This is a collection of short stories:
The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate: a merchant tells the Sultan a story about how he met a merchant who had built a Gate of Years, which connects backwards and forwards in time. The builder explained the nature of the gate by telling sub-stories of how some other people had used the gate, some becoming more content, others not. Since the gate was just built, it does not go anywhere yet, so he sends the merchant to Cairo where he built one many years ago. So the merchant goes, travels to Cairo twenty years in the past, then comes back to Baghdad, to try to warn his wife of the collapse of the mosque that killed her. His caravan is delayed, his attempt at solo travels results in him being robbed, so he rejoins the caravan and he arrives shortly after the mosque collapsed and killed his wife. But he did happen across a woman who told him that his wife told her as she was dying to tell her husband that she loved him. Since they had quarreled that morning and his last words to her had been rather nasty, he was now in peace having been reconciled to his wife.
Exhalation: a written account of how mechanical life discovers that their life depends on the difference in air pressure between a reservoir of air they mine for their “breathing”, and the closed atmosphere. The writer (carefully) dissects his head and finds that his brain is composed of thin strips of gold which are held open and closed by the moving air, but which move shunt the air like valves. So their consciousness is actually contained not in the strips (removing the air supply causes the gold leaves to fall back down, erasing the neural pathways), but really in the movement of the air itself. Ultimately, the pressures will equalize and life will be impossible, so the author is writing his discoveries down in case outside “the universe” contains beings that use a different potential difference for life and will therefore be alive to read it and discover the life that once existed.
What’s Expected of Us: a simple device demonstrates that there is no free will. This leads many people to despair, but the “writer” of the story says that the only path away from madness is to pretend like their is free will.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects: an artificial intelligence company develops software “life” for the 3D virtual world in the form of humanoid pet animals with intelligence roughly around a four year old. These “digients” must be trained in a similar fashion to children or animals in a zoo. Over time, the company fails and shuts the servers, then the 3D virtual world migrates to a new server, among other things. The story explores what things, good and bad, people might do to digients, and how the people who realize that digients are conscious life deal with situations that threaten it.
Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny: Victorian mathematician Reginald Dacey, after experiencing repeated nannies complain of his son Lionel’s misbehavior—he was fine in Dacey’s presence—developed a mechanical nanny, the Automatic Nanny, to replace the unreliable feminine aspect of nannies with a reliable, predictable robot. It initially sold well, but a mechanical failure killed a child, and that was the end of the sales. Lionel also became a mathematician, and tried to resurrect the Nanny, announcing that he would use it for his child, which he adopted. A social researcher discovered a child in an orphanage who would not respond to human contact, and on a hunch, he procured one of the still extant Automatic Nannies and the child responded well. The child had become socialized to machines instead of people The researcher was convinced that this was Lionel Dacey’s, probably illegitimate son. He contacted Dacey with his discovery, and Dacey brought home his son and spent the rest of his life interacting with his son via machine. He said his life was doubly a testament to the importance a father has on his child: his father’s lack of attention on him, and his lack of attention on his son.
The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling: the writer writes an
article describing how the new Remem technology is changing peoples’
lives. People have taken to having a camera always recording, and Remem is
able to quickly search this “lifelog” of video given subvocalized queries.
Initially skeptical, the author tries it, only to discover that his
strongest memory, that of his daughter Nicole blaming him for his wife
leaving him, was completely incorrect. In point of fact, he blamed Nicole
for his wife leaving him. He apologizes to his daughter, which brings up
painful memories for her, and then he discovers that the improvement in
their relationship since the low of the mis-remembered conversation was
not due to him learning to be a better father, but because she got
counseling. Expecting to not like this new technology that lets us even
forget our own memories, the way no one remembers a telephone number any
more, instead he likes it because he cannot change his memory to suit the
truth he wants.
In contrast, the writer interleaves the story of a boy in a tribe in Southeast Asia, who learned to write from the European missionary. He discovers that written stories are different from oral stories; on the one hand they are more dead, with none of the traditional full-body story telling, but on the other hand, you can go back to it. He discovers that the story teller changes his story, which the story teller denies, and when he is read what he said the first time, he says that the context was completely different. Later on the Europeans require village decisions to be written down, so the chief appoints him scribe; most of the boys who learned to write were not the nice ones, as the nice ones had no need to learn, and this is not the kind of person you want recording your legal decisions. Eventually the scribe discovers that the chief has changed the ancestry of the scribe. He searches the European archives at the capital and discovers that the ancestry did, indeed change. When he confronts the chief, the chief says that the ancestry must reflect what is best for the tribe. Essentially, memories are not the cold, hard facts; memories are the story that gives meaning to the present, and the best for the tribe is decided by the elders. The scribe realizes that this must be so and agrees that the good of the tribe is more important the European-accuracy of the genealogy.
