“A collection of short stories that will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction.”
President Obama’s summer 2019 reads.

It’s an incredible – yet credible – collection of highly original, profound stories of the personal and societal implications of future tech. From a 3-page snippet to a 100-page novella, they explore humanity’s relationship with technology and hence ourselves: science, literacy, parallel and alternative worlds, faith, and

“A collection of short stories that will make you think, grapple with big questions, and feel more human. The best kind of science fiction.”
President Obama’s summer 2019 reads.

It’s an incredible – yet credible – collection of highly original, profound stories of the personal and societal implications of future tech. From a 3-page snippet to a 100-page novella, they explore humanity’s relationship with technology and hence ourselves: science, literacy, parallel and alternative worlds, faith, and free will.

You can’t fault the writing, but you don’t read for lyricism, pithy quotes, and deep characterisation. You read for the brain-twisting mind-expansion.

Note: The individual reviews are in spoiler tags for easy scrolling; they don’t contain plot spoilers.

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, 4*
Nested stories of portals to alternative lives, like a Tale of Arabian Knights.
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Coincidence and intention are two sides of a tapestry, my lord. You may find one more agreeable to look at, but you cannot say one is true and the other is false.

Image: Front and back of tapestry cushion depicting Esther and Ahasuerus (N Netherlands, 1650-80 – so wrong culture and wrong period!) (Source.)

Traditional sci-fi writers tackle the mechanics and paradoxical consequences of time travel. They include futuristic space-faring, alien planets, and exotic lifeforms. Chiang takes a theological, philosophical, alchemical approach, and sets it on Earth, hundreds of years ago.

Sit comfortably and submit to the tangled enchantment of a matryoshka-like story with an ancient, mythical tone. See, hear, and touch the buzz of a Baghdad bazaar long ago. Wander, wonder, and ponder. This has a moral, but does not preach. It might be a tale of Scheherazade.

Framing Story

My heart was troubled, and neither the purchase of luxuries nor the giving of alms was able to soothe it. Now I stand before you without a single dirham in my purse, but I am at peace.

A penniless man tells his story to a mighty caliph.

Middle Layer

His story begins when he entered the shop of a metalsmith, where he found wares more varied, exotic, and fine than he had ever seen (“an astrolabe equipped with seven plates inlaid with silver, a water-clock that chimed on the hour, and a nightingale made of brass that sang when the wind blew”). The owner chatted and then took him to a back room, where he told three fantastic stories, all relating to knowledge, understanding, and acceptance of the past and the future: free will versus destiny – the will of Allah. The “alchemy” of which the metalsmith spoke is a time portal.

He offered an explanation, speaking of his search for tiny pores in the skin of reality, like the holes that worms bore into wood, and how upon finding one he was able to expand and stretch it the way a glassblower turns a dollop of molten glass into a long-necked pipe, and how he then allowed time to flow like water at one mouth while causing it to thicken like syrup at the other.

Three More Stories

The metalsmith’s tales are of those who used his gate: The Fortunate Rope Maker, The Weaver Who Stole From Himself, and The Wife and Her Lover. All of life is here: treasure, travel, love, loss, robbers, deceit, disguise, and sacrifice.

There is guilt, repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. “That is all, but that is enough.

What Does it Mean?

Chiang does confront paradoxes, but not the “What if I kill my grandfather?” kind. He drills into the human psyche and soul. And the deeper he goes, the more pleasingly tangled the knots in the back of the tapestry become.

Past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything.


There are echoes of style, setting, and tone of JL Borges’ stories. See my review HERE.

Telling a wondrous story to a great man reminded of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which I reviewed HERE.

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Exhalation, 4*
A dangerously literal sort of introspection.
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Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.

Self-awareness is a fundamental attribute of intelligent life, but the converse is more unsettling: conscious intelligence that does not fit our usual definition of “life”.

The narrator challenges the assumption that air is the source of life and investigates that, and the mystery of memory, in a shocking, risky, and very personal experiment. This challenges readers’ assumptions about the narrator (who and what they are), as well as the readers themselves (what makes us human).

It’s also a metaphor for pollution and climate change, along with the panic or denial that can arise from realising the inevitability of death (as individuals, or life as we know it). Thus, it leads naturally to the next story in the collection, What’s Expected of Us.

Even if a universe’s life span is calculable, the variety of life that is generated within it is not… None of them could have been predicted, because none of them was inevitable.

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What’s Expected of Us, 5*
Without free will, would life lose all meaning?
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The reality isn’t important; what’s important is your belief.

Can you force yourself to believe something?

If a simple device proved free-will didn’t exist, would there be any purpose in living? Perhaps: people whose choices are highly constrained, whether by imprisonment or severe disability, are not generally suicidal.

Three thought-provoking pages reminded me of a Monty Python sketch about the danger of the funniest joke in the world (and when I read Chiang’s notes, I learnt he’d had that in mind), but this story is sadder and less funny, but also more profound:
Text of sketch: HERE.
Video of sketch: HERE.

See a later story in the collection, Omphalos, for a very different take on free will.

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The Lifecycle of Software Objects, 4*
What if Tamagotchis evolved and interacted for decades, into full AIs, with emotions?

