
“Ow. Jax, that hurts.”
“Sorry.” Jax scrutinizes Ana’s face. “Little little holes all over your face.”
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” moves swiftly, perhaps not very gracefully by literary standards: “Another year passes”; “Two more years pass. Life goes on.” Eventually, by degrees, we come to understand that Jax is not a mere machine, at least in Ana’s eyes: “She imagines Jax maturing over the years, both in Real Space and in the real world. Imagines him incorporated, a legal person, employed and earning a living. . . . Imagines him accepted by a generation of humans who have grown up with digients and view them as potential relationship partners.” In other words, Ana and Jax have become mother and child. Chiang, in his appended notes, remarks without irony that working with A.I.s will require “the equivalent of good parenting.”
Indeed, irony is sparse in Ted Chiang’s cosmology. It is both a surprise and a relief to encounter fiction that explores counterfactual worlds like these with something of the ardor and earnestness of much young-adult fiction, asking anew philosophical questions that have been posed repeatedly through millennia to no avail. Chiang’s materialist universe is a secular place, in which God, if there is one, belongs to the phenomenal realm of scientific investigation and usually has no particular interest in humankind. But it is also a place in which the natural inquisitiveness of our species leads us to ever more astonishing truths, and an alliance with technological advances is likely to enhance us, not diminish us. Human curiosity, for Chiang, is a nearly divine engine of progress.
That ethos guides “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom,” the concluding story in “Exhalation.” Here, a young woman technician who’s ungenerous, if not outright dishonest, has an opportunity to become a more ethical person through her connection with a “paraself”—that is, a “self” that inhabits a parallel universe. (“I imagined what a better person might do, and I did that instead.”) Again, we have an ingenious gadget, here a “prism,” that destabilizes the human world, casting doubt on what most people have taken for granted: the autonomy of the self. And, again, what might have been a dispiriting prospect is, in Chiang’s hands, elevating. The prism is a mechanism that allows people to view alternate branches of their lives—indeed, alternate selves—and so, as a side benefit, offers them the opportunity to emulate better selves.
Typically, Chiang spends a good deal of time describing the science behind the device, with an almost Rube Goldbergian delight in elucidating the improbable:
Every prism—the name was a near acronym of the original designation, “Plaga interworld signaling mechanism”—had two LEDs, one red and one blue. When a prism was activated, a quantum measurement was performed inside the device, with two possible outcomes of equal probability: one outcome was indicated by the red LED lighting up, while the other was indicated by the blue one. . . . In colloquial terms, the prism created two newly divergent timelines . . . and it allowed communication between the two.
From technological ingenuity flows ethical intricacy. The stories in “Exhalation” are mostly not so magically inventive as those in Chiang’s first collection, but each is still likely to linger in the memory the way riddles may linger—teasing, tormenting, illuminating, thrilling. ♦