I think it would be fair to say that Ted Chiang is my favorite short story writer currently writing today. He blends technology with philosophy in so many brilliant ways that the stories will often stick with me for years after. His stories as of late seem to have a focus on futurist technologies and what impact they would have on society and how they reflects our current norms. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is one recent example where Chiang postulates the impact of improved AI technology. In “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” (read here for free), Chiang tells a story in a similar manner, focusing on our society’s advancements in recording information.
Historical records began orally and then progressed into the written word. In the last century, we have advanced from photographs to video clips that are posted on social media sites online. In Chiang’s story, the technology has advanced even further to a point where our entire lives can be video recorded and recalled faster than a Google search engine.
The narrator, long-since estranged from his wife, ponders the merits and detriments of such a technology before deciding to use it. He discovers that his most painful memories were in fact misremembered, causing him to reconsider his past relationships, particularly with his daughter.
A parallel story is interwoven throughout the narrative, telling of a European missionary teaching a young man from a primitive culture about the importance of the written language. The would-be scribe becomes fascinated by what the missionary teaches him and it raises the question of authority. Can the written word supercede the authority of the elders’ memory? For the scribe, Jijingi, he believes so, but others in his tribe are not convinced.
I am truly amazed at the high quality of Chiang’s stories, one after the other. This is one of his better ones, touching on so many questions and forcing me to view the world differently. The title of the story, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” is taken from a discussion when Jijingi explains his culture to the missionary:
Our language has two words for what in your language is called “true.” There is what’s right, mimi, and what’s precise, vough. . . [I]t’s not lying if the principals don’t speak vough, as long as they speak mimi.
In our Western minds, we think of truth as absolute, while in other cultures, there are different forms of truth. But what is true is not always the right thing to do and for the tribal culture, the introduction of a written technology changes their societal norms in a harmful manner. Ted Chiang provides this parallel story for us to consider the implications of our society adapting the next step of archival technology into our own lives. Where nothing is forgiven and forgotten. Where the past is always present. Perhaps it would do more harm than good.