the Little Red Reviewer

on two Ted Chiang short stories

Posted on: May 28, 2019

My local book group is reading Exhalation, the new collection of short stories from Ted Chiang. All of the stories previously appeared in anthologies or magazines, this is the first time these stories are all appearing in one place, with story notes at the end. Chiang’s prose is thoughtful,quietly powerful, and without agenda. He is giving you characters, challenges, and environment, and leaves it entirely up to the reader to decide how (if at all) to react to what is presented. In my experience, much of his work reads like a diary, or a private essay, or a longform article. He is telling fiction, but in a way that makes it feel like you’ve travelled ten years into the future where this technology is just how life is, now. Or in the case of “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny”, that you’ve travelled into the past.


Exhalation gives me reason to return to two of my favorite Chiang stories, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” (Subterranean Press 2010), and “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” (Subterranean Online, 2013), both of which I have written about before.  These two short stories have been in my brain for 5+ years now, it’s been fun to chew on them during the years, to discover all the layers as time goes by.

“The Lifecycle of Software Objects” reminds me of Blackberries and the online game Second Life.  It reminds me of people who don’t have children, but instead have spoiled pets referred to as “fur-babies”. It reminds me of Asimov’s Bicentennial Man.   At a SciFi Convention a few years ago, in a panel that I was on, we were talking about Artificial Intelligence, and this story came up (I may have been the one to bring it up).  I said the story “was about what happens when our children grow up, and discover adult things”, and a well meaning person in the audience let me know that “that’s not what that story is about.”


On the top layer,  “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is about Ana, who is a programmer at a company that makes “digients”.  They want to make AIs that can learn, and are able to easily interact with people, so the programmers and others within the company “raise” the digients, much as you would the world’s smartest puppy – socializing them, teaching them games, teaching them to be patient  when an adult is busy. If you go on vacation, or get bored, just put your digient in suspension until you’re ready to play with it again. Remember Tamagochi’s? Like that, times a million. Technology changes over the years, and not only are the socialized and raised digients ready for sale to the masses, there are now robot bodies that your digient can be downloaded into, so it can experience the real world, and walk around with you.


The story jumps ahead –  most of Ana’s friends move on,  they have children of their own, and no time or interest in what to them was never more than a digital pet they were being paid to raise. A friend who is planning family says she doesn’t need digients anymore, because “now she has the real thing”.  Ana feels left behind.


Technology changes yet more – the online server where the digients are hosted is so far in the technical past that its user must self fund it. And there are only a few people left.  Is the digient experient over? Should Ana give up on the digient she has raised for over 15 years? If software is not of use, if it can not be monetized, what is the purpose of its existence?  What if you, the “parent” of the software, don’t agree with how it is being monetized?

In regards to “what this story is about”, me and that guy were both right.


At least it is easier to say what, specifically, “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling”, is about. (although I’m sure someone will feel the need to tell me l’m wrong, and that the story is actually on a different level and about something entirely different. )


“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is about that technology isn’t good or bad. Technology is a tool, and it is up to us if we use it to build bridges or to burn them.


The story goes back and forth between a near-future narrative on the idea of recording every moment of your life (oh hai, facebook and reality tv!)  and a fictional historical narrative of the technology of a written language and record keeping being brought to the Tiv tribes of West Africa by European missionaries and anthropologists.  Writing and record keeping is a technology too, you know.


Speaking allows us to communicate, it allows us to tell stories, it allows sound and fury and drama.  Written language and record keeping allows us to remember precisely how an event occured, who said what, what was agreed to, etc.  In the storyline that follows Jijingi of the Tiv tribe, he has to reconcile that when the tribe’s storyteller’s stories are written down (first by hand and then with a typewriter), that these words do not convey the storyteller’s dramatic style, or how he acted out the different parts, or the different voices he gave to the different characters. In a way, the technology of “record keeping” has stripped the story teller’s stories of everything that made these stories important to the tribe.


In the near-future storyline, the narrator is discussing a new technology called Remem, which records every moment of a person’s life, so you can easily remember every moment of your wedding reception, you can remember who said what in the meeting, you can remember that beautiful sunset forever. You can also remember who started the argument, who ate the last cookie, who slighted you on facebook five years ago. Because it is so easy to remember these things, it is now impossible to forget them.  The narrator has to reconcile that the way he remembers events (specifically a fight he had with his daughter) is not exactly how the event occured, and certainly not at all how his daughter remembers the fight. This exact record keeping, his Remem, has stripped him of what allowed him to insulate himself from the pain he caused.


Thinking we can stop the development of technology is like thinking we can stop the ocean’s tide.  Technology is nothing more than a tool. It is up to us to decide if we will use (and how to use) technology to honor our cultures or flatten them. It is up to us to decide if we will use technology to build bridges or to burn them.


To the person who is reading this blog post and thinking to themself: that is not at all what these two stories were about! I say to you that I’ll wait for you in the center of the bridge that I choose to build. We can watch the water flow past, enjoy the breeze, and have a thoughtful discussion about our experiences with Ted Chiang’s fiction.


On a lighter note, if you’ve not read Ted Chiang before, I highly recommend his short story collection Exhalation.   Buy it and read it now. And in 5 years, read it again, to find that “near-future” will, in five years, mean now.


2 Responses to "on two Ted Chiang short stories"

How cool that your book club is reading this together! I imagine the discussion is lively.

“The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” utterly blew my mind. That plot twist near the end almost destroyed me. As a parent who has had awful fights with her teens (as has every parent) it hit so uncomfortably close to home. OMG.

I also see it as a kin to “Story of Your Life” (later made into the movie “Arrival.”) They share the same themes: how language and memory and record-keeping are intertwined. We think it’s a one-way function. This happens, so I write this down, later, I remember it this same way because I wrote it down. But Chiang shows us that it’s not always so straightforward. You write down not what happened, but what you perceived, and that record becomes the new “what happened.”

I can’t even with how brilliant Ted Chiang is. I just. can’t. even.


Sadly, I wasn’t able to make our book club meeting earlier this week due to an appointment, but I heard the discussion was a lot of fun.

Yeah, I had forgotten that twist, and this is like the 3rd time I’ve read that story!!! I’m reading along, lah dee dah, and I’m wondering where the story is headed and enjoying myself along the way, and then BAM.

yes! it does read like a cousin to Story of Your Life, I love anything that plays with the idea of language and communication! Do you have that experience of a drastically different memory of reading a play, versus seeing the play performed? It’s the same words, just one is spoken/heard, the other is read/seen. and that exactly – what we write down, truth of fact or no, becomes the record of what happened. Last year at ConFusion, in a historical fiction panel, one of the panelists said “history isn’t written by the winners, history is written by the people who write history”. whatever you write, that becomes the thing that everyone else refers to. It might be just your perception, but it so easily becomes their fact.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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