Omphalos: an archaeologist who specializes in primordial animals is shown specimens for sale that she believes are stolen. Primordial creatures are the creatures that God created when He created the universe around 8000 years ago. Because they were created not born, the mummies discovered in the Atacama have no navel (which she finds awe-inspiring and strange). Primordial mollusk shells have no layers in the outer parts, only the inner parts after they started living and depositing layers. Primordial trees have no rings in their core, which is how the creation of the universe can be dated: by matching ring-series in progressively older wood, until we reach a primordial core with no rings, we can count how many years have passed since the God created the trees. The archaeologist discovers the thief, who is the daughter of a famous scientist with access to a large, academic collection. The daughter stole them and had the sold at a low price, because most specimens in a museum will never be exhibited to the public, and the public will need to have something tangible for their faith in God when an upcoming paper is published. The father reluctantly tells the archaeologist the contents of the disturbing paper: astronomers have found a nearby star which changes its direction relative to Earth drastically, from positive to negative, which indicates that the star revolves around the planet. The implication is that God created the universe for that planet, and that we are not the reason God created the universe. Perhaps we were an experiment to get that one right, or maybe we are a consequence of other decisions, but at any rate, they are recipients of creation and we are not. [The story slightly misspells place-names, like “Chicagou”; it is not clear if this is to simply make it clear that this is us in an alternate universe, or if it is suggesting that the slight differences indicate that we are a late-stage test run for the final creation.]
Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom: the prism (as misspelling of an acronym) a quantum-entangled communication device that makes an initial quantum observation, and then allows communication with the parallel universe that splits off. There are a finite number of communication bits available, and once they are done, the parallel universe is no longer accessible, like what happens normally when we make a quantum observation. Nat works for a company that provides communication to parallel versions of yourself, so they are always looking to buy prisms, because the more parallel worlds that are accessible, the more interesting things can happen. In fact, one of her co-workers, Morrow, has located a prism which had been activated before a famous personality had lost his (same-sex) husband to a car crash. In the parallel universe of the world, all the little accumulations that make life unpredicatable led to the other person of the couple dying. Obviously he would be willing and able to pay a high price to communicate with his lover. (The one in our timeline is dead, of course, but the event was not so distant that the lover would have had time to seriously diverge, and in any case, nothing obviously has happened to the lover in our timeline since, so it might as well be the same person. [Similarly, authors now have to compete with their own works that they create in alternate timelines.]) Neither Morrow nor Nat are heavy into scruples, so Nat joins a group therapy for prism addiction to interact with the owner of the prism and guide him to sell his prism. She eventually succeeds, but not before overhearing that the therapist leading the group, Dana, was getting guilt-mailed by a high-school friend who she had sold out. Dana was a good girl, but the friend was one of the Questionables of the school, so when a teacher busted the party in their hotel room on a class field trip, Dana said that her friend had done it, knowing the teachers would completely believe her, and would certainly not believe her friend’s (true) story that both of them did it. Just after Nat takes the guy to the shop to sell his prism to Morrow, a guy with a complaint against Morrow comes in with a gun. Morrow talks him down, but then he turns around and shoots him anyway, on the grounds, why not, what you do in a timeline is random anyway. Nat continues the transaction with other-Morrow. The two lovers agree to the high price other-Morrow demands. Money is obviously not transferable between timelines, so other-lover pays other-Morrow, and this-lover pays Nat. Nat has begun to see the transaction as somewhat extortionate, even though the other party is completely willing, and her hand hovers over the accept-payment button on her phone. We do not see if she accepts the payment, but we do see that Dana receives an anonymous tablet with videos from conversations with Dana’s friend from other timelines. The videos show one timeline where Dana’s friend blamed her and she accepted, and another where she said they both did it, as well as other, undescribed timelines, and in all of them, Dana’s friend ends up in the same place she is now. The incident was a long time ago, so prisms from before that event happened, that still have enough bits for video, are rare and expensive get via the data brokers. Some one wanted to communicate to her that who you truly are is consistent not only in this timeline, but across all timelines; her failure to take responsibility in this timeline does not indicate she is responsible for her friend’s results.
Chiang’s stories are very unusual. They all have a hard sci-fi core, but a more liberal arts musing. He frequently incorporates religious elements (such as what if Genesis were actually literally true, what kind of world would that look like), and at least when he incorporates Christian elements, he is one of the few secular authors to reflect Christian thought consistently with how it is actually frequently thought in American conservative Protestants. His stories are frequently beautiful in some fashion, perhaps in the element of emotional healing or the celebration of life even with the full the knowledge of death. In some ways he is the opposite of the 1960s sci-fi writers like Bradbury or Heinlein, who extrapolated dystopias from scientific progress. Instead, Chiang extrapolates technology that people use to move through pain to become more fully alive. (Possible exception of The Lifecycle of Software Objects, which I did not finish because it—accurately—depicts troubling aspects of human nature.) These are brilliant hard sci-fi and beautiful stories, which highlight interesting truths of life.