The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling by Ted Chiang (Hugo Nom)
Posted July 15, 2014on:
Wow, it’s been a while since I reviewed Hugo stuff! Moving in the Novelette category, I’m going to start with Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”. You can read this story over at the Subterranean Magazine site.
What should you follow? facts, or your feelings? It’s not a matter of which is better, it’’ a matter of which will make the world around you better.
Over his lifetime, the narrator has seen drastic changes in how people communicate, and how people record what happened to them. Everything from hand written journals and photography of his youth to the assistive software and subvocalization his daughter uses when she wants to “write” something. That is in italics because he doesn’t view what she does as writing. There’s no paper, there’s no pen, her hands aren’t moving. To him, it’s not writing. In this near future story there are also “lifelogs”, a googleglass meets blog thing, where you can record important moments of your life for the purpose of playing them back later. Some people record their entire lives, thus the market for a product called Remem, that helps you sift through your lifelog to find the moment you’re looking for.
Perfect factual memory, it’s the invention we’ve been waiting forever for, right? You could finally find out who laughed at you at your high school cheerleading audition, or if it was you or your spouse who forgot to lock the front door. This is the epitome of personal record keeping. The narrator is excited to use this new technology to repair his relationship with his daughter. He can go back and review their conversations and fights, see where everything went wrong. Is a perfect memory a gift? or a curse?
At the same time, we read the story of Jijingi, who lives in a village in Tivland in West Africa. Europeans and missionaries visit the village from time to time, and the newest missionary, Moseby, offers to teach Jijingi how to read. Moseby thinks he has a religious student. The village has no concept of a written language, and no need for written record keeping, thanks to a strong oral tradition and talented story tellers. Jijingi starts writing down some of the stories told by the fire, and is saddened that the written words have none of the pageantry, bluster or magic of hearing a skilled storyteller draw in a rapt audience with every word. But he’s happy to have a record of it, and to be able to refer to the story later. If you’ve got something written down, it’s easier to remember it, right?
The story goes back and forth, with both the narrator and Jijingi at first being fascinated by being able to search their memories in these new ways. But neither of them are helped much by pure facts, because that’s all that’s been recorded – none of the emotions, none of the context, none of the background of the situation.
Being able to review the recording without the context, all it does is keep the emotions fresh. Maybe viewing the memory (or the diary entry, or the story passed down orally) will make you happy, and maybe it will bring anger and sadness right back to the surface, to be relived in pain.
We write things down, take photographs, make drawings or songs, all so we won’t forget the full picture of a moment. But so much context is lost in the recording. It’s been turned into fact that is as flat as the paper the picture is printed on, or the story written on – immutable, unchangeable, inescapable. The narrator and Jijingi are at the crossroad of fact and feeling, and they are both drawn towards the use of facts, the use the technology, the use of something the generation before them didn’t have. They’re both about to learn that facts will only get you so far.
I enjoyed this story immensely and was immediately drawn in by Chiang’s prose and style, but yet again, a nameless narrator, which is a pet peeve of mine in anything longer than a very short story. Kind of annoying, because I have no idea how to refer to the person, do I call him “the guy”? “the speaker”? “the narrator”? “Ted’s alter ego?”. “Bob?”