Monday, June 22, 2020

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, by Ted Chiang

Published in Exhalation, Knopf, May 2019

Quantum computing has changed the world--by enabling people to communicate with other versions of themselves, on alternate timelines. This is done through devices called "prisms." Any given prism can only reach a timeline that split off after it was first activated.

Nat is a young woman with a somewhat troubled past, who is now drug-free, and working in what one might call a "prism cafe," where people who can't afford their own prisms can communicate with their "paraselves" on other timelines. This is a dying business model, because the price of prisms has come way, way down.

Her boss, Morrow, has worked out ways to make money anyway.

The big question is, though, does communicating with other timelines and seeing the results of other choices you might have made, help or hurt? 
Nat is attending a prism abuse support group where one young man is having a hard time, and can't understand why a woman whose paraself is dating his paraself on an alternate timeline isn't interested in him. The facilitator of the group is being bled for money by a former high school friend, because she feels guilty about a decision that the ex-friend claims ruined her life and sent her off into a life of petty crime rather than a good education and good career. (But what happened on other timelines where she made different choices?)

And Morrow's money-making schemes tend to the seriously dishonest, such as convincing a dying woman she can leave her money to her paraself rather than the relative on this timeline that she dislikes. Nat has doubts about these things, but, knowing she's not that good a person, she goes along with.

But it's all going to come to a head, and Nat will have to make a very hard decision--both about what to do, and about who she chooses to be. If whatever she does, her paraselves will make the other decisions anyway, does it really matter?

It's a really interesting, thoughtful, very human story. Recommended.

I receieved Exhalation, which contains this Hugo-nominated novella, as part of the Hugo Voters packet, and am reviewing the novella voluntarily.

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