The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling by Ted Chiang

STP_Fall2013-425x561I 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.

Review: The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

7886338Title: The Lifecycle of Software Objects

Author: Ted Chiang

Rating: 3 star

Publisher:Subterranean Press (available free online)

Format: Electronic

Review:

Are you familiar with the Turing Test? Alan Turing posed a question in the 1950’s, pondering whether or not machines could think. To answer that question, he devised a test where a human judge would interrogate both man and machine and receive written answers to his questions. If the judge is unable to tell the man from the machine, the machine has passed the test.

The Turing test is one of the primary themes of The Lifecycle of Software Objects. Chiang’s title, in programming jargon, speaks to the typical process a piece of software goes through. When software is designed, it typically goes through alpha and beta testing, is released to the general public, goes through a series of updates, and eventually reaches a point where it is no longer sold or supported. This does not mean it dies — users may continue to run the software as long as it is useful.

This is the case with Chiang’s protagonists. Ana Alvarado, a zoologist, is hired by a company to train digients. In an artificial world, (a glamorized version of Second Life) a rudimentary form of artificial intelligence known as digients have been created to serve as virtual pets. They are sentient software beings and Ana begins to train them as they progress in human speech and self awareness. She grows fond of the pets and as their life cycle runs out, she and a coworker named Derek continue to care for a few of these pets when technology has surpassed them.

To describe the plot any further is to do this novella injustice. It is not a plot-driven story. In fact, it is not a character-driven story either. The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a high-concept novella, exploring the themes of artificial intelligence and what designates a person (natural or artificial) worthy of rights. Chiang’s examination of the software objects parallel many moral dilemmas that face humanity — AI software copying (cloning), AI virtual sex (prostitution), and virtual violence (poignant to today’s blood-thirsty culture portrayed in television and video games).

I have read all but one of Ted Chiang’s short stories and this is his longest (~30k words), but also his most disappointing. Chiang’s prose and structure approaches the greatness of Gene Wolfe at times, but in this novella it falls flat. I am sure this is intentional — the short sentences and simplistic style is reminiscent of the languages of programming, toddler-speak, and the texting age. But even putting aside my stylistic quibbles, the protagonists came across as rather uninteresting. At one point, Ana gets married, to the devastation of Derek who had been pining after her, despite the fact that he himself was married. We learn next to nothing about their spouses or really anything about them outside of their relationships with their virtual pets. Removing this context leaves the characters somewhat one-dimensional, merely there to drive the story forward.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects is told in a series of vignettes. The short narratives walk us through the various stages that the digients go through. The shifts forward through time are somewhat jarring and the need to invent new software terms with each new generation made it feel at times I was reading a software manual.

Bear in mind, my negative comments are made in reaction to the extremely high bar I hold for Ted Chiang. He is one of the most talented short story authors in genre fiction today and his writing is always purposeful and cerebral. There are many what if scenarios that play out over the course of the novella that left me contemplating the nature of artificial intelligence and how humanity would react to having such technology. In answering these thoughts, Chiang has succeeded on a high level.

I would call the experience of reading The Lifecycle of Software Objects akin to reading Issac Asimov’s I, Robot stories. It is ripe with philosophy and science fiction that will appeal to the hearts of Asimov fans. For those looking for the rich prose and the elegant stories that I have grown accustomed to with Chiang, I would recommend stories such as Story of Your Life, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, or Exhalation.

Review: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

th_a0580aaeccec739569f2502c0aa86498_lightspeed_31_december_2012Title: Story of Your Life

Author: Ted Chiang

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Lightspeed Magazine, December 2012 (originally published in the Starlight 2 anthology edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden)

Review:

 

I am yet to read a Ted Chiang story I haven’t loved. I often long for him to be more prolific than the one novelette that finds its way into an anthology every two years, but perhaps it is his sparse writing that makes each story so special.

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I have read the various stories mostly from anthologies, not from his collection Stories of Your Life and Others, published by Tor in 2002. I don’t believe Ted Chiang is best read one story after the next, but rather one at a time to let the deep themes sink in deep.

The December 2012 issue of Lightspeed magazine featured one of Chiang’s greatest novellas, Story of Your Life, and I decided to give it another read. The premise of the story is that a young linguist by the name of Dr. Louise Banks is enlisted by the government to try and make sense of the language of an alien species, who have just made contact with Earth. The aliens are nothing like humans, being radially symmetrical with seven legs, a breathing hole on top of its body, and a mouth below.

The aliens communicate both orally and hieroglyphically, using a form of icons that cannot be read sequentially — only absorbed as an entire hole. The very first stroke of the first symbol interacts with everything else that the alien language is trying to communicate. The format of their language is crucial to the story because it aligns with how the heptapods view time as a whole.

From the beginning words of the novella, we learn that Louise has adapted to their language and as a consequence is able to foresee her future, experiencing marriage, divorce, the birth of a daughter, and her tragic and untimely death. Two parallel threads interweave throughout the narrative. The first being chronological as she tries to communicate with the heptapods; the second being somewhat, but not exclusively, told reverse-chronologically, speaking to her daughter in the future tense from death until life.

 

 

51Z0N8GB7EL._SL500_AA300_For anyone looking to introduce themselves to Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life is the perfect place to start. Time and fate versus free-will are concepts that are difficult to grasp and Ted Chiang explores them in such a fascinating way. He draws on Fermat’s principle of least time to explain how light itself defies the chronology of time and shows how we make the same decisions even if we know that our future will be filled with pain. This is a theme that is explored later by Chiang in another fantastic novella, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.

Even though Ted Chiang is yet to pen a novel and has but a dozen short stories to his name, he will go down as one of the great speculative fiction writers. Like Gene Wolfe, his writing is insightful and filled with puzzles. His grasp and application of metaphysical themes make each story a delight to read. If you haven’t read Story of Your Life, please go read it now.