Ted Chiang comes across as a thoughtful, intelligent, warm and dignified person in these endearing stories. Highly revered in the sf world, he seems set to command a wider audience with the publication of this book. The saddest story is one where a parrot ponders the lack of human insight into its intelligence and worldview even as humans destroy parrot habitat and look for signs of intelligent life in space. It’s based on the experience of Irene Pepperberg with African grey parrot Alex who would say to her, “Be good. I love you. Goodbye.”
In the opening story a merchant in old Baghdad discovers both a time travel gate and the fact that although the past cannot be changed our understanding of life can be. He finds forgiveness. In another story, people explore determinism or the lack of it in establishing character in a world where through “prisms” they can access alternative versions of themselves in a constantly branching universe. In another, a mechanical scientist, on discovering the entropy that will lead to the extinction of his culture leaves a warm message for the archaeologists of the future. A long story (more a novella) explores the ethical concerns and duties humans will have towards AI creatures as a former zookeeper, re-trained in software, parents a “digient”. Along the same lines, a supposed catalogue for an exhibition of old machines describes the effect on a child of being reared by a mechanical nanny. Banished to a home for the feeble-minded, it becomes apparent to a scientist that the boy is only capable of interacting with machines. In notes at the end, where Chiang describes what prompted the stories, we learn that the origin of this story is the work of an early 20th C psychologist who warned against showing affection to children. His own suffered depression and suicide attempts, one succeeding. Another long story - two stories in one - compares the similar effect of literacy on an oral culture and a future technology which accurately preserves memories. A father finds that he has built his concept of self on a false memory, ascribing to his daughter harsh words which were in fact said by him. Newly humbled, he seeks her forgiveness. It will be apparent that Chiang is deeply concerned with questions that have fascinated us for ages: determinism/free will, our ethical and humane duties to other creatures of all types, seeing clearly and unfearingly (if that’s a word). Heartily recommended, all the more so for being hopeful, rather than dystopian.
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