The Dizziness of Freedom

Exhalation: Stories BY Ted Chiang. Knopf. Hardcover, 368 pages. $25.
The cover of Exhalation: Stories

We live in “the Bad Timeline.” It’s a trope you see surface occasionally on social media, especially after some cartoonishly awful thing happens. The idea is this: At some point before Trump was elected or before 9/11 or before Vietnam (pick your generational trauma), reality cleaved in two. In one reality, the Bad Thing was averted. In ours, the Bad Thing happened.

Out there, in the quantum ether, there’s a better version of Earth where a better version of you is living a better life in better times. No forever war, no children in cages, no climate catastrophe. But here in the Bad Timeline, the Bad Thing happened, and the Bad Thing begat more Bad Things, each of them ramifying into the world and our lives, each of them evidence that we live in an irredeemable dystopia, that we are bound for oblivion.

It’s bleak stuff, but at least there’s a good version of reality to be imagined. Not so in Ted Chiang’s remarkable new collection, Exhalation. The stories here seem at first like they could be dispatches from other Bad Timelines, just so many parables documenting our subjugation to fate. In one story, a seemingly simple machine relentlessly demonstrates that there is “no such thing as free will.” In another, scientists on an alternate version of Earth, one where there is incontrovertible proof of God’s hand in creation, discover that their maker has abandoned them. But there is still a strange sense of hope: One of Chiang’s many gifts is his ability to construct dire scenarios that manage to demonstrate both our determination by forces out of our control—physics, technology, human frailty—and the necessity of committing ourselves to our choices.

If this sounds paradoxical, consider “What’s Expected of Us,” the story about the machine, which is called the Predictor. It has a button and a light. No matter how hard you try to outsmart the Predictor, the light always flashes right before you push the button: the button sends a signal back in time telling the light to flash right before the button is pressed, demonstrating that those who push the button never had any choice but to push it. The lived demonstration of free will’s illusory nature proves devastating. Many people fall into paralysis and deep despair, refusing to even feed themselves, knowing that their decisions don’t matter. And so the story ends with the narrator, who we now know is writing from the future, imploring us to both heed and ignore his communique: “Pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t.” He acknowledges that his message will have no effect—in fact, the situation the narrator describes is proof that it won’t. So why does he send it? “Because I had no choice.” The wordplay in the story’s final line mirrors that of the title: To have no choice is both to act in accordance with one’s obligations and in accordance with the physical laws of the universe. To do what’s expected of us is both to recognize our commitments and to behave with total predictability, like a line of dominos falling.

Although “What’s Expected of Us” is only about four pages long and thin on narrative, it distills the basic problems the rest of the stories in Exhalation address in more elaborate form. How do we regard our obligations (to others, to the world, to ourselves) when freedom wanes? If we are inherently unfree, does that deprive our actions of meaning? Perhaps more important, if we are not free, are we justified in relinquishing our responsibilities? Chiang sees us as subject to fate but, crucially, not bound by fatalism. Exhalation suggests that obligations, rather than falling away, can fill the void left by freedom’s absence. Our obligations may not give us back our freedom, but they can confer meaning when circumstances threaten to uncouple us from hope and reason. In the hands of a truly fatalistic writer, the premises and conceits in Exhalation would frogmarch us down the tired path to dystopia. But Chiang takes the constraints on our freedom as a starting point from which we have to decide what it means to act as if our decisions still matter.

“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” inverts the conditions of “What’s Expected of Us,” but similar problems emerge. The story employs the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics to imagine a box called a “prism” that allows users to create and communicate with a universe that branches off from their own. People talk to alternate versions of themselves, some of whom make different decisions than their “originals” and lead subtly or vastly different lives as a result. Rather than proof that only one future is possible, “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” offers the equally disturbing proposition that all futures are possible, which leads prism users into a trap as paralyzing as that of the Predictor: “Many worried that their choices were rendered meaningless because every action they took was counterbalanced by a branch in which they had made the opposite choice.” As a consequence, “many people became convinced that prisms nullified the moral weight of their actions.” The story revolves around Nat, a recovering drug addict who works at a prism broker shop (it has all the futuristic sheen of a RadioShack), and Dana, a therapist trying to make amends to a self-destructive friend she wronged in the past. Though Nat no longer uses drugs, her addiction expresses itself through running prism-related scams, and though Dana understands that her attempts to make things right with her friend will never succeed, she continues to give her money in the hope that she can alleviate her guilt. In the end, prisms offer Nat and Dana absolution through opposites, by demonstrating both that our paths are predetermined and that they are not, and that our inability to predict the consequences of our own predetermined actions offers a kind of freedom of its own.

Chiang excels at unspooling this kind of quantum moral logic, though sometimes his concern with the human consequences of technology and theoretical physics can veer into the sentimental. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” an examination of the effects of recording technologies on conceptions of truth in non-literate societies and our own, climaxes in a mediocre father’s realization that, well, he should probably be a better father. The scenarios Chiang describes aren’t any less dire than the ones we face here in the Bad Timeline. And it’s not like his characters are any better than we are at solving the crises — some existential, some spiritual—that face them. In fact, what makes even Chiang’s most fantastic stories believable is the relative helplessness of his characters to defeat the large-scale forces that trouble them. As the narrator of the title story says, “With every movement of my body, I contribute to the equalization of pressure in our universe. With every thought that I have, I hasten the arrival of that fatal equilibrium.” Who hasn’t had some version of that thought? We write social-media posts protesting tech companies’ stranglehold on our consciousness, we take carbon-intensive airplanes to attend climate-change conferences, we spend money on books that inveigh against capitalism. These ironies are well known. Taken as the basis for a worldview, they risk leading us into the fatalism of the Bad Timeline, where every action draws us one step closer to the apocalypse we knew was going to happen all along, where there is no reason to view our actions as anything other than expedients to our gruesome end.

I draw a fairly straightforward lesson from the stories in Exhalation: We don’t have to live this way. Knowledge that we are determined by forces outside of our control does not mean that we must act as though we have no control. The world is made of obligations. People are obliged by their private commitments to take certain actions, subatomic particles are obliged by the laws of physics to move in certain ways. It’s possible that people and particles are actually the same thing, that they simply perform the same unfreedom at different scales. But this doesn’t stop us from feeling the consequences of our actions, nor does it negate the fact that, for whatever reason, the person who I happen to be exists here and now, is writing these words, is about to go have a snack. None of this means that we’re not fucked. You would have to be either deluded or highly compensated by the fossil-fuel industry not to recognize the seriousness of the problems we face. It just means that being fucked isn’t all there is to the world—an idea that is, if not exactly optimistic, better than the alternative.

Mark Sussman is a writer living in Brooklyn.