Book Review - Ted Chiang Short Stories

Categories: Book Review

Written on July 25, 2022

Ted Chiang creates emotionally resonant and novel perspectives on deep questions about life and technology.

I have just finished both of Ted Chiang’s collections of short stories: “Stories of Your Life and Others” and “Exhalation”, which were both excellent. Chiang’s work is steeped in past and present scientific ideas spanning fields including physics, computer science, and biology. For example, Chiang considers worlds where we can turn off the part of the brain that recognizes beauty in faces; where children are created from preformed humans inside sperm; where we can do forms of time travel that don’t violate our current laws of physics; the Everetiann many worlds interpretation of quantum physics is real and we can communicate across it; reflections on the heat death of the universe; the effects of glasses that record and allow for immediate recall of your past experiences.

I really like how Chiang makes salient slippery topics like the progression of technology, Chesterton’s fence, free will, morality, the meaning of life. He provides novel angles to view these topics through and handles the ideas subtly. The stories leave many more questions than answers but are stimulating and beautiful.

Questions the stories prompted that I will keep thinking about:

When is technology beneficial?

Technology gives us more power and optionality, allowing us to do things that were never possible before. This forces us to reconsider what about our status quo that evolution gave us is desirable to keep and what is not. Paul Graham notes a growing divergence in The Acceleration of Addictiveness between what is “normal” in the sense that cavemen also did it and “normal” in the sense that the majority of people do it now.

Evolution is simultaneously a “blind idiot God”, responsible for vast amounts of unnecessary suffering and a gargantuan Chesterton’s fence, creating 12 stage cassava processing techniques to remove cyanide. How can we fix evolution’s shortcomings while not poisoning ourselves with cyanide? Moreover, figuring out what is best for us is made all the more tricky because our very desires are programmed by evolution. Moreover, how can we use technology to restore the very things that we lost because of other technologies and where does this end? For example, in the story “Liking What You See: A Documentary” technology, including better cosmetic surgery, leads to superstimuli that hijack our natural bias to treat more beautiful people better. A counter response to this is a non-invasive brain modification that makes one “blind” to human beauty. The story provides a back and forth debate for and against this technological arms race.

The utility of memory?

By default I buy into wanting to remember everything and the importance of objective fact. However, Chiang in “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” reveals how even a memory device as simple as writing can affect our social dynamics and outcomes. There is a distinction made between what is factually correct and what it is best to believe in order to make the right decision. This is closely related to Elephant in the Brain, which puts forward the hypothesis that our inner mind hides its intentions from our conscious mind so as to best reach our ends by being optimally deceptive – the best liar is the person who doesn’t even know they are lying! Chiang projects our external memory tools and their consequences into the future where we all wear video cameras and can effortlessly query any previous memory. This extension takes our external memory abilities beyond just the factual (e.g. Googling what is the capital of France?) and into the personal (e.g. What did I say to Alice four weeks ago at that party?).

In this story the protagonist learns that he was in fact misremembering previous interactions and, embarrassed, concludes the recording device can help him become a better person. However, to what extent are we as humans already too self-effacing? And given that we are terrible at holding both good and bad things in mind at the same time (the affect heuristic) is it a bad thing that we are constantly overwhelmed in nuance and who the good guy is versus the bad guy? At what point do we hit epistemic learned helplessness? If this all sounds interesting, Symbolic Species takes this argument about memory and fact even further with the costs and benefits of symbolic thought and language itself.

How can we establish the rights and consciousness of digital minds?

“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” short story is timely on a number of fronts. Digital beings (digients) are created that run on artificial neural networks and develop analogously to children over time. Their owners grapple with figuring out just how intelligent the digients are (we are currently doing this with our largest AI language models). The digients also desire to have autonomy and be incorporated as independent entities raising tricky legal issues and getting to the core of free will and agency. We will soon face something similar with driverless vehicles. Interestingly, the story assumes that digients are conscious and can suffer by, for example, being tortured. This assumption and the implications of being able to create vast amounts of suffering with mere computer code was troubling but again timely with the debates this month on whether or not Google’s LaMBDA language model is conscious.

What’s the point of it all?

Exhalation poetically captures the ultimate heat death of the universe when all life and existence will inevitably come to a standstill. Even in light of this ultimate extinction, there is a very Buddhist perspective of enjoying the present and existence itself. A number of Chiang’s other stories also touch on these sorts of realizations and existential crises including: Omphalos, Division by Zero, and Tower of Babylon.

If you made it through the above, some of these points may sound trite, especially the last one. This is where I believe Chiang is at his best, weaving together deep ideas with imagery and emotion that resonates and feels more profound that I can hope to do it justice. Go and read the originals :P

My favorite short stories, some of which I have already mentioned, in rough order of enjoyment were:

  • Exhalation - Heat death of the universe and the beauty and purpose that can still be derived from life.
  • Story of Your Life - inspiration for the movie Arrival. The nature of time and causality. Beautiful depictions of parenting that makes me want to have kids.
  • Liking What You See: A Documentary - on beauty and cognitive biases. This Paul Graham piece is very related: The Acceleration of Addictiveness.
  • The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling - “truth” as what is factually correct versus what is right. Forgetting has its benefits. What is a world like where we never forget anything that happened to us?
  • Hell Is the Absence of God - comic on religion, angels, justifications and morality.
  • The Lifecycle of Software Objects - creation of digital lifeforms, nature of consciousness, rights of digital minds, nature of intelligence.
  • Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom - Everetiann multiple worlds and morality within them. Jealousy and what could have been.
  • What’s Expected of Us - Free will.

Most of these came from the second collection of short stories: “Exhalation”.

As a final note, I love that there are story notes at the end of each book where Chiang shares his inspiration for each of the stories, providing a different and richer perspective on their origins.

If you have read Ted Chiang’s work then reach out and let me know your thoughts!