I was a stranger to the writing of Ted Chiang until I saw the film Arrival, adapted from his story The Time of Your Life. My friend Linda suggested this collection to me and I’m glad she did. Chiang has a wonderful voice that has a mournful and elegiac quality I love about Ray Bradbury that complements his stories that think through the complicated twists and turns of time-travel, multiverses, and AI.
I’ll list some of my favorite stories in the collection.
“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”
I thought this was a really clever exercise for Chiang as a writer unto himself: “Can I write a story in the style of The Arabian Nights and leverage some of its style and tropes to reveal something fundamental about the human condition?” The story is told as a narration to a caliph in which a history is recalled where a souk proprietor describes gates in his possession that allow unidirectional time travel.
As the proprietor makes his pitch, he discusses wise and unwise uses of the technology (I think that’s the fourth level of recursion of this story-within-a-story?). True to Chiang’s “hard sci-fi with a heart” approach, all these techno-magical apparatus serve to meditate upon the question: what would you do if you could fix your worst day?
This story is fantastic in that it serves to explain the necessity of the entropy gradient in the Universe (else nothing could be done), but it swaps the abstraction “entropy” with the more-relatable concept: “air.” Once we’ve come to grips with that entropy is air, we’re prepared to see that life, consciousness, and our particular lives and our consciousnesses are glorious ephemeral eddies in that ocean of air or disorder. It’s a wonderful story described from the perspective of an engineer who cleverly finds a way to gaze into the workings of his own brain. He, being a somewhat steampunk/clockwork man, crafts delightfully lo-fi tools that are beguiling and engaging.
“The Lifecycle of Software Objects”
Despite taking up a large page count of the book, this is the story I liked least. It’s a thoughtful consideration of what would happen to AIs if they were created and what we might owe them if they were marooned in “old platforms.” Chiang’s ambitions are noble: good AI comes from good rearing, just like all intelligence. All that said, it just didn’t grab me. Two take-awy I liked:
- The idea of a “planet” of life-from-scratch where the AI coaches speak the constructed language Lojban and the intelligences’ bodies are strange, xenomorphic curiosities
- That the savior for some marooned AI might be being cloned as sexual partners. Knowing humans and internet culture as I do, though, I found it hard not to believe that the proposing company would want the aforementioned tentacly life-from-scratch AI bodies to be paired with the human-sympathetic AI coached by the best AI “parents” possible. The internet loves a sexy tentacled monster
Similarly unaffecting for me was “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom.” It is also a longer entry in the book. The device at the center of the story allows people to create a quantum event and then work with the multiverse split of path A versus B. Interestingly the device that creates this split also allows a minimal amount of information to move between the multiverse paths. In this way, it’s a bit like the Prisoner’s Paradox where all the players are you. It was an interesting set-up, but I never found a heart to connect with in it.
“The Great Silence”
Taking a bit of a cue from The Overstory and perhaps the “So Long and Thanks for the Fish” witticism of Douglas Adams, it’s a charming and tender reflection of parrots upon humankind’s relationship with them. Sad that we never gave them their due for the majesty they are, they watch as we bang away trying to hear voices across the universe at the Aricebo telescope in Puerto Rico, when we were so catastrophically deaf to their intelligence.
Knowing we’ll be the death of them (for they’re endangered), they give us a final wish of love. Would that we were decent enough to do the same.
The stories I’ve highlighted are most definitely worth their time investment. Short, punchy, moving: they deliver all the promise of the short-story format. The rest of the book might pull you in to exploring it as well.