Continuing our reviews of the 2020 Hugo Awards finalists in the Best Novella category, we move on to To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers and Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom by Ted Chiang.
To Be Taught, if Fortunate by Becky Chambers
Ariadne O’Neil is a flight engineer aboard the spacecraft Merian. She and her crewmates Elena Quesada-Cruz, Jack Vo and Chikondi Daka have been in space for decades, taking part in an ecological survey of four habitable worlds around a single star. They initially received regular news updates from Earth, but these tapered off after a certain point. Clearly, things have changed on the home planet, and the crew are uncertain as to what they will find should they ever make it back. Despite this, they send a message that will arrive on Earth in fourteen years – a message detailing all that they discovered on the four worlds…
The proverb “it’s better to travel than to arrive” comes to mind when discussing To Be Taught, if Fortunate. The question of exactly what has happened back on Earth hovers over the crew, but they do not let it disrupt their expedition, nor is it the main point of the story. Rather than a mystery with a solution at the end, the novella is structured as an episodic narrative divided into four parts, one for each of the worlds visited by the characters.
These four settings – three planets, one moon – are strikingly different yet each is believably fleshed-out. At the first destination, Aecor, the spacefarers’ most exciting discovery is of various small, worm-like beings; but the second world, Mirabilis, turns out to be brimming with all manner of alien fauna. The remaining worlds, Opera and Votum, likewise offer new sights and sensations, as when Ariadne encounters a slug-like creature fixed to the ship’s porthole during the trip to Opera:
I was attempting a better look at the legs when the animal raised its stump of a tail. Two neat rows of holes opened up along its sides, and from these a bone-chilling sound rang out. I am sure to its own ears – or whatever sound receptors it had – the sound was as normal as anything. To me, it was somewhere between squealing metal and a dying horse. I was taught to be objective, as a scientist, but I cannot help the fact that I am also an animal with instincts of my own. Everything about the sound told me to run.
But as they probe each new world, Ariadne and her crew are faced with the age old paradox of exploration: in helping to understand the new, they are inevitably, to a certain extent, violating it. Their very presence will always impact the surrounding ecosystem in some way or another, a fact viscerally demonstrated when they prepare to leave Mirabilis only to find a small alien animal on board their craft. They cannot release it for fear that they have contaminated it, and so they are forced to kill one of the newly-discovered creatures that only shortly beforehand caused so much wonderment – a process that becomes all the more harrowing when attempts to give it a quick, humane death fail.
To mitigate such hazards – and, indeed, simply to survive – Ariadne and her crew adapt to their new surroundings. Their tools include various forms of bodily enhancement, from a means of producing bloodborne antifreeze to a synthetic protein that makes their faces glitter – a useful means of illumination in frozen terrain where any mechanical source of light would cause melting. As she describes such wondrous developments, Ariadne also allows us to see the growth that she has undergone as a person.
In one sequence she describes seeing the first photograph of a habitable exoplanet as a child, and her less than enthusiastic reaction: “The picture was boring, and while the factoid that came with it was new and somewhat interesting, I was four. New and somewhat interesting applied to about ninety percent of my day, in everything from the development of a scab, to a cartoon I’d ever seen, to an unexpected flavour of juice at lunch.” But, naturally, she changed as she grew. She compares herself to a moth, that can never again become a caterpillar – and notes that human beings, of course, have rather more stages in their life-cycles than moths do.
To Be Taught, if Fortunate takes the staple science fiction themes of change and progress and, with utmost clarity and precision, examines the emotions arising therefrom. The novella captures the anxieties that come with the prospect of an uncertain future, articulated via the characters’ guilt at impacting the planets they visit and their eventual decision as to whether they should return to the changed Earth or continue exploring space. But thanks to the strength of imagination on show in its depictions of alien worlds, the story also evokes the sense of wonder that comes with discovery of the new. It is the novella’s sheer emotional density that holds together its episodic plot.
Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom by Ted Chiang
In this novella Ted Chiang introduces us to a world that has been altered by the arrival of a device called a prism. When activated, this invention allows the user to communicate with a newly-created parallel timeline:
Every prism—the name was a near acronym of the original designation, “Plaga interworld signalling mechanism”—had two LEDs, one red and one blue. When a prism was activated, a quantum measurement was performed inside the device, with two possible outcomes of equal probability: on outcome was indicated by the red LED lighting up, while the other was indicated by the blue one. From that moment forward, the prism allowed information transfer between two branches of the universal wave function. In colloquial terms, the prism created two newly divergent time lines, one in which the red LED lit up and one in which the blue one did, and it allowed communication between the two.
After this, a prism can be used to keep tabs on how the alternate timeline is unfolding, the user communicating with their parallel self – or paraself, as the story’s terminology has it – along with anyone else with access to the prism’s counterpart. Thanks to the prisms, people now have the mixed blessing of seeing how things might have turned out had a different decision been made on a whim, or a tossed coin fallen on a different side.
As is characteristic of Ted Chiang’s fiction, Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom has both a solid and robust scientific concept and a strong element of humanity. The hard SF aspect of the novella – the history and workings of the prism – are explored in detail vignettes that appear throughout the narrative, but the full implications of this world-changing technology are explored through its impact on day-to-day life.
As the story progresses we learn how the prisms shifted from an expensive commodity typically accessed through rental services, to an affordable item that many people could buy for themselves. So widespread is prism use that there are even support groups for people whose peeks into alternate timelines have left them with deep uncertainties about their own lives – and it is one such support group that forms the main setting of the novella.
Through the group meetings we are able to listen in on just how the people in the novella’s world have been affected by the prisms. One character hopes to find out what would have happened had she accepted her boyfriend’s proposal instead of breaking up with him, for example, while another feels envy for a paraself who became more successful than her through mere chance.
Some of the issues raised by the prisms are complex indeed. Lyle finds his paraself dating a woman named Becca, and uses this information to talk the Becca of his own timeline into dating him – although this plan ends badly for Lyle when he tries to obtain a personal recommendation from the parallel Becca. Meanwhile, Jorge – who feels guilt for stabbing his manager’s cars in a fit of rage – takes comfort in the fact that none of the paraselves he has contacted performed this action. If the odds were against him ever doing so, he concludes, then he cannot be that bad of a person; this attitude relates to a wider social issue touched upon in the story: that of people deciding to commit immoral acts on the grounds that, no matter what decision they make in their own timeline, they will have infinite paraselves who choose the negative action.
Amongst the characters introduced via this set-up we find the principals who bear the job of providing the novella’s actual plot. Dana, the therapist in charge of the support group, turns out to have deep self-doubts of her own arising from her younger, less responsible days. Marrow, an unscrupulous businessman, seeks to scam a woman out of her inheritance money ostensibly so that he can have it sent to an alternate timeline – a physical impossibility. And, tying these threads together, we have Nat, a woman who works for Morrow and who joins Dana’s group in a covert effort to obtain a particular prism, which has a valuable celebrity connection.
It should be stressed that Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom is neither a crime thriller not an exercise in soap opera relationship intrigue. Its plot elements of corporate skulduggery and private shames are stones thrown into the water to produce an appealing set of ripples. Each time a prism is activated, it creates not only an alternate timeline but a pointed philosophical topic for the reader to contemplate.
Ted Chiang has come up with a provocative scientific concept, pondered the philosophical implications, and come up with a story that enables him to articulate his thoughts. The novella’s strength is that, as well as an intriguing central idea, its psychological grip is strong enough for it to give a convincing and thought-provoking portrayal not only of the technological change, but the social effects of the change.