Image: Tamagotchi (Source.)
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This wide-ranging, thoughtful novella’s only (slight) disappointment was a rather anticlimactic end.

A zookeeper-cum-primatologist is recruited by a software company to work with an animator to develop digients for the game world, Data Earth: engaging, and realistic, but without broaching Uncanny Valley.

They can be bred and trained. Nature and nurture affect them: is it wrong to neglect or actively abuse a digient? Perhaps it depends in part on how much free will they have to consent, and also how conscious they are as beings. What if they developed their own culture?

Over the years, the tech improves (digients in robot bodies interact in the real world), but changes in consumer tastes, data markets, and the wider economy affect development in unexpected ways.

This story is fundamentally about human relationships with intelligent technology. There’s research exploring the same idea from the other side:
If you give someone a 3D head-mounted display… and “beam” her into a robot’s body so she sees the world from its perspective, you can change her attitude toward it.
Robot rights and abuse – on Vox.com

Empathizing with robots risks actually reducing our empathy for people.”
And that’s the basis of the next story in the collection, Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny.

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Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny, 4*
Machines do the work we don’t want to, often better and faster. Make them engaging and lifelike, and we can grow fond of them as well. Nothing to lose, right?
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A Victorian inventor devises an “automatic nanny”, as a help, rather than replacement. He believes “rational child-rearing will lead to rational children”, unhindered by excessive emotional involvement of parents. Harry Harlow’s maternal separation studies sprang to mind.

The results are broadly predictable; the detail less so. See Robot rights and abuse – on Vox.com, and the previous story in the collection, The Lifecycle of Software Objects

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The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, 5*
When you learn to read you will be born again…and you will never be quite so alone again.
Rumer Godden

Two stories, separated by centuries and continents, explore the ramifications of becoming literate versus the consequences of being deskilled by technology, for individuals and societies.
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In the near future thread, people can outsource their memory to lifelogs (audio and video), ultimately becoming cognitive cyborgs.
Far away, Jijingi, aged 13, is taught to read by a missionary – the only person in his village who can.

Both technologies change how people think, act, and process the word and the world, and neither are inherently forces for ease or good.

The sounds a person made while speaking wee as smooth and unbroken as the hide of a goat’s leg, but the words [on the page] were like the bones underneath the meat.

Both threads explore the importance of remembering and forgetting; the difference between two types of truth: what’s right (true in spirit) and what’s clinically accurate; the relative importance of personal experience over documentary evidence, and the temptation to prove one’s right over admitting when one’s wrong.

Be kind, don’t rewind?
Revisiting happy events would be a joy, and trying to check facts to settle an argument hard to resist. But there would be painful memories as well. And sometimes, one would discover one’s memory did not match the “facts”.

This happens already: when you unearth old photos, videos, letters, or school reports. Having history rewritten is unsettling, especially as it’s likely to be at times of upheaval, such as going through the possessions of a loved one who has died.

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The Great Silence, 4*
The title relates to The Fermi Paradox: if the universe is so vast and so old, we are surely not the only intelligent life, so why can’t we find it?
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Perhaps the problem is that we wouldn’t recognise it if we saw it – like the dolphins in Douglas Adams’ So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

‘Aspiration’ means both hope and the act of breathing… I speak, therefore I am.
The opposite of the title of the story collection.

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Omphalos, 4*
What if the entire practice of science is founded on a false premise?
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This is a world where young earth creationism is true. Unlike the vocal believers online, these people believe the Bible and science, because Chiang has twisted the physics, cosmology, and anthropology to fit. In the most ancient tree fossils, the rings just stop at the point of creation, and the oldest mummies have no navels, because they were created (omphalos is primary/first species). Here, “humanity was the reason for creation”, and scientists have the most reason to believe.

The Church has always been able to derive strength from the evidence when it’s useful and ignore it when it’s not.

That’s not always true for individuals: there’s a crisis of faith and consideration of free will in a different way from the earlier story in the collection, What’s Expected of Us.

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Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom, 4*
A futuristic device is used for complex criminal ends.
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The sci-fi aspect concerns Prisms, which are used to communicate with one’s paraself, from a different branch of many worlds. It’s like a shared notepad from a point of divergence, with limited pages. When it’s used up, there’s no way to reconnect.

Minor scams include a grey market for second-hand Prisms, dubious data brokers, and insurance adverts targetting people just before they have an accident. The main scam is bigger and relies on an ingenious use of two Prisms, simultaneously.

It’s the issues raised by the device that interested me. Like the lifelogs in The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, the temptation to view is huge.

Chiang envisages many uses: positive (collaborating with one’s paraself and reaping the full rewards in both branches), neutral (“what if?” therapy, or a widow getting social media updates of a para-husband who survived), and ultimately destructive, leading to jealousy, self-doubt, and an identity crisis.

Prisms are neutral, but addict support groups and the crime thread demonstrate the allure and danger of the dark side.

This suggests a time traveller wouldn’t need to kill Hitler: just disturbing an oxygen molecule a month before his conception could change everything. (But it might not!)

The short story that is often said to have given rise to The Butterfly Effect is Ray Bradbury’s The Sound of Thunder See my review HERE.

If the same thing happens in different branches where you acted differently, then you aren’t the cause.